Eileen Casey loves to ski. Her deep passion for the sport is obvious within moments of discussing it with her. Her eyes light up and her smile widens. Her love of the sport began when she was just three years old. She grew up in Connecticut had her on skis almost before she could walk.
She was hooked, and Eileen moved north as soon as she finished high school in pursuit of her passion. “I always wanted to go to college in Vermont just so I could ski.” She chose St. Michael’s College in Burlington and managed to schedule all her classes on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s so she could head for the mountains five days a week. Since she couldn’t afford a season’s pass, she sold passes for all the ski areas. Her ingenuity allowed her to ski for free all over the state. After graduating she continued to hit the slopes every chance she got, and when she became a mom she shared the sport with her three children. They all grew up sharing her zeal for sliding downhill.
Then ten years ago at the age of forty eight Eileen was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (cancer of the bone) in her foot. This disease is almost never seen in adults so it was a complete shock. She was not even thinking about living or dying. Her first thought was ”No more skiing, no more running!”
Within two weeks of finding out, Eileen underwent a below the knee amputation in Boston. The doctor who performed the surgery recognized that she was highly active so he did what is called an Ertl amputation. A bone bridge was grafted between the tibia and fibula attaching the bottom of the two bones and increasing their ability to take a pounding. When Eileen returned to Burlington, she needed to undergo 42 weeks of high intensity chemotherapy. The first two weeks of treatment were so severe that she was forced to remain hospitalized. Over the next forty weeks she received 8 different chemotherapy drugs. She says the treatment almost killed her. She required a blood transfusion to undergo the last round, but she is cancer free today.
When Eileen began her treatment, she made a promise to herself that she would ski at least one day every season. This promise kept her going. During the last few weeks of her chemotherapy, Eileen reached out to Stowe Mountain Resort Ski and Snowboard School’s Adaptive Program, one of Green Mountain Adaptive Sports’ partners, and she made it onto the mountain for the first time since her diagnosis. The drugs had slowed the healing of her bone and she could not yet use a prosthetic so she tried three tracking. “It was very challenging but even though I was not sailing down the mountain, just getting out onto the hill was a victory.”
By the following winter Eileen’s amputation was healed, so she stuck her prosthetic in her ski boot and skied just like she always had. “As I rode the lift to the top of the mountain I had no idea what was going to happen. Then I just began to ski. It was amazing, my muscles remembered everything from the last thirty years.” Everything just came back as she found herself cruising down the hill.
Ted Kennedy Jr was Eileen’s inspiration. She read Senator Kennedy’s book which contained an entire chapter on his son, Ted Jr, who lost his leg to osteosarcoma when he was 12. To see that Ted was not only alive 40 years later but was also an avid skier brought Eileen hope that she would not only survive, but be able to ski again. After one of her coworkers gave her the book Eileen contacted Senator Patrick Leahy who reached out to Ted Jr. Eileen was just sitting at her desk one day when Ted Jr called her. They shared stories and their love for skiing at Stowe Mountain Resort, where Ted still skies along with his children.
For the last ten years every time she gets out on the mountain she says it still feels like a miracle. “Skiing is magic, it takes you away from all the barriers and stressors that are part of your everyday life and sets you free,” Eileen puts it beautifully. “Skiing is the only place where I feel able bodied. I am setting myself free in the mountains. It is where I am the happiest. To be able to reclaim my life and my passion for skiing, I just can’t express it in words”. She does express her joy as she yells wahooo! and yehaaaa! all the way down the mountain.
Eileen saw how much skiing helped her reclaim her life and knew she needed to pay it forward to help other individuals get outside and enjoy nature. She joined the Green Mountain Adaptive Sports Board of Directors. While many children participate in GMAS sponsored programs, Eileen wanted to make sure to stress the importance of getting the word out to adults. “Many people don’t realize they have options. They may be sitting at home and have given up so it is very important to reach out to them”. Seeing someone else with the same ability as your own participating can give you the motivation to try.