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Friday, September 12, 2008

On a specially modified windsurfer: Recovery from Eastern equine encephalitis

Six summers ago, Judy Ashton, a lawyer in her fifties, got Eastern equine encephalitis, a rare and debilitating viral disease spread by infected mosquitoes. Her left side was paralyzed, and her speech was severely impaired. Once an avid golfer and tennis player, she could barely walk. She feared that her life as an athlete was over.

Two years later, she took a sail on the Charles River, while strapped to a chair mounted on a specially modified windsurfer. With practice, she eventually graduated to a tandem board with a co-pilot. Since the time her co-pilot splashed into the water, claiming Judy had pushed him, Judy has been on her own, and now wind-surfs at least once a week in the summer. Nothing beats the rush of skimming along the Charles on a sunny July morning. "The rule is, if you fall off the board you have to get back up really fast, or else they'll come and pick you up," she laughs.

She had been very lucky to meet Ross Lilley, a minister and the founder of AccesSportAmerica and a pioneer in designing adaptive equipment and recreational programs for the disabled. Ross has been quite inspirational too: In 1984 he had begun adapting windsurfers and other water sports equipment for athletes like his son Joshua, who has cerebral palsy. In 1995 Ross launched AccesSportAmerica, which runs year-round sports and fitness programs that serve more than 1,500 athletes a year.

For the last eight years, AccesSportAmerica has teamed with therapists at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston to offer windsurfing, kayaking, rowing, and outrigger canoe sessions on the Charles. Their goal is to engage athletes like Judy (who are not considered "patients" or "clients") in activities that are both physically challenging and spiritually nourishing.

Advice to athletes: After a disabling injury, look for other sports to enjoy.

Read another story of an athlete’s recovery.

Thanks to Joseph Kahn for the source article in the Boston Globe of July 22.

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