Carbondale kayaker hits high water after spinal injury |

Carbondale kayaker hits high water after spinal injury

Ryan Summerlin

Though he didn’t say so in the beginning, the spinal surgeon didn’t believe that Nate White would ever walk again. White had no neurological function below his spinal chord injury, a fractured lumbar in the mid-lower back, right behind the belly button.

An all around outdoor junkie from Carbondale who charged the obstacles in telemark skiing, mountain biking and kayaking steep class V creeks, White was staring down a future in a wheelchair.

In June of last year White and some buddies were outside Crested Butte, paddling the class V Daisy Creek, a run that he’d done many times before. But this time something had changed in one of the waterfalls. He went over the falls, hit a rock shelf and instantly couldn’t feel his legs.

“It was like when you hit your head and you get a ringing in your ears, I had that same ringing in my lower extremities,” said White. “It was a weird synesthesia, like noise in my nerves.”

One his friends ran into the creek to help him. White knew that he had broken his back, but at that point, his brain was in survival mode. He was thinking at least clearly enough to stay in the water to avoid additional damage from being dragged onto shore. While they waited for search and rescue to arrive, he stayed floating in an ice-cold eddy.

In kayaking, usually tragedy comes when people drown; you don’t expect to get a spinal chord injury, he said. “So it came as a huge shock to me.”

Search and rescue arrived and winched him up an embankment in a caged stokes litter. A medical helicopter flew him to Swedish Medical Center in Denver.

Excruciating pain came when nurses shifted him from the gurney to an MRI table. “I screamed and couldn’t stop until they pumped me full of heavy pain medication,” he said.

Surgeons fused five vertebrae together in his mid to lower spinal column, from the bottom of the thoracic through nearly all of his lumbar vertebrae.

In a second surgery, White had a rib removed, along with some of the fractured vertebrae, and surgeons blended them into what White called a “bone paste” that they then used with a cylindrical cage to fuse the bordering vertebrae together.

He stayed in the ICU for about three weeks, initially in terrible pain form the injury and operations. From there he went to Denver’s Craig Hospital, a top rehabilitation hospital that works in spinal chord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.

White stayed at Craig Hospital for two months, with an intense regimen of physical and occupational therapies each day. That level of therapy was a full time job, starting at 8 a.m. and often running until 5 p.m.

“I was totally in denial about everything. They were fitting me for a wheelchair, and I was telling them that I was going to walk out of there,” said White. The nurses and physicians were incredulous; at that time, he was fully paralyzed from the waist down. “I really defined myself through the activities I did, being a strong skier, kayaker, mountain biker. Those identities were being stripped from me,” he said.

The surgeon kept his doubts to himself. Instead, he kept encouraging White, telling him that anything could happen if he worked hard.


About three months after his injury, he was able to return home to the Roaring Fork Valley. He went back to work teaching English at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, where White says he found an amazingly supportive community. He was still in the wheelchair, and he couldn’t be fully independent.

His community helped him in small but critical ways, like with cleaning and cooking.

He stayed in the wheelchair for about six months.

White is still putting in about 30 hours of physical therapy each week. And while he was at Craig Hospital, a big part of his therapy was in a pool.

When he came back to the valley, his father suggested that he start working out at Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, which became a staple in his regimen. He began going to the pool and working out almost daily.

The pool at the hospital was always the best therapy; it alleviated a lot of my pain, said White.

When he was leaving the hospital, he was still at point where he could barely stand, with assistance, in about 5 feet of water. So when he came home, it made a lot of sense to keep that work up.

White started in the deep end of the pool, and gradually worked his way into shallower and shallower waters. He was also gaining strength by swimming laps. The cardio workout is especially important for recovering in spinal chord injuries as it gets the blood pumping and the metabolism up, he said.


And beyond the therapeutic benefits, when White was in the pool, he was able to relax where people couldn’t tell that he was recovering from a traumatic injury. “It’s just a chance to forget about my mobility issues for a bit.”

This therapy and hard work led White out of the wheelchair and onto crutches, and now to the point where he can walk with a cane.

White attributes his relearning to walk to his physical therapy at the hot springs pool and with the Bridging Bionics Foundation. Bridging Bionics, based out of Basalt, offers a unique therapeutic tool for people with injuries like White’s. It’s a robotic exoskeleton that allows such patients to stand up and walk upright. White started working with the Bridging Bionics therapists three timer per week, using the organizations’s robotic exoskeleton to get upright and stepping. This therapy helps realign the neural pathways, said White. It’s important for your body, for the bones and tissue to start bearing weight again.

Even someone who probably isn’t going to walk again, this therapy is really good for them because it helps alleviate neuropathic pain and bladder and bowel problems from come from immobility, said White.

“It’s an amazing program, and if not for them, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” he said.


While his therapy at the Hot Springs Pool and with Bridging Bionics was helping him regain the ability to walk, White wanted to take it a step further and get back in his kayak. So he also started working on his roll, another skill he would have to completely relearn.

“The great thing about kayaking is you don’t need any adaptive equipment,” said White. In the kayak, you can’t tell that he’s had a traumatic injury. Already he’s gotten back out onto the river, working his way up to class III and then class IV water. While he might be working hard to keep up on land, in a kayak, “I’m right back on par with everyone else again,” he said.

As part of his motivation to recover, he’d also applied for a hard-to-score permit for a multiday trip on the Selway River in Idaho. Chances are he wouldn’t get the permit anyway. He called it a pipe dream.

But he did.

White said he was pretty terrified, as the water was running high, but when he got the permit, he couldn’t turn it down. The trip ended well, with White sticking all his lines, marking a major accomplishment in his recovery.

At CRMS he was also the telemark skiing, kayaking and mountain biking coach before his injury. Now he’s returning to the school’s kayaking program. White has even been mentoring a student of his, whom he had once coached on the telemark team, who has also suffered a spinal chord injury.

White recently had his year appointment with the spinal surgeon, and got some great news. The surgeon told him that the fusion in his spine was pretty much complete. “I took that as an ‘it’s healed,’” said White. And though he admits it might not be the most responsible thing to do, he took that prognosis as an excuse to venture once more into Class V water.

“Being able to paddle at a high level is almost as high an accomplishment to me as being able to walk again. That might sound silly or outrageous. But to me, it’s such an important part, being able to do what I love to do.”

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