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A Path to Recovery : When Teague Cowley was horribly burned five years ago, the prognosis was grim. But a summer camp is helping him heal inside and out.

August 25, 1995|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIAN PEAKS WILDERNESS AREA, Colo. — There will come a point where Teague Cowley and his fellow hikers will think they can go no farther. Their chests will heave, and their lungs will feel ready to explode in the crisp, thin air of the Rocky Mountains. They will think about giving up.

That's when they must concentrate on the journey--not the destination--and take one step at a time. Focus on a tree a short distance ahead, camp counselor Stephanie Manley tells the young group. Make it your goal. When you reach it, pick another tree. Keep going.

The hikers seem willing. Like Teague's, their lives have been an interminable uphill climb, with no trail or maps showing them the way. At times, the top of the mountain has not been visible or clearly defined in their minds. They have been taught only to keep moving forward with their lives.

They are survivors of burn injuries and campers at the Cheley/Children's Hospital Burn Camp near Rocky Mountain National Park--a program designed to help them learn to live not only with the scars that are clearly visible but also with the scars inside.

One step at a time is the way Teague, 15, has lived the past five years of his life. In 1990, he lost his left arm, a leg, a third of a hip and seven ribs in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. He suffered burns over 65% of his body. His father was killed.

On June 9, 1990, Teague was traveling though Colorado with his family to Utah, where they were going to pick up their boat at his grandfather's house and transport it to their new home in Wisconsin, camping and fishing along the way.

Just outside Denver, a pickup truck traveling the wrong direction on an interstate highway hit them head-on. Teague was thrown from one vehicle and pinned beneath the other, which had exploded into flames.

Donna Jarecke was at a wedding shower when she was paged. The nurse clinician immediately rushed to Children's Hospital, where Teague arrived by helicopter with burns over more than half of his body and with a hole in his chest. Even if he lived, Jarecke thought, the massiveness of his injuries would likely result in a lifetime of suffering.

"I think he was the first one that made me question what we were doing," Jarecke says. "I didn't know whether we were right to save his life."

Jarecke, along with others from the hospital's burn unit, volunteers at the camp. Four years ago, when Teague started attending, Jarecke saw how wrong she was to have doubt.

"I see him now, and he is one of my biggest inspirations for not making those judgments," she says. "I don't believe now that we in the health profession can make that decision with kids. I think we have every obligation in the world to do everything we can, and then it's up to them."

Dr. William Bailey describes Teague's recovery as the most dramatic he has witnessed as head of the burn unit. Last year, Teague climbed rocks and rappelled down. This year, his greatest challenge will be this all-day hike.

With a cane in his right hand, a prosthesis as a left leg and a canteen strapped around his neck, Teague quietly falls in line as the second group of hikers embarks on the journey. Surrounded by trees, the path winds its way next to a stream carrying runoff from peaks where patches of snow linger.

Initially, Teague, who now lives in Livermore, Calif., charges hard and keeps pace with the others on the smooth trail. He is the only person on the hike missing limbs. As the incline becomes steeper and the trail turns to rocks, Teague stops, catches his breath and wipes the sweat from his forehead. He looks up at a brilliant, blue sky visible only through gaps in the thick stand of aspens and spruce and Douglas fir.

"It's going to rain," he says.

*

While other hikers are studying the larkspur and columbines and Indian paintbrush, taking in the dramatic view unfolding all around them, Teague is struggling to keep moving, anxious for the group to stop.

As is often the case, he reacts to challenge with a sense of humor. He has learned that it helps to laugh. "Let's stop for a while and take pictures of these rocks," he says, obviously stalling for time. "Look at them, aren't they amaaaaaazing?"

They aren't, and the group keeps moving.

It is decided that the second group will split in two so that those who want to move faster are not held back. Teague moves to the head of the third group.

"I'm going to the front, man," he says. "That way I can set the pace."

Manley falls in line behind him. The trail gains nearly 3,000 feet in altitude and climbs above timber line during its three miles to the top of a ridge.

"I'm going to explode," Teague japes. His movement has turned into short bursts followed by brief breaks.

"I was just kidding about that exploding thing," Manley says, laughing.

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