Skiing with my own health needs

Skiing with my own health needs

One of the reasons I am so passionate about helping people with health needs to ski is that I ski with my own health problems; several of them. I have scoliosis, rheumatoid arthritis, joint hypermobility, osteopenia and Raynaud’s.

Scoliosis (curved spine)  is something I have had since a child. It’s quite severe and my spine is a perfect ‘S’ shape. In fact it is so severe that I have had two lots of spinal surgery and am fitted with a spinal rod which goes from between my shoulder blades down to my waist to keep me upright. This means I am very stiff in my upper body. Something I can’t help. My curved spine has also caused my pelvis to tilt and my right leg is longer than my left as a result. Please, if you are a ski instructor reading this don’t tell someone skiing with a spinal rod that they are too stiff in their upper body. It shows ignorance. Unfortunately I get told this all the time which just highlights my point earlier about ski schools needing to have at least one adaptive instructor on their team.

Rheumatoid arthritis is something I have had for about 15 years. Like my scoliosis it’s quite severe. I am on weekly chemotherapy and fortnightly injections of a biological drug in an attempt to keep it dampened down. My hands are particularly badly affected and at times are utterly useless. Try spending the day wearing mittens on your hands and you’ll get an idea of how frustrating life can be. I do quite a lot with my teeth ! When I moved house last year I got ‘lost’ in the hospital follow up system. A period of time being unable to get the medication I needed had left me in real trouble and my GP had tried their best to help whilst I waited to see a hospital consultant. By the time I was eventually seen 6 months later in September my arthritis was out of control. Every joint in my body was affected. My job means I work alongside my GP and she saw at first hand the daily struggle I was having. Completely the wrong time to be training as a BASI Alpine Level 1 ski instructor.

Joint hypermobility is something I have only recently been diagnosed with. My feet are very hypermobile. If I sit on a bar stool where I can’t reach the floor my feet dangle, literally, from my legs. I would make any ballet dancer who dances ‘on point’ very jealous. My wrists are also hypermobile. If I bend my wrist down I can touch the underside of my arm. I can also bend them back at a 90o angle. I regularly drop things getting them out of the kitchen cupboard because I have turned my hand upside down. Then gravity takes over and the item hits the floor. I don’t have very good grip anyway because of my arthritis. Never ask me to cook dinner for you … the chances of it making it to the table without being dropped are small.

Osteopenia was found by accident. Literally. I had been out to Villars-Sur-Ollon in Switzerland to visit my boyfriend who lived and worked there. Whilst stood in a carpark admiring the mountain views he rang me. I put my hand in my coat pocket and the next thing I was on the ground. I must have been stood on ice that I couldn’t see. Not only did I badly break my wrist but I also displaced it in two places. The doctor in Villars who treated me did an excellent job. I immediately flew back to the UK. My injury was so bad my local fracture clinic didn’t even want to change the plaster cast in fear of causing my joint to come out of position. I had to have weekly hospital checks. Nobody could understand how I had managed to do such damage from being stood still. It was only when they did a bone density scan on me that they found the answer. I had osteopenia (weak bones). My consultant told me to stop skiing. If I did ski then under no circumstances was I ever to have a fall. Erm … since changing the way I ski I fall all the time. Ooops.

Raynaud’s is where a person doesn’t perfuse the extremities of their body. On a very hot day my hands will only just be warm. My feet are always icy cold no matter what. Subsequently I ski wearing a lot of layers; thermal base, wool layer, mid layer, another layer, jacket.

Most of you reading this will wonder why on earth I ski. The best thing I can do is get lots of weight bearing exercise, lots of vitamin D by being outdoors, take regular rest between activity and not sit for too long because otherwise I get stiff. Bingo. Skiing is perfect for me. It’s weight bearing, outdoors, I get to sit down on a chairlift regularly throughout the day and because I am moving around a lot I don’t get stiff.

I would be much better skiing with an adaptive instructor. Being with a ‘normal’ instructor is so frustrating. They just don’t understand that most of what they ask me to do I can’t do physiologically. Telling me I need to be lower to the ground, have more upper body movement, project my hips more into the turn and keep my two skis more in alignment just shows a complete lack of understanding. Instead of saying ‘you need to …’ an adaptive instructor would almost certainly say ‘can you … ?’.

Of the three BASI coaches I have skied with over the last 12 months two knew I had health problems, one didn’t. When I book onto a BASI course I always tell BASI about my back. They are then supposed to pass the information onto the trainer and examiner but never do. When I did my Alpine Level 1 my BASI examiner knew nothing. I had to tell him. At least he asked for clarification as to what it all meant, what I could and couldn’t do. He has since either forgotten, chosen to ignore it or doesn’t understand how it affects me and skiing with him is both great fun but also very frustrating for the exact reasons given above.

My time with the  BASI examiner who gave me shadowing hours and extra coaching wasn’t booked through BASI and because I was just going for shadowing hours I didn’t say anything. When I went back to Switzerland for extra coaching in the lead up to my technical resit I decided it was a bit late telling him.

The BASI examiner who did my technical resit hadn’t been told by BASI that I had a spinal rod either. The look of horror on her face when I said was really funny.

So why do I ski so much better with the coach who hasn’t been told ? What is it about him that means I progress, ski amazingly well, have masses of fun and get every instruction he gives me right all without the frustration of being asked to do something I physiologically can’t do ? It can only be because he has picked up on things. That he is observant enough to notice anyway and is able to relate it to how my skiing might be affected. The result is he knows how to correct me in a way that I can actually do it. Yet he is not an adaptive instructor. Just a brilliant coach.

