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 Stories for May 6, 1998:

Regular Features:

Cal Doctor Treats the “Other” Nagano Athletes
With Sit-Skis and Customized Sleds, the Rules of the Game Are Changed

by Erik Price, Public Affairs
posted May. 6, 1998

Can you imagine skiing down a mountainside in total darkness, the falling snow stinging your face, the chill seeping through your red, white and blue lycra body suit, with your only sense of direction coming from the shouts of a guide?

For Bobby McMullen, there is no need to imagine. The 35-year-old alpine skier is blind. As a member of the U.S. National Skiing Team, he competed during the Paralympic Games held in March in Nagano, Japan.

The Paralympic Games, held each Olympic year at the site of the regular Olympics, is the foremost gathering of the world’s top disabled athletes. This year’s competition, March 5-14, directly followed the Nagano Olympic Games, and used many of the same venues, including the athletes’ village, the beautifully designed hockey rink known as Aqua Wing, and the snowy slopes of the Japanese Alps.

The 53-member U.S. team received its medical care from Cindy Chang, head team physician for Berkeley’s Department of Athletics. Chang, who volunteered on the Olympic Committee’s athletic medicine staff in the summer of 1996, was invited to be part of the first comprehensive medical team supporting this country’s paralympic athletes.

“Unequivocally, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Chang, who brought back photographs and diary notes to share with her Tang Center colleagues.

The United States competed in three Paralympic events in Nagano: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and ice-sled hockey. Chang treated members of each team, but skipped the alpine events because she was seven months pregnant with her second child and couldn’t risk a fall.

Each paralympic sport is divided into multiple categories so that athletes with similar disabilities compete against each other. For skiers there are nine divisions, based mostly on which limbs are disabled and to what degree. Hockey players compete while sitting in customized sleds, and the teams combine players whose ability to balance varies according to their paralysis or amputations.

McMullen, who lost his vision to diabetes in 1993, was one of many disabled athletes who impressed Chang with their courage, gratitude and determination.

“What I didn’t see was bitterness about what had happened to them,” reflected Chang. “They had gone past their anger and denial and had channeled their energy in a very positive direction.”

McMullen, who competed at Utah’s Weber State University as a fully sighted collegiate skier, has twice come in fourth in the world since losing his sight and entering international racing for the blind.

According to Chang, he competed in Nagano despite undergoing a kidney/pancreas transplant last winter and suffering from a severe infection in his small toe during the games themselves. Because his immune system was severely compromised by the drugs he was taking to prevent organ rejection, he could not fight the infection. And his new organs are now located near his stomach, unprotected by the rib cage.

Despite Chang’s cautionary words and the concern that his infection would spread, McMullen pressed on. When the games ended, he returned home to Redding, Calif. – to have the toe amputated and to apply to Boalt School of Law.

Although full of such dramatic stories, the Paralympics were invisible to most Americans. You may have flipped past local cable channel eight when it aired grainy highlights from Japanese television, or you might have missed the General Motors commercial featuring disabled skiers flying in their special “sit-skis.” The only sign of the Paralympics around campus was Chang’s outgoing voice mail message while she was in Japan.

“The reason I picked the Paralympics is that I knew I’d be educated too,” said Chang, who received her athletic medicine training at Ohio State University. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she moved to the Bay Area with her husband, Chris, in 1995. In April of that year, she became Cal’s head team physician.

Once stationed in the round-the-clock training quarters she and her colleagues set up in Nagano, Chang had to adjust to the unique approach used in the medical care of elite, disabled athletes. It sometimes contrasted sharply with her work with Cal athletes.

“You can imagine if a case like Bobby McMullen presented itself back in Berkeley, we would never have let the guy near the field,” said Chang.

“Disabled athletes do take more risks,” she explained. “In the campus environment, there is a consideration of long-term risks with student-athletes. If a student had only one working kidney and still wanted to play football, there are many steps we would take to inform him about the risks. (With only one working kidney) an athlete could face dialysis, or a possible transplant, if he or she got hit in the abdomen – major, long-term quality of life questions, to say the least. Disabled athletes, on the other hand, have already faced death or they realize that their quality of life standard is different. Their athletic efforts are to improve their quality of life.”

According to Chang, the athletes she met at the Paralympics are intent on competing at every opportunity. They face a multitude of medical obstacles and complications like skin ulcers, poorly healing bruises, frequent infections, catheterizations and side effects from medication. But, she found, she could not stand in their way.

“Risk-takers are risk-takers,” she said. “After all, it is that instinct itself that led to some of their disabilities – reckless driving, or extreme behavior of all kinds, including their own sports when they were able-bodied. It is no wonder that they choose to pursue these sports now – they fit their personalities.”

According to Chang, it is difficult to preach caution to athletes like Jim Finch, the disabled national slalom champion, who lost both arms in an electrical accident in 1976; to Chris Young, the 1994 Paralympic gold medalist, whose legs were paralyzed in a Coast Guard plane crash; or to Sarah Billmeier and Karen Gardner, two highly decorated U.S. skiers who both lost limbs to cancer.

“This type of medical care still emphasizes doing what is best for the patient,” adds Chang. “The emotional disappointment of sending them home from the Paralympics without competing is just more serious.”

During a typical day at the Paralympics, Chang rose at 6 am. After a quick cafeteria breakfast, she checked in at the training quarters for any overnight developments, and headed to one of the athletic venues for a full day’s work.

At a typical cross-country ski race, Chang would camp out at the start/finish line for five or six hours, eating cafeteria bag lunches, speaking English to the young Japanese fans and trying to keep warm.

Weeks later, Chang still seems energized by the experience. She made new friends, met new colleagues, and enriched her medical experience and imagination in ways that will no doubt benefit the men and women of Cal athletics.

The only Berkeley representative in Nagano, Chang was one of six medical professionals who served the 106-member U.S. delegation. The 10-day Winter Paralympic Games was the first competition of its type to be held in Asia. Featuring 1,300 athletes from 31 countries, the games were also the largest since the creation of the Winter Paralympics in 1976.

“I would recommend this experience for anyone who wants to re-evaluate their perspective on their life and their own challenges,” she reflected.

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