DSES is helping Marci Rodriquez reshape her life.
A young woman in a wheelchair is aided by Rick Holcomb, a man who appears to be in his early 50s, clad in a bright orange Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra ski jacket. He backs her wheelchair through the thin layer of slushy snow in the parking lot and then, with much effort, uphill to the staging area above the ski center.
He stablilizes the wheelchair in the snow and then brings over the handicap-accessible ski chair (which looks a little like a rowing scull).
The young woman takes a deep breath, musters her energy, and then, using her arms, pushes herself out of the wheelchair and into the ski chair. She lands heavily, but the ski chair doesn’t tip. She takes a few deep breaths.
Holcomb hands her the short ski poles which she will use to propel herself forward.
But she’s not ready for that just yet. Even what appears to be a simple chair transfer is a lot of work … especially when you’re accustomed to getting up at 2 p.m. every day and parking yourself in front of the television set.
But the trajectory of Marci Rodriquez’s life has taken a dramatic turn in recent months. Not surprisingly, the fingerprints of Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra and its executive director Kathy Copeland are all over this success story in progress.
Marci Rodriquez, 19, hails from South Dakota and is a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
On May 24, 2009, she was joyriding in a pickup truck with friends when they wrecked. Marci, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle and seriously injured. She is paralyzed below the waist.
The extent of her rehab was six weeks spent in a hospital in Sioux Falls directly after the accident. After that, she was on her own.
On her own meant sleeping late and watching television and mostly staying inside at home.
And she would likely still be in front of that television if not for Mammoth Lakes resident Alan Jacoby.
Jacoby, who moved to Mammoth with his family from L.A. in 2007, works in the film industry as a Director of Photography. He met Marci while working on a documentary about the Rosebud Sioux reservation entitled “Social Injustice” for HBO.
It turns out that both of Marci’s grandfathers are prominent elders of the tribe.
Because of his experience volunteering for DSES, Jacoby met Marci and struck up a conversation with her mother.
That was in April 2010.
Months passed. Marci stayed in Jacoby’s head.
“I knew the health care wasn’t that great … I thought she deserved a chance to find out for sure [the extent/limitations posed by her injury].”
It was in August, driving home from L.A. on 395, when Jacoby finally decided, “We should get her out here.”
In order to raise money to sponsor a visit, Jacoby enlisted the help of Dr. Mike Karch and Physical Therapist Bryan Dennison.
Karch, who had actually served as a doctor at the nearby Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, intimately knew about the conditions on its “sister” reservation. He knew of the preponderance of teen suicide and alcoholism, reflected in the average tribal life expectancy – in Marci’s tribe, the average man’s life expectancy is just 47 years.
Karch and his fellow Mammoth Hospital colleagues, particularly Dr. Douglas Will and Physical Therapist Sarah Mora, ultimately conducted a full-day, multi-specialty evaluation at no charge.
Dennison tapped former colleagues at the University of Southern California to likewise get Marci a pro bono appointment with a specialist.
So Marci, who had never traveled west of Colorado, came out with her mother for a one week visit in October.
At the end of that week, Copeland told Marci that if she went back home and got her high school diploma (GED), that she would help sponsor a longer visit this winter and spring.
Marci, who moved out here in January, has risen to the challenge. She’s skiing four times a week (twice downhill and twice cross-country), going to physical therapy three times a week (once with Dennison and twice at Mammoth Hospital – all pro bono) and lifting weights at Snowcreek Athletic Club following her appointments with Dennison.
This regimen has already produced results. Marci, a former high school basketball star, not only has developed dreams (she wants to become a paralympian), but skills (she lives with a pair of roommates in MMSA employee housing on Lupin Street and can now shop by herself at Vons). And by helping herself, Marci also now sees how that effort can spark a feedback loop.
In the time she’s been in Mammoth, anonymous donors flew her down to Southern California on a private jet to get outfitted with a new custom wheelchair from Colours Wheelchair based in Corona, Calif.
Meanwhile, what was planned as a two-month stay in Mammoth has been extended to six.
As Dr. Karch observed, “Marci is a huge success story for DSES. Within just the first week, you could already see the difference [in her progress].”
You can support folks like Marci by supporting Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. The next DSES fundraising event, its annual Slide-a-Thon, will take place on April 9. Copeland’s goal this year is to increase the number of teams from 8 to 20 for a day full of activities on the hill designed to raise awareness, raise money and have fun. To register or learn more, call 760.934.0791 or visit www.disabledsportseasternsierra.org.