Kent and Laura Harker stand with their son, Stephen, as he gears up to ski down the Rocky Mountains. Although Kent is ready with his ski boots on, he waits as 22-year-old Stephen and two ski instructors prepare their skis.
Kent says Stephen went from the healthiest version of himself to the sickest – quick.
He was at Army Individual Training, where soldiers learn their job, when he began feeling nauseous, started vomiting and experiencing headaches.
He was taken to a nearby naval hospital where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor at only 19 years old.
“Stephen joined the military because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do,” Kent explained. “Now, he’s 22 and he just wants to walk.”
As difficult as Stephen’s road has been, he faces challenges head on. His mom, Laura, credits his team at VA’s Palo Alto Health Care System for Stephen’s incredible recovery.
“His neurosurgeon performed a 14-hour surgery by himself because [the surgeon] didn’t want anyone else to do it,” Laura said. “The doctors, therapists and nurses at the VA have been absolutely incredible.”
Stephen spent one month in the hospital and three months in the traumatic brain injury unit. His parents say Stephen’s tenacity and drive to keep trying have got him to where he is now.
Since his injury three years ago, Stephen has used many facets of therapy. One of those is the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colorado. As the youngest participant in 2017, Stephen skies standing up using a four-track ski. He is able to wear two skis on his feet and two hand-held outriggers to help with balance.
Stephen’s first year at the Clinic, he was in a mono-ski. A mono-ski is a single ski mounted to a frame with a seat and a foot rest.
“He didn’t like sitting in the ski,” Laura laughs. “He couldn’t see over the hill on his way down, so last year he started skiing standing up.”
Even off the slope, Stephen and his parents enjoy just being present at the Clinic. Kent explained that visually seeing other people and their challenges is reassuring and comforting for him and Laura because they are not alone.
“We love everything about the Clinic. Seeing other people overcoming their challenges,” Kent describes. “Just seeing them and the support is really great.”
At the end of the week when the Harkers return home to California, they use different forms of therapy as snow is hard come by on the Golden State. There, Stephen rides horses. His therapists say they had to grip onto him when he first began in 2015, but now – a gentle hold will do.
“They call it hippotherapy,” Laura explains. “His core strength has improved drastically. The natural gait [of the horse] helps do that. One day, the therapist even had Stephen doing the macarena [dance] on the horse. It was great!”
During his rehabilitation, the therapists ask Stephen constantly for goals and it has remained the same – he wants to walk. Laura says he focuses on achieving that goal every day and has no plans to stop until he gets there
About the author: Eve Neisen is a public affairs specialist with VA’s Office of Public Affairs.