Man with post-polio syndrome skis again

81-year-old hits the slopes after 22 years of partial paralysis

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In 1992, Severance Kelley hung up his skis and resigned himself to the fact he would never ski again.

The symptoms of post-polio syndrome — a paralysis that had spread to both legs —forced him to give up the only sport he enjoyed.

Until last April, that is, when the 81-year-old retired psychiatrist and war veteran who lives at Wind Crest in Highlands Ranch, was up on the mountain again, riding down on a seated ski apparatus.

“We went up, and I had a great time,” Kelley said, referring to his instructor at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park. “I decided I'd have to do more of that.”

Post-polio syndrome is a condition that affects polio survivors years after recovery from an initial, acute attack of the polio virus. Kelley had polio as an infant. In 1990, he began to have difficulty lifting his right leg, he said, and eventually he also lost use of his left leg. He self-diagnosed with post-polio syndrome somewhere around 1995, he said, which was validated by a neurologist in 1999.

The National Institutes of Health state “some individuals experience only minor symptoms, while others develop visible muscle weakness and atrophy.” Kelley is nearly paralyzed from the waist down, and uses an electric scooter to get around.

However, he has maintained upper-body strength through frequent exercise.

“My legs are very limited now,” Kelley said, but added that when he was skiing, he wasn't really using his legs. “The snow and gravity does all the work.”

Kelley's inspiration to start skiing again came after watching the Paralympic Games on television last winter.

“I was intrigued by what these people can do,” he said. He paid special attention to downhill skiing, and seeing the competitors' accomplishments, he decided to contact the center in Winter Park.

“They said something along the lines of, `Come on up! You'll have a ball!' ” Kelley said.

People who participate in lessons with the center benefit in a variety of ways, said Becky Zimmermann, the center's president and CEO.

“The absolute No. 1 is that it builds self-confidence and self-esteem,” she said, which is followed by increasing their ability and motivation. “We work with them, and their abilities, toward what they want to accomplish.”

Everybody who comes up has a stated goal, and everybody's goal is different, Zimmermann said. For example, she said, a person who suffered a stroke may have a goal of using the left side of the body, or a child with a behavioral disability may have a goal of making a friend.

Kelley seemed to be less focused on a physical goal, but more on an emotional one, his instructor, Jeremiah Baltzer, said.

“Kind of to get back into the nostalgia of skiing,” Baltzer said, and added Kelley talked about his days of youth spent skiing. “I think we surpassed his goal.”

The two skied about seven or eight runs, with Kelley using a Mountain Man bi-ski. It has an upright seat situated on two skis with an air shock underneath.

“It provides a smooth, comfortable ride,” Baltzer said.

The equipment also includes two hand-held outriggers similar to ski poles, which allows the skier to control speed and direction.

“You use the outrigger skis and lean your body left and right to steer,” Kelley said. “Toward the end, I was doing better because I was using my body for control.”

The instructors, on regular skis, tether themselves at the wrists to the bi-ski, which allows a secondary source for speed and control.

“I was a beginner on this apparatus,” Kelley said. “But by the end of the session, I was controlling it about 50 percent of the way.”

Kelley was born in West Virginia, and attended medical school at George Washington University in D.C.

He was drafted into the Air Force when he was 31 and stationed in Utah. That's when he took up skiing.

Kelley married his wife, Inez, an Air Force nurse, in 1965. In 1970, the couple moved to Colorado so Kelley, then retired from the Air Force, could pursue psychiatry work.

They had two children, one of whom grew up to love skiing as Kelley did.

And although skiing on the bi-ski is quite different than skiing with good legs, Kelley said he's glad to be riding the ski lift and going down in the snow.

“I've seen what they do at the Paralympics, so I know it's possible,” he said. “Maybe I'm not as good as the 20 or 30-year-olds, but it's still fun to do.”

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