Being ill

My rheumatoid arthritis can make me quite ill. Not only is my body attacking itself but I use a lot of energy and have problems with anaemia. To try and stop my body attacking itself so much I am on chemotherapy and a biological drug. These help reduce my immune response by lowering my immune system which makes me prone to illness.  

In December not only was I fighting out of control arthritis but I was also anaemic and then picked up a chest infection. Due to my health not only did I have the usual specialist nurse, consultant and GP looking after me I also had an occupational therapist, podiatrist and occupational health advisor. My occupational health advisor had recommended that I permanently stop working nights shifts and reduce my hours on the children’s ward at Scarborough Hospital down from 30 hours per week (4 days) to 15 hours per week (2 days) from the start of December. The week of Christmas not only was I rostered 28 hours over 4 shifts but one of them was a night shift. I was promptly ill. I had not felt well New Year’s Eve, had gone out skiing anyway and then to New Year’s Eve celebrations. When I went to work New Year’s Day I was starting to feel really unwell. By the end of the week I was too ill to ski, too ill to work and too ill to take my chemotherapy. I also couldn’t start my biological treatment. I came down with a bad chest infection.

In January I had coaching in Switzerland with a BASI trainer, France with a BASI trainer and a trip to Austria all coming up.  When I went out to  Switzerland I was still unwell, getting a lot of pain when I coughed and  I was also anaemic again. Skiing at  an altitude of 3000 m on a glacier made me really breathless.  I was also still struggling with my arthritis.

I then moved across to France to join my other BASI coach. My coaching session took place in heavy snow and a full day in  the snow, with sub- zero temperatures made me really ill again.  To make matters worse, when back in the UK afterwards I managed to crack a rib whilst coughing. When I went out to Austria at the end of January  I was still in pain with my rib and opted not to ski. Instead I spent the week walking and using the local busses to visit the nearby towns and villages. In the week I was there I skied just 1 ½ days.

When I returned to Saint Gervais in February I was still recovering from the cracked rib. Doing anything that involved bending down still gave me pain. Of course one of the first things you do when you go out skiing is bend down to put on and do up your ski boots ! You then of course have to bend down and pick up your skis from time to time as well. Not great.

Shortly into my coaching session I took a really bad fall landing heavily on my right side with my ski pole underneath me. At least it was the opposite side to my cracked rib. My coach immediately called out to me asking if I was ok. He then skied down to me and repeated his question. This told me I must have really slammed into the snow. Neither of us knew why I had fallen. I picked myself up and initially thought I was ok but as the lesson went on I started to get pain. I was close to abandoning but didn’t want to say anything so kept going. I wasn’t enjoying it though and neither was my coach.

When I got back to my hotel I was in a lot of pain. I could hardly move. The following morning I was still in agony. I had expected to find my side black with bruising but there was nothing to see and nothing crunched when I pressed my side either. I had two more coaching sessions booked and needed to know whether I could still ski so dosed myself up with pain killers, waited for them to have some effect and went out. As long as I kept moving so as not to stiffen up and kept taking the pain relief I was alright. That evening I ate out in Saint Gervais and went to a concert in the church. That church concert was to be my undoing. 2 ½ hours sat on a hard wooden bench without moving left me in horrendous pain. I was in absolute agony. I had to leave before the concert finished. It was a slow walk back up the road to my hotel, clutching my side all the way.

My phone had been off during the concert. It was only when I turned it back on to set my alarm clock for the following morning that I found a message from my coach. He was cancelling all further sessions with me. I could either have a refund or have an alternative instructor. I stared at the message. Half of me was going  ‘thank goodness for that  because I’m in way too much pain to ski’ the other half was going ‘you absolute … I need that coaching to pass my technical resit’. I didn’t want to let on the pain I was in so texted back that I would accept an alternative instructor. I very much doubted I would get a reply; it was by now very late at night. My coach must have stayed up waiting for me to reply because I got an answer back. He placed me with Giacomo; one of his Italian colleagues. Earlier in the week I had jokingly said I needed to book a lesson with Giacomo, a tall good looking Italian. I will never know the reason for him choosing Giacomo, whether it was because of what I had said or whether Giacomo was the only one he could get hold of so very late at night.

One of the worst things I can do is ski in flat light after having had my chemotherapy. Both make me feel really queasy. On one of the trips to my French based coach I did exactly this; skied in flat light having had my chemotherapy. When I briefly stopped at the edge of the piste my coach was far from understanding … ‘well that’s just something you’re going to have to push through’. Really … that is not something to say to someone on chemotherapy, it shows a clear lack of understanding. Another example of why I would be better skiing with an adaptive coach. An adaptive coach would have responded something along the lines of … Do you need to stop for a bit ? Have you got any anti-sickness you can take? Do you think it might help if we went lower down where the light might be better ? They would not have gone ‘tough, get on with it’ which is basically what my coach said.

Six months on into the year I am much better. Provided I pace myself and take regular rest periods during the day and don’t use my hands too much I’m fine. I have also taken the decision to give up nursing at the beginning of November. A hospital environment is not the right place for me over the winter months, I am just going to spend the winter ill. All of my colleagues have agreed it’s the right thing to do. I was so ill last winter. I will be returning to the Duke of Kent Children’s Ward at Scarborough Hospital in April on a zero hours contract with the hospital nurse bank.

Coming next: Those three things

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