South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
One Vet’s “Don’t Quit” message for women Vets.
Some people, when faced with the idea of being in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, might fall into a depression and keep thinking about all the things they think they can’t do anymore. Kate Callahan is not one of those people, anymore. An Army and Air Force Veteran of 18 years, Callahan has been participating in different wheelchair games since 2007 when South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS) Recreation Therapist, Jose Laguna, introduced her to a whole different world.
In 2000, Callahan was diagnosed with hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and required multiple back surgeries which in turn caused the arachnoids in her back to pull her spinal cord apart, leaving her a paraplegic. Always an athlete, she thought that those days might be over, and for a time they were. Then in 2007, she met Laguna. Without his guidance, Callahan might still be angry, grieving the loss of her legs. Meeting Laguna “opened up a whole new world to me” she says. “I just thought, there really is stuff I can do, and since then I can’t stop. I do more now than I did before my injury” she says, smiling.
To prove that point, Callahan was in Christchurch, New Zealand and Australia this past January and February for her first trip to the World Paralympics games where she competed in the shot-put, discus and javelin events. Representing just one of 72 countries at the games, Callahan won 9th place in shot put, 7th place in javelin and 5th place in discus. She is now in the running for the next Paralympics games, to be held in London, England in June 2012.
It was a whirlwind trip for her to get to the world games, beginning with local competitions to qualify for nationals. That was June 2010, nationals were next and finding out she was in the running for the Paralympics was the icing on the cake and more than she thought she was capable of. In fact, she didn’t even feel like it was real until the World Anti-Doping Agency knocked on her door one night. “Until they had a drug testing agency at my door, I didn’t realize I was really doing this” she said, still amazed.
Classified as an elite athlete, Callahan spends a lot of time training for her events. “I couldn’t do it without family support” she said. “I have a 4-year-old who will say ‘go throw momma, go throw’, so that motivates me to train” she continued. When she talks about her son, you can see that he’s one of the reasons she competes and she hopes he is inspired to follow in her footsteps.
With the help of her throwing coach, Gabe Diaz de Leon, Callahan has made it to that elite athlete status. Diaz de Leon, himself a 5 time paralympian and a Veteran, has been training elite athletes in the sports that Callahan is competing in. Diaz de Leon should know what he’s talking about, he’s won 6 medals over the course of 5 games, at one point winning gold and setting the world record in the javelin event. Diaz de Leon says that “any sport that’s out there can be adapted for people sitting.” In the STVHCS recreation therapy program, they bowl, play softball and football and have many other activities for Veterans bound to wheelchairs. These activities are due, in large part, to Jose Laguna, the recreation therapist for the spinal cord unit in the STVHCS.
Activities like this don’t come cheap, so when Diaz de Leon, along with 8 other paralympians, was invited to meet with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Denver in 2010, he took that opportunity to tell the Secretary that VA recreation programs needed more money. That meeting was apparently successful, as is evidenced in the fact that Laguna’s Veterans participate in many different activities outside the STVHCS building, such as rifle shooting, bowling, fishing, etc. That funding has also helped the STVHCS with its state of the art spinal cord injury unit and the programs to go with it.
In fact, Callahan says we “couldn’t improve on the spinal cord clinic at all, it’s awesome, spinal cord care is just the best.” Diaz de Leon agrees. He recently moved back to the San Antonio area after being away for 11 years. He said “it’s nice to be able to belong to an organization that runs well.”
Although Callahan says the spinal cord care couldn’t improve, she does acknowledge the need for more care for women Veterans, Callahan says women Veterans are forcing the VA to change. She says “they [women Veterans] are pushing, and the need is there. The VA has to meet it because, well, we’re here.” And Callahan has something to say to all the women Veterans out there “meet more women Veterans.” She goes on, “you will find out that you are accepted and that you are part of the brotherhood, womanhood, just like you were in the service. You still have that camaraderie available. Just meet more women Veterans and find out that you are not alone.”