Riding for recovery: Burn camp helps injured children
Steamboat Springs — Dontrell Akashiya is used to the long looks, and he doesn’t much mind, so long as the looker eventually glances away, back to his or her own life and away from Akashiya’s.
He wasn’t inviting those looks Thursday when he stripped his shirt off at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. He was following the lead of a friend, Zechariah Myrick, who also pulled off his shirt for a bare-chested snowboard ride down the Preview run near the bottom of the mountain.
But, if people stopped to look at Akashiya, to stare at the severe burn scars that cover his body and his face, so be it.
“People stare at me, but it’s like, whatever,” Akashiya said, 18 years old and a decade removed from the gasoline-fueled house fire that engulfed him and left him scarred.
“I get used to it,” he said. “Sometimes it gets me mad when people just stare purposefully, like they just continue staring even when I make eye contact with them. Other than that, I’m perfectly fine.”
He laughed and dodged snowballs, only occasionally pulling his arms tight against his body for a shiver, loving every moment with his fellow campers in Steamboat Springs at the annual Children’s Hospital Colorado winter burn camp.
“I love it,” he said. “These people understand me, and I understand them. They’ve been through a lot of the same stuff I have been.”
This year’s camp drew 25 young skiers and riders, mostly between ages 15 and 18 and hailing from across the country. They were split into groups and, with help from Steamboat Ski Area instructors, they spent four days canvassing Mount Werner
Many found the same thing Akashiya, a Las Vegas resident, did — a place to be comfortable with friends who’d endured similar struggles, a place where they weren’t different or mocked, and, of course, a place to shred a mountain.
That all appealed to a skier like Sofia Itskovich, 15 and recovering from a burn injury to her foot.
Her feet were already a headache a year ago for Itskovich. Years of flat-footed landings in gymnastics had led to persistent problems, so when she dripped hot glue on her foot, she didn’t even initially feel it.
It burned through her skin and to her bone, and while it hurt, it didn’t immediately seem serious.
“It was small,” she said. “It didn’t look bad.”
She soon learned otherwise.
The initial treatments hurt more than living with the wound had, and eventually, doctors performed surgery.
That didn’t go particularly well, either. Her body rejected the stitches, which made for even more pain.
Soon, the once-active teenager — a gymnast and an avid basketball player — was off her feet entirely.
“The hardest part, worse than the pain, was what I couldn’t do,” she said.
She got her first taste of the Children’s Hospital Colorado’s two annual burn camps in the summer, when she attended an event in Estes Park after she was up and walking — though, not quite running — again.
She quickly realized the benefits, and she eagerly accepted the chance to come to this year’s winter camp, in its 15th year in Steamboat Springs.
“There’s no judgment,” she said. “No one judges you about your appearance, or the way you talk, or the way you walk because we all have had similar struggles.
“This camp has given me the chance to get away from normal life and just have fun and be with people who understand a little better.”
That bonding is at the core of the camp’s purpose, said Trudy Boulter, an occupational therapist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and director of the burn camps program.
The camps have been running for more than 30 years and have proven again and again to Boulter why they’re important, not just for campers with obvious burns but also for those with more hidden injuries.
Those who can cover their burns with a shirt may decide simply to always wear a shirt or always wear long sleeves. They may never go back to a swimming pool or take a beach vacation.
“That’s a pretty big loss,” Boulter said. “You’ve just decided that because you can cover it up, you will, and you don’t process that, the idea you have been through something serious.”
The camps strive to help young victims become comfortable with their injuries by normalizing them. The summer camp builds up to a pool party that’s important in the process.
The winter camp doesn’t always involve young men snowboarding without their shirts on — Akashiya and Myrick are unique in that regard, all agreed — but the camp is built to provide the same lessons and opportunities.
“You might assume some burns are more like breaking your arm — that it heals and you’re done,” Boulter said. “That’s not the case with kids who sustain burn injuries. It’s a very hard thing to get through.
“My mission in life is that kids don’t stop doing anything because of their burn injuries.”
The best kind of cold
Itskovich, from St. Paul, Minnesota, didn’t expect to be snow skiing a year after she sustained a severe burn on her foot.
She spent the week in Steamboat doing just that, however. She started with the magic carpet beginner terrain on Monday, giving herself a little time to re-learn the skill.
By the end of the day, she was hanging with more experienced skiers, and by the end of the week, she was swinging to the side of runs looking for bumps and jumps, laughing loud whenever she caught some air.
The ski boots sometimes rubbed wrong on her wound, but it didn’t stop her.
“It gave us a chance to be outdoors, to move around a lot,” she said. “Being able to wear ski boots, having these experience, I didn’t know I could do this stuff so soon after my injuries.”
Akashiya, too, found himself in an unfamiliar position Thursday afternoon, the cool mountain air soon calling into question his dedication to the “no-shirt” idea.
He and Myrick, injured three years ago in a skateboarding accident in Burlington, are regulars at the camps. Thursday, they made their shirtless lap on the snow, riding up Christie Peak Express, then, with the rest of the campers, flying down Preview, where coats waited.
“My perspective on life changes at these camps. I enjoy every single moment of life,” Myrick said, shivering. “I’m enjoying this immensely.”
Some people stared.
The campers smiled.
“It just feels normal,” Akashiya said.
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