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Utah’s TRAILS program expands outdoor activities for people with spinal cord injuries

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SALT LAKE CITY — Once he realized the sailboat was not going to sink, Danny Salazar took a deep breath and set about exploring East Canyon Reservoir.

Salazar’s fear of the water is understandable considering that even wearing a life jacket probably wouldn’t prevent him from drowning if the boat capsized.

Salazar can’t move his arms and legs, and he has a hard time breathing on his own. But the 29-year-old can blow and suck air through his mouth just enough to control a modified Mirage Tandem Island sailboat built by Hobie.

“I’ve never even been on a boat,” said Salazar, who was hit by a car at the age of 2, which paralyzed him from the neck down. “I’ll be honest — it was a little scary. But once I realized I would be OK, it was a blast. I want to do it again.”

Salazar was at East Canyon Reservoir for a day on the water as part of the Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles (TRAILS) program.

TRAILS, which is run by the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Center at the University of Utah, serves roughly 400 people each year. Activities include kayaking, sailing, camping, cross-country skiing, swimming, hand cycling and wheelchair tennis.

Salazar controlled the sailboat’s rudder via a “sip and puff” system like the ones used on wheelchairs. A senior project team of mechanical engineers from the University of Utah worked for two semesters on the sailboat.

The boat usually would be powered by wind, but there was nary a breeze that morning, so moving the boat through the water was left to Dr. Jeffrey Rosenbluth.

As director of the university’s spinal cord injury program, Rosenbluth typically works with his patients in a clinical setting, but he was sitting in front of Salazar pedaling the Mirage drive system of the Hobie sailboat on this day.

With Salazar huffing and puffing the rudder and Rosenbluth pedaling, the pair spent about an hour touring the reservoir joined by two therapists from Salazar’s home at the South Davis Community Hospital.

“We used to literally prescribe this kind of activity. We now try to make it part of the rehabilitation experience from the beginning,” Rosenbluth said. “Just knowing this possibility is out there is an amazing part of the process. Everything we do is sustainable. This is not diversionary recreation. It is something people with spinal cord injuries can do all the time.”

Sailing and kayaking were the last things on Dale Lawrence’s mind while lying on a wrestling mat unable to move his arms and legs in January 2011. The 20-year-old from Heber City was thrilled to be kayaking and sailing.

“This really helps with your attitude,” said Lawrence, who has regained some feeling in his legs and arms. “It is positive and fun. This is also good physically for me. There is a lot of strengthening in ways you really wouldn’t think about.”

Lawrence plans on trying skiing this winter.

TRAILS program manager Tanja Kari said canoeing was the main water-based recreation when the project started six years ago.

“Most participants were sitting in the middle of the boat and someone else was doing all the work,” she said. “What we really want to reinforce is that the participant is in charge of their recreation, even if it is just by puffing to control the sailboat.”

Other participants with less severe spinal cord injuries got some help from volunteers into the kayaks and then took off under their own paddle power on this day.

“We provide the tools and knowledge and then let people borrow the equipment on their own time if they want,” Kari said.

“We pretty much have something going on every day of the week year-round. We want people to use this program to build an active lifestyle.”

The most serious of the participants can take that activity to the highest level because the TRAILS program also serves as a Paralympic Sport Club. Salazar has no such aspirations, but he did appreciate the opportunity to do something new in a life that largely is limited to the sterile environments of hospitals and clinics.

“This was something to look forward to,” said Ray Thacker, who works with Salazar at South Davis Community Hospital. “It gives him some autonomy. His world does not have a lot of autonomy.”

BRETT PRETTYMAN – Salt Lake Tribune

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