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Woman returns to snowboarding after losing foot

Caddie Nath
Summit Daily News
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoDespite the loss of her left foot, 41-year-old firefighter Arlene Cohen maintains an active lifestyle including running and snowboarding.
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FRISCO, Colo. – In 2009, Arlene Cohen was faced with an unimaginable choice: Lose her foot or lose her way of life.

It had been three painful years and several surgeries since the Florida native shattered her left foot in a snowboarding injury on Peak 10 at Breckenridge Ski Resort. In the most recent surgery, doctors were supposed to have removed bone from her hip to fill in gaps in her ankle, allowing it to heal. But when she woke up, Cohen knew something was wrong.

“I was expecting all this pain in my hip, and there was no pain,” she said.

It was her boyfriend Jorge who explained the situation that night. It had become clear that the bones in her ankle couldn’t be reconstructed, leaving her with only two options: Doctors could fuse her ankle, a process that would keep Cohen from ever being able to snowboard, dance, run or return to her job as a firefighter or they could amputate her foot.

For Cohen, now 41, it wasn’t a hard decision. She spoke to her doctor the following morning.

“I just looked at him and I said, ‘OK, can we amputate today?'” she remembers. “I said, ‘I need my life back. I can’t continue like this.'”

The injury that led to that fateful decision occurred in April 2006. Cohen was riding Peak 10, her last run of the day and the season, when somebody cut her off. She cut a turn and came to a “slow stop,” she said, when she felt something happen to her foot.

Thinking she sprained her ankle, she saw a doctor. As it turned out, she’d broken the ankle in 10 places and would have to spend the next several weeks in the hospital.

Cohen eventually returned home to Florida, but by July she was out of sick time at work and still in excruciating pain. With her doctor assuring her that the pain was a normal part of the healing process, she went back to work.

But months later, the injury was still hurting. She returned to Summit County to see another doctor and began what would become a three-year process of surgeries and physical therapy culminating, in the choice between keeping her foot and keeping her active lifestyle.

Though Cohen was ready to have the amputation immediately, her doctor asked her to discuss the options with other doctors. But research told her all she needed to know: People with prostheses were able to do things. With a prosthetic leg, Cohen would not have to give up her job as a firefighter with the city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and could keep doing all the activities she loved.

In September 2009 she had the amputation and today, that’s the message she carries to other amputees.

“I feel it’s important if somebody loses any body part, that somebody go over and tell them that everything’s going to be fine,” Cohen said. “They don’t realize that life can go on and be just as fulfilling as it was before or better. I think it’s important that people know that if something goes wrong in your life, whatever it may be, you just have to keep going and make the best of it. As long as you’re alive, anything’s possible.”

Cohen is walking, running and now snowboarding proof of it. This month, almost exactly five years after injuring her ankle, Cohen returned to Breckenridge and the run where the accident happened.

“As I was going up the chairlift, my stump was tingling,” she said. “I knew it was in my brain. I had all this anxiety going on and I get to the top and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this.’ Once I did it, it was fine.”

Now, back at work and snowboarding again, Cohen looks back on her ordeal with gratitude to the people who helped her through, particularly Levon Balbay, her physical therapist in Breckenridge and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), a nonprofit that provides adaptive skiing and riding opportunities for people with disabilities.

Cohen said she hopes, in the next few years to retire in Summit County and get involved with the BOEC.


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