BACK ON THE ICE

By HEATHER A. RESZ
Frontiersman
Published on Monday, August 29, 2011 9:01 PM AKDT
WASILLA — Ordinarily, Debra Lighthart doesn’t approve of eavesdropping on private conversations.

But in the case of Brett Memorial Ice
Arena manager Joe Miner, she said she’s willing to make an exception.

Lighthart grew up on ice skates. She says she learned to skate about the same time she learned to walk.

HEATHER A. RESZ/Frontiersman A custom-made adaptive sled sits atop a pair of parallel skates. Debra Lighthart said it was easy to learn how to skate using the sled after years spent on the ice as a figure skater.

Born with congenital hip dysplasia, Lighthart spent the first four years of her life in a cast from the waist down and couldn’t learn to walk until the cast came off.

She’s been ice skating since that cast was removed and her doctors prescribed skating to build her leg and core muscles and improve her sense of balance. Young Debra took to the ice and performed as a figure skater through her teenage years, she said.

But a multiple sclerosis diagnosis two years ago ended her long relationship with the ice. MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. Doctors first suggested 26 years ago that the mysterious ailments she has experienced for decades might be symptoms of MS, she said.

On one hand, she said the diagnosis was a relief. But on one hand, Lighthart said while she wasn’t certain of her diagnosis she could maintain the illusion of control.

“With MS, you have no control,” she said.

Because MS is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, how it affects each person varies, as do their symptoms day-to-day, she said. “Some days are good. Some days are bad.”

Benefits of eavesdropping

About this time last year Lighthart was at the Brett Memorial Ice Arena taking her grandkids to skating lessons when she met Miner, the facility’s manager.

Miner was on the other side of the sliding window into the manager’s office when he heard Lighthart tell a woman from her church how much she wished she could be out on the ice with her grandchildren.

“I was a figure skater and I really missed being on the ice,” Lighthart said.

Miner only overheard a few sentences of their conversation, but it was an exchange that would prove life changing for Lighthart, she said.

When Miner heard that, he said he knew the adaptive sled he had in the backroom at the ice arena could be just the tool to get back on the ice.

Later that day he approached her and confessed he’d overheard what she said, and that if she was serious about wanting to be out on the ice, Miner said he thought he had a way to make that happen.

“I have a sled in the backroom I’d like to show you,” he said.

That’s when Miner showed her the sled and introduced her to Challenge Alaska and the Alaska Recreation and Parks Association.

“I’ve never appreciated eavesdroppers until that day,” Lighthart said.

Miner said there are lots of adaptive athletes in the Mat-Su Valley and some of them play Sled Hockey on Thursday evenings at the Curtis C. Menard Sports Center.

After three months of renting the Challenge Alaska sled, she made the contacts and secured an MS Wellness grant that would help her buy her own custom-fitted sled.

“She needed some sort of adaptation to be back on the ice,” Miner said. “It worked out that she was able to get a very nice sled and the proper equipment.”

The sled cost about $800, which Lighthart said is about the cost of a really high-quality pair of ice skates.

Lighthart said until she approached the Greater Northwest Chapter of the MS Society seeking an MS Wellness Grant to help afford the assistive technology they’d never heard of adaptive sleds for ice skating.

Rosanna Snyder, communications manager for the Greater Northwest Chapter of the National MS Society, said where MS takes away abilities, Wellness Grants help people add some back to the list of things they can do.

“It’s amazing how new adaptive technologies can help people,” Snyder said.

Lighthart said her years of experience ice skating may have helped her adapt to the sled.

“I expected it to be difficult, and it wasn’t,” she said. “Once I got back into it — the feel of being on the ice and turning on it — it’s easy now.”

Just ask

The sled is among the assistive technologies Lighthart uses now. Other technologies include three replacement joints, braces on her legs, a cane, a walker and manual and motorized wheelchairs.

Figure skating requires a finally honed sense of balance and MS attacks the central nervous system, which affects people’s sense of balance, she said.

Lighthart said she isn’t worried just about the damage falling on the ice could do to her, she said she also worries she might fall and hurt someone else.

“The signals aren’t there — they aren’t consistent signals,” she said.

But in her custom sled, her legs are strapped to the rigid metal frame and her hips are encased in molded plastic that forms the back of the sled. People need a sense of balance and the use of their hands to power and control the sled, Lighthart said.

For now, she glides and turns under her own power, but they do make sleds that have back support that can be pushed for people to use who need that sort of help, she said.

Beyond a fun form of exercise, Lighthart said exercising in the cool indoor ice arena also is good because it keeps her core temperature low, which is important for people with MS.

“This is wonderful for me,” she said.

People of all ages see her at the ice arena and ask about her cool transport. Lighthart said she encourages people to ask questions. Mostly the questions come from children, she said.

“We train ourselves and our children to see disabilities as abnormal,” she said. “Kids just have an innate curiosity.”

And if their parents are OK with it, sometimes she lets the curious little ones go for a few turns around the ice riding on her lap.

She said she prefers questions to wide-eyed stares.

Her proudest moment in this vein was when she overheard a grandfather explain her leg braces to his granddaughter.

“She’s got a soldier’s leg,” the man replied.

It’s a memory that still makes her smile, she said.

I’m very grateful for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman picking up this story! Debra is a wonderful lady and we would have never gotten to see her energy and ambition! She was trying to describe this to me at our monthly MS support group meeting and I didn’t get it until I saw this article!

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