PARK CITY — To see her smile as she glides down the ski slope, you'd never know that Kimberly Louis has a secret sorrow.
The 13-year-old is hoping to visit Haiti before year's end to help family and friends still there.
It's a safe bet that she will attract attention — not because the Haitian-born teen spent the past week learning to ski in Park City, but because she will have something in common with so many there after last month's earthquake.
She lost a limb to amputation.
Yet, her happy spirit, easy laugh and determination to tackle unusual challenges are likely to inspire those who will see in her someone who truly understands what life is like without a limb.
At 13, Louis — like a few of her peers at this year's Un-limb-ited Ski and Snowboard Camp — allowed surgeons at Shriner's Hospital in Salt Lake to amputate her leg after she saw the possibility of a brighter future than the one she was destined for otherwise. Without amputation, she wouldn't have been able to ever walk, sit or bend her knee again.
Born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), her hip was deformed and her leg shortened to the point that lifts in the shoe of her longer leg weren't feasible to correct the problem.
The non-hereditary birth defect can include dislocation or instability of the joint between the femur and the kneecap, shortened leg bones and foot deformities.
"I saw everyone else (at Shriners) getting fitted for legs, and it was a pivotal moment for me when I realized with surgery" she could experience simple movements her peers simply took for granted.
Louis, now a U.S. citizen who lives in Orlando, had never experienced snow until she hit the ski slopes this week. She was afraid not just of falling, but also of riding the ski lift. "I'm terrified of heights," she said. "The first day, I mastered falling and getting back up. Yesterday, I had a fall and I decided 'I'm not falling again.' That's when I had my breakthrough. I started skiing and making my turns.
"I'm taking lots of pictures because I want proof. My family can't believe I'm doing this."
Kristine Littlefield of Centerville wasn't intimidated in the least, she said. At 13, she's a veteran skier and had a hard time finding instructors who could keep up with her this week, as she tackled the Black Diamond run at Park City Mountain Resort.
Born with PFFD like some of her new friends, she also has a prosthetic limb after amputation at age 4, but is able to keep up with her friends from school using three skis — one on her leg and two attached to poles that she guides with her arms.
What would she tell other amputees who wonder whether they could learn?
"It's okay to be a little bit scared sometimes. I'd say go do it and don't let anything stop you."
Laura Lewis, a recreational therapist at Shriners, said the campers "play all day and talk all night." One group session centered on how to handle it when people stare. "It's amazing how they help to support each other.
"A lot of them have never been around another amputee, so they've never been able to talk with another teen who really understands. ... It's tough enough being a teenager, let alone dealing with this on top of it."1 comment on this story
Physical therapist Cindy Kuntze said she regularly works with children at Shriners, and "I can't wait to see them come to (ski) camp. "It gives them that extra boost of confidence that they're just like everybody else."
Parents and family members often unknowingly limit teen amputees by being too protective, trying to shield them from activities like skiing that can actually help them feel more mainstream, she said.
When she encourages them to apply, "they look at me like, 'are you kidding me?' But they start thinking about it, and that's when it gets exciting. … It changes their lives."