The Transformative Power of a River

By Helen D. Christians, MOT; Brian Donkersley, MPA; and Mona Krueger, MSW, MA

Lynn Damewood remembers the months of long, dark days that she spent lying in bed and emotionally eating after her burn injury. “Food was my comfort. After three months of being in the hospital, it felt great to finally be home with my family, but I let myself put on too many pounds over the next year or so. My health and recovery were suffering. I also realized that my two sons were sitting around with me playing too many video games and being inactive.” 

When her hospital, the Oregon Burn Center (OBC), invited Lynn to join a five-day therapeutic wilderness kayaking program run by LEAP, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, she decided it might be the catalyst she needed to get moving. 

 

Suffering severe pain in his left hand, shoulder, and leg from a necrotizing fasciitis infection, Mark Tatom was nearly unconscious by the time he drove himself to the emergency department. “My doctors at the OBC had to amputate my left hand and remove portions of muscle and skin from my torso and left leg. I was in a coma for a month and woke up to a new reality.” During rehab, Mark worked hard to walk, learned one-handed self-care tasks and began to use his new prosthetic arm. Once home, he had the support of his teenaged daughter, family, friends, but the physical loss and the emotional pain often proved unbearable. “I began to use alcohol to numb the trauma. When my occupational therapist told me about the LEAP program, I thought the challenge might help me in my recovery.” 

LEAP incorporated two skill levels for participants— individual inflatable rubber kayaks and an eight-man raft where participants paddle as a team. Participants who were physically able were encouraged to try the individual kayaks at least once during the trip. Survivors paddled through numerous class II to III+ rapids as they traversed the federally designated “scenic and wild” Rogue River Canyon in Southern Oregon. Each afternoon they docked at a different rustic wilderness lodge. After dinner, burn survivors and LEAP staff led interactive group discussions and themed writing exercises. 

 

When Lynn entered the LEAP bus that first year, no one turned away in discomfort. “They just smiled,” Lynn recalls. Mark remembers initially feeling ill-at-ease as he joined the group. He liked to be active, and the thought of not being able to paddle was troubling. “I was the only arm amputee planning to kayak. I knew the staff had brought equipment to help me, but I was worried how it would all work out.” 

The first afternoon, participants did a two-hour practice run on a relatively easy stretch of rapids. Everyone was encouraged to try the kayaks and test their abilities. Lynn had difficulty finding a suitable lifejacket, and Mark found that protecting his left forearm from friction wounds would prove challenging. Both Lynn and Mark fell out of their kayaks numerous times and were grabbed by the river guides and helped back to their boats. 

 

The next morning, LEAP staff insisted that Lynn travel in the raft. Mark continued in the kayak. After many falls that second day, staff told him that for his own safety he had to move to the raft. Embarrassed and discouraged, Mark knew that his frequent rescues by the guides slowed down the group. When he removed his prosthetic that afternoon, his left forearm was raw.

Despite these setbacks, Mark realized that LEAP wasn’t about the river: it was about people and relationships. He was making friends. As the program ended neither Lynn nor Mark felt defeated. They declared that someday they would kayak the entire distance of the Rogue. 

Lynn returned home and started swimming at the community pool. At first, she was only able to swim a few laps. After weeks of persistence and practice, she was up to a half mile. She also began to see a counselor to tackle her emotional eating. Mark worked on his goals of losing 25 pounds and gaining strength. He started going to the gym and eating a healthy diet which excluded alcohol. 

In August 2016, Mark and Lynn had their chance. Since the 2014 program, Lynn had lost 125 pounds and continued swimming four to five days per week. Mark managed to find protective padding that adequately protected his left forearm from friction wounds. Being LEAP veterans, they greeted the other kayakers with warm hugs and laughter, ready for the challenge of kayaking from start to finish. 

 

“I was amazed by my improved balance and strength. It was easy to navigate the kayak on the practice run,” Lynn recalls. Riding the rapids, which had once been daunting, now felt effortless as the river welcomed her back. Mark remembers similar feelings: “The next morning as we entered the wild and scenic area, I knew what lay ahead and vowed I would handle the fierce rapids and kayak until Foster Bar.” 

Lynn and Mark accomplished their goal. Before they outed the river, the group took part in a “paddle raise,” saluting the community they had formed and their progress and accomplishments. 

 

Mark’s modified LEAP paddle now hangs proudly in his living room; a trophy that reminds him of everything that he has overcome during his recovery. He currently volunteers for an outdoor recreation program for disabled youth and families. Lynn is training to become a certified lifeguard who has inspired her family and community to become more committed to their health and physical fitness. 

 

Helen Christians, who is now retired, worked at the Oregon Burn Center (OBC) as an OT for 30 years and was a founding member of OBC's  nationally recognized after care support program. Helen was humbled and amazed during the 2016 OBC/LEAP program as she watched many of her former patients white-water kayak from the safety of a guided raft.

Brian Donkersley is the Development & Planning Manager at LEAP. He has a Master of Public Administration degree from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and more than a decade of experience working with nonprofit and social change organizations.

Mona is a burn survivor of 36 years and currently the Aftercare Coordinator at the Oregon Burn Center in Portland, Oregon