Saying yes: Adaptive Ski Day helps people with life-altering injuries find purpose
Bill Hoffman careens down the run, the solitary blade of his sit-ski spraying a cloud of ice crystals as he and John Williams bank toward the chairlift for another go.
All around Bill and Williams, an instructor with Two Top Mountains Adaptive Sports Foundation, man-made powder cascades in troughs down the slopes of Whitetail Ski Resort in Mercersburg. It’s fodder for an epic snapshot, the kind his wife Beverly is capturing with her iPhone at the base of the mountain each time Bill speeds past.
A few years ago, such a picture would have been impossible. Now, instead of facing obstacles big as mountains, Bill is sliding down them.
The couple has made the 1 ½ hour trek from Lebanon to Whitetail for Adaptive Ski Day. The annual event is a partnership of the resort, Two Top, Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospital, Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Ability Ottobock.care. People who wouldn’t ordinarily have a shot at skiing in the classic sense ― standing on two planks and slipping downhill on purpose ― get their chance on Adaptive Ski Day.
Bill is making his runs with no legs. He lost the use of them 11 years ago in a landscaping accident, and they’re propped on a footrest in front of him.
His reason is the same lure that coaxes him and Beverly into riding bicycles through Central Park in New York City, teaching Bill to drive again and ― his favorite ― putting on scuba gear and slipping underwater. If there’s a hobby, a sport or an electronic gadget that strikes his fancy, Bill tries it.
“He decided he wasn’t going to say no to anything anymore,” Beverly said.
An accident robbed Bill of his farm, his job and any feeling or movement from the chest down. But trying new things, whether it’s events like Adaptive Ski Day or the technology assistance he provides his Penn State Health support group, has helped Bill find something bigger.
‘A life-altering injury’
Beverly joins a throng of Penn State Health therapists and recreational specialists cheering on the skiers. The previous day, the Hoffmans traveled more than 400 miles in the opposite direction to make another attempt at sit-skiing at a resort in Plantsville, Connecticut. There, Bill took a spill attempting to get on the chairlift.
“I got a picture,” Beverly says, snickering. Her sardonic humor helps them both through rough patches.
They met in college. “He was the guy with a toolbox who could fix anything,” she said. She’d been in the National Guard and recruited him. Eventually, he took a job as a civilian military consultant and spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On April 13, 2013, he was cutting down a tree on their farm in Lebanon County when a falling limb took the ladder out from under him. He landed on his back, blacked out and has no memory of the hours before and after the fall. Emergency paramedics flew him to Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where he would spend weeks before heading off for a months-long stint at a rehabilitation hospital in Philadelphia.
“They told us pretty early on it was going to be a life-altering injury,” Beverly says. “But you don’t understand what that means until down the road.”
Bill couldn’t return to work. Eventually, the family gave up their farm. And then three years later, Bill was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He slipped into depression.
Night and day
Fast-forward to Feb. 1, 2024. Bill is zipping down a slope, a team of Penn State Health employees are joining his wife in shouting his name, and a grin is plastered on his wind-pinkened face. Bill is mastering the sit-ski, a device that looks a little like a divan balanced on a single blade. Some sit-skis offer mono-skis or balance on a pair of runners to change the center of gravity.
For the Hoffmans, equipment like the sit-ski is as life-altering as the injury that makes it necessary. Bill hears about innovations like these in the Penn State Health Spinal Cord Injury Support Group. The conversations and friendships have enriched his life, Beverly says.
“It’s night and day,” she said. “He realizes that life isn’t completely over because he’s sitting in a damn wheelchair.”
Every story at Adaptive Ski Day is unique, but every participant must make a turn that is more than just physical. Participants often first hear about sports alternatives during their rehabilitation, but many haven’t fully accepted what’s happened, said Peg Kanzleiter, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Penn State Health Rehabilitation Hospital.
“They’re still grieving the loss,” she said. “You have to let them do it. And then what they can do is incredible.”
Among the most graceful adaptive skiers is Justin McGarrity, a 39-year-old Iraq-Afghanistan veteran left paralyzed from the chest down after a 2010 motorcycle accident. In high school he’d been an avid skier. After the crash, he figured those days were finished.
He turned to drinking. “It was all I did,” he said. Then, in 2018, he went to his first Adaptive Ski Day.
Now adventure is his cocktail of choice. Adaptive Ski Day is just a small part of what keeps McGarrity going these days. He’s an active member in Bill’s support group. He’s visiting slopes in Colorado and Utah and is a member of Veterans Affairs groups that help others learn to ski. He also joined an adaptive lacrosse league in Baltimore.
Something to grab ahold of
When Bill calls it quits for the day, instructors have a little difficulty prying him out of his sit-ski because he’s positioned in such a way that it’s created a suction under him.
Seated in a yurt near the shop where regular-style skiers rent boots and equipment, Bill can feel the burn in his arms. Sit-skiers are given poles with what look like miniature skis attached, called outriggers, which they use to steer. That’s where he feels the nine runs he made.
“He could have done more,” McGarrity says with feigned derision, and Bill chuckles.
Bill can do a lot more, and he will. He’s planning a trip to Aspen, Colorado, to try out his sit-ski in the Rockies. Then, who knows? With every new yes to an invitation, the bad days, the years when everything that lay ahead seemed so dismal, disappear further around the turn he’s made.
“I didn’t have anything to grab ahold of,” he said, remembering those dark days. “My story is for the first seven years I was almost to the point of where I felt I needn’t be here on this earth any longer.”
Then, one day someone mentioned when Bill was in earshot that they need someone with a technical brain to help with a website. He offered to help. On another day, he found an exercise video he could do in his chair. He joined in. Now he’s providing web assistance for his Penn State Health support group. He’s part of a community, and invitations to try new things and meet new people keep coming.
Scuba diving is his favorite. He did a little diving before his accident. Now, he can slip underwater and feel the weight of his body disappear. Weather warm enough for that is just around the bend.
But today Bill is saying yes to skiing.
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Click on the image below for a gallery of photos from Adaptive Ski Day.
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