Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sun Valley Adaptive—changing lives one at a time


At the age of 20, lacking a clear life path, Hugo Gonzalez left his home of Puerto Rico and enlisted in the United States Army.

With a new life, Hugo enjoyed his first years of active duty. He had a secure job with great benefits. He, along with his young family, enjoyed visiting parts of the world they might never have had the chance to see.

Eventually Hugo received orders that he was being deployed to Iraq.

While nervous and hesitant to leave his wife, Ani Gonzalez, and baby daughter, Hugo felt honored to have the opportunity to defend his country. 

While in Iraq, Hugo was exposed to multiple improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Like most soldiers, he simply pulled himself up by his bootstraps and moved forward.

He ignored the chronic headaches and grogginess he was feeling. Then, while mounted atop a Humvee in Fallujah, Hugo's unit was ambushed and he was shot through the right eye by a sniper. The gunshot and blast exposures resulted in multiple cranial fractures, and a detached retina in Hugo's left eye.

Hugo awoke from a coma back in his native United States to the realization that he had lost 90 percent of his vision, and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).

On top of TBI, Hugo also suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), reliving his battle experiences daily.

He found himself anxious in public settings and dependent on others for care. He felt distant from his Ani, and unable to handle the angst brought on by his children.

With a three-year-old daughter, a new set of twin girls, and a severely disabled husband, Ani was overwhelmed by grief, exhausted by the task of being her husband's caretaker and trying to run a household.

Her challenges seemed insurmountable. She felt guilty leaving her husband's side for even a moment; fearful that he might experience further harm.

As Hugo went through the medical board process, he would eventually receive his full pay and benefits, but in the meantime, Hugo received only a portion of his active duty pay.  

While going through treatment at the VA hospital, Hugo's caseworker told him about the Sun Valley Adaptive Sports program in Idaho called Higher Ground (HG).

Hugo made contact with a Recreational Therapist on the HG team, and quickly developed a new friendship. Julio felt excited for the first time since his injury.

He applied to a couple's snow sports camp because neither he nor Ani had ever seen snow before. Here was a chance for adventure. It would be a place to once again feel a sense of camaraderie with other veterans.

When asked what motivated him to join HG Hugo replied, "I was a lifelong surfer before my injury, now I'm not able to even get in the ocean by myself.  I think about it constantly. Learning to snowboard will prove to me that I'm still capable; it will show my wife she doesn't have to always be watching over me."

In response to the same question, Ani replied, "I just want to see my husband smile again."

Hugo's first day on the mountain taught him that he had grossly underestimated his potential. To the amazement of his instructor, he was making full runs—snowboarding from the top to the bottom of the mountain.

Before leaving, Hugo thanked the HG staff, saying, "I'm going home with new confidence, but more importantly my wife has been able to be herself and not worry about me constantly."

Upon his return to their hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla, Hugo decided it was time to be proactive in his recovery and applied to a blind rehabilitation center.

Six months after joining the HG family, Julio called the staff. He was so excited that he could barely contain himself. "I just got back from seeing Maria and the kids. No one came to pick me up!

I left the hospital, went to the train station, walked to the house, and surprised Maria at the door. I did it all by myself!"

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