Un-limb-ited: Amputee teens find a place to fit in with rafting trip to Green River

Published: Saturday, July 31 2010 5:00 p.m. MDT

From left, Jesse Brown, Luke Lish and McKenzie Cunningham cover their heads with mosquito netting as they visit at Un-Limb-ited, a camp for teenage amputees.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Surrounded by red rock and blue sky, Nathaniel Carter smiles at his newly found feeling of inclusion as he floats down the Green River. "Other than in the hospital, this is the first time I've met others missing a limb, and it makes me feel like, hey, it's not just me," the 14-year-old says as the raft churns through the water.

From the depths of Desolation Canyon on this hot July day, it would appear that Carter and the 14 teenagers with him are like any other youth group that treks here for adventure. And in most ways Carter and his friends are normal teenagers. But in one key respect, they are unique — each is an amputee.

They have come here from around the country for the third annual Un-Limb-ited Amputee Whitewater Rafting Camp, which is sponsored by Shriners Hospital for Children.

The camp is the brainchild of Matt Lowell, a physical therapist at Shriners, who recognized that when amputees became teenagers, they often needed more intensive intervention, treatment and attention. To help fill that need, Shriners, under Lowell's direction, started a winter camp seven years ago where kids learn to ski and snowboard.

From the winter camp's success and Lowell's previous work at the University of Utah Intermountain Burn Clinic, which has run a similar camp down this same stretch of river, the Un-Limb-ited Amputee camp was born.

The six-day, 89-mile river rafting trip starts at Sand Wash, near Duchesne, and ends at Green River. The camp consists of teenagers ages 12 to 18, mostly from the Intermountain region, but guest campers from around the country are also invited. Burn Camp and Holiday Expeditions provide the river guides, gear and food, and Shriners and its donors provide direct donations to the camp, resulting in a very minimal application fee. Most times, if there is any financial need, that fee is waived.

The fact that Maj. John Wesley Powell, the first man to navigate the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869, was missing his arm from an explosion in the Civil War was not something that the organizers of the Un-Limb-ited Camp had in mind, but it has provided a great role model and an inspirational piece of history to share with the campers.

"Teaching a child to walk or use a prosthetic is not the goal. It is simply a step in the process," Lowell said. "Our goal is to get them back into life and pursing their dreams, goals and aspirations. Having them walk 10 feet down the hallway in a clinic is not life."

Marina Ivie, 23, is one of two "counselors in training" at this year's camp. Ivie lost her leg in an automobile accident near Payson nine years ago. While recovering at University Hospital, two amputees stopped by her room and talked to her about what it would be like to live with one leg. One of the amputees was a teenage boy. The other was a nurse. Seeing their success gave Ivie hope.

Last year, Ivie quickly learned the impact she could also have on other amputees when she picked up a camper from Tampa, Fla., at the airport. Ivie recalls that after introductions they sat to wait for another arrival and started talking. When the teen learned that Ivie was married and had a son she "kind of stepped back and got this look on her face and said 'Wait, you are married?' " The girl couldn't believe it. "Someone loves you and married you?" the girl asked again. And again Ivie said yes. "With your leg like that?" the girl asked. Ivie replied, "Yes, because he loves me for me and the person I am, and my leg doesn't make any difference to him."

Listening to the young girl's questions was bittersweet.

"She didn't know. She thought that she was the freak and that no one was going to like her because she wasn't the perfect model, that she didn't have everything there," Ivie recalls. "But she had more in her heart, and that is what she had to learn — she had more to give inside."

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