Once Paralyzed, Now Skiing
Last week, Sipapu ski shop employee and Las Trampas native Frank Lopez made one extraordinary trip down the mountain at Sipapu. His legs were shaky, and his skis didn’t go very fast. However, this amazing journey had nothing do with his form or speed: Frank was skiing under his own power after countless doctors told him he’d never walk again.
On January 2, 2007, Frank’s day started like any other: he went to his job in Boston and during his lunch hour, he completed his daily workout at the gym. However, when he returned to work, things began to go very wrong.
Just 20 minutes after his workout, Frank felt a wrenching pain in his spine. Shortly thereafter, he began experiencing memory loss. His hands and legs started convulsing, and he was quickly losing feeling in his limbs.
“I knew something was wrong,” Frank said. “I thought it was a stroke, so I left the office and went straight to the subway.”
By the time he reached his subway stop, Frank couldn’t walk and couldn’t feel anything below his waist. With tremendous effort, Frank managed to get a cab and dialed 9-1-1.
By 6 p.m. that evening – less than six hours after his workout – Frank was paralyzed from the neck down.
Over the next three days, hospital physicians ordered a battery of tests to try and diagnose this bizarre paralysis. On January 5 – Frank’s 36th birthday – his doctor said he likely had a blood clot in his spinal cord, which could only be treated by placing a shunt in his spine.
The shunt would cause permanent paralysis.
Doing nothing would mean death, most likely within days.
“Paralysis or death: those were my two options that morning,” Frank said.
Frank agreed to have surgery. He took his last communion. He signed the Do Not Resuscitate form. Then he went to sleep, hoping for a miracle.
Eight hours later, he awoke and learned the good news: he did not have a blood clot in his spine. However, the physicians still had no explanation for his paralysis… nor did they think he would ever walk again.
Frank Lopez had always been an athlete. Growing up, he participated in every sport available in his small Las Trampas community, especially skiing. He was introduced to the sport as a third grader when some friends invited him to try it at Sipapu.
“My parents did not ski, so they didn’t want me to go,” Frank said. “My friends began writing letters to my mom, and she was eventually convinced to let me try it.”
The third grader fell in love with the sport immediately and spent many, many winters on the slopes at Sipapu; eventually he became a rental shop employee and ski school instructor.
“Being an instructor was fascinating,” he said. “I loved being able to instruct kids that wanted to learn,” he said. “I really found the most fulfillment in teaching the most challenging kids. Plus, the more I broke it down for them, the better I became.”
Now the man who had fallen in love with skiing – and sharing that love with others – was suddenly a quadriplegic, and no one could tell him why. In spite of his uncertain prognosis, Frank never gave up.
“I never believed I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life, not for one minute,” he said. “For days, I sat there in the hospital and tried to move my body.”
And finally, a small miracle happened: less than a week after his paralysis, Frank moved his left toe.
Doctors quickly ended the tests to try and diagnose Frank’s problem and, instead, focused their efforts on rehabilitation. After months of exhaustive work, Frank returned to Las Trampas using just a cane to aid his steps.
Once he returned home, Frank continued to do extraordinary things. He rallied his community (where his family was one of the 12 original families who established Las Trampas) to restore the historic Church of San Jose de Garcia. His body also continued to heal: he’s even regained some feeling in his legs – a sensation that doctors said he would never experience again.
His next goal was to ski again at Sipapu.
“I always loved skiing, and I promised myself I would feel that again,” he said. “I knew it would take some work, but it was important to me to do it.”
So, this season, he returned to work in the Sipapu ski shop, helping guests sign up for lessons or rent skis and snowboards. While he worked, he kept thinking about his goal: he wanted to ski on January 5, 2010 – his 39th birthday, and exactly three years to the day that doctors said he would never walk again. But when the big day arrived, Frank nearly talked himself out of it.
“I thought of a million excuses why I wasn’t going to ski,” Frank admits. “I was terrified. I was afraid I’d hurt myself. I feared I wouldn’t be able to feel it again.
Bruce Bolander, the son of Sipapu founders Lloyd and Olive Bolander, and his wife, Winonah, knew of Frank’s goal, and they weren’t going to see him give up.
“I went up to Frank that morning and said, we’re going on the slopes in 30 minutes!” Bruce said.
The Bolanders’ encouragement is just what Frank needed.
Most people are supportive, but Bruce and Winonah actually got in there and helped me achieve my goal,” Frank said. “They really cared about it as much as I did.”
So on the morning of January 5th, Frank stepped into his skis and stood in the lift line “shaking like a leaf.” But with Bruce’s aid, he started skiing.
“I took to it like a duck to water,” he said. “I knew what to do – it just took a lot of effort to make it happen. My legs were trembling from years of atrophy, but I was mostly in control.”
“You could just see the excitement in his eyes,” Bruce said. “His mental memory of skiing is phenomenal.”
When he finished his run and returned to the base area, his elation was obvious to everyone.
“I was doing these wide, long turns. I felt the whoosh of the skis. I felt the breeze,” he said. “And when I finished, all I could think of was three words: I DID IT!”
Physicians continue to have more questions than answers to Frank’s mysterious paralysis. And while it’s painfully difficult to not know why he was paralyzed – and how or if he will ever completely recover – Frank continues to make big goals for himself. His next endeavor is to bike the Boston Marathon.
Until then, he’s happy to be back at Sipapu.
“Lots of people told me I’d never walk again,” he said. “I took it two steps further – I decided I would not only walk again, but I’d ski, too. If someone says you can’t do something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s always hope.”