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Sharp Health News

Adaptive athlete: ‘sailing against the wind’

June 9, 2016

Adaptive athlete: ‘sailing against the wind’

Sharp physical therapist — and former Sharp Rehabilitation patient — Danielle Burt was able to return to an active life after a serious motorcycle accident.

By and large (meaning "everything considered" or "for the most part," for the landlubber) has nautical roots and essentially means to sail against the wind (as impossible as it sounds). But Danielle Burt is doing just that, and her mission is to share her story and inspire others to conquer the impossible.

Growing up near Long Beach Island, New Jersey, Dani — as she likes to be called — was very active riding her skateboard and bodyboarding. But after a horrific motorcycle accident while riding down Mount Palomar in 2004, her life drastically changed. She suffered massive injuries and was put into a 5-week medically induced coma during which her right leg had to be amputated, essentially to save her life.

Because of her limited mobility and all of the medications, it took Dani awhile after being taken out of the coma before she realized her leg was gone. At only 19, she felt her life was over. After all, what would she do if she could never return to action sports?

Throughout the 12 years since her accident, Dani has discovered exactly what she could do. Not only has she skateboarded in the first showcase of action sports in Paralympics history and competed in the International Surfing Association's Adaptive World Surfing Championships — where she placed first among women and 16th overall in the standup division — but she also earned a doctor of physical therapy degree from San Diego State University in May 2015. She now works as a physical therapist at Sharp Memorial Hospital — just steps away from where she went through her own rehab more than a decade ago.

Recently, we caught up with Dani — a winner of Sharp's Eagle Spirit Award — while she was out catching some waves at a La Jolla beach to ask her about her accomplishments and about her newfound career.

Before your accident, what were your career goals?
After high school, I was accepted into Tyler Art School in Philadelphia, but I wasn't ready for college. My goals at the time were to travel and continue my active lifestyle.

While you were recovering and going through rehab, what kept you strong, and what moment did you realize that you could get "back on your feet," so to speak?
The people who were there for me kept me strong. I wanted to be strong for them. But the biggest moment was when (John) Clint Mabry from Challenged Athletes Foundation came to visit me and showed me images of above-knee amputees participating in triathlons. Triathlons weren't really my jam, but I wanted to be athletic again, even if that meant pursuing triathlons instead of action sports.

What was it about going through Sharp Rehabilitation that influenced your decision to become a physical therapist?
I began to see results. I went from not being able to get up, to sitting in bed on my own, to being able to hop across the room with a quad cane. Also, thinking back to when I was in the hospital, if I had a physical therapist with an amputation, it would have completely motivated me.

Do you still feel much pain and, if so, how do you get through it?
Having a prosthetic leg is not a comfortable thing. More often than not, I am feeling some discomfort, but I don't focus on it. I just think about moving forward and staying busy. The busier I am, the less I think about it. When I'm surfing, I never think about it. It's a great release for me.

What has been the highlight of your surfing career?
The first wave I caught after my accident, without a prosthesis. It was at sunset in Pacific Beach. It was amazing to paddle out and into that wave, to feel the energy of the ocean again.

What has been the highlight of your career as a physical therapist?
There have been multiple moments, but two really stand out. Once I had a patient who had to have a below-knee amputation. The person was very upset and refusing to get out of bed. When I showed the patient that I was also an amputee (I was wearing pants, so it wasn't obvious when I walked in), it was like a light switched on — the moment you know that it's possible. Life is still possible … it was an amazing feeling.

Receiving the Eagle Spirit Award was also a highlight. It was crazy to watch the video they showed — a timeline of what I've been through and of the majority of people that were there for me, that believed in me. It was very humbling and a huge honor.

What does it mean for you to be honored in that way, to receive an award that symbolizes soaring, conquering and excelling?
It's a great feeling to see how far I have come and to show those who have supported me how much of an impact they've made on my life. It's also a great feeling to be able to show people in the medical field how important and impactful their work is. We don't often get to see patients years later to see their progress, so I am glad I could show them the mark they have left on my life.

Life may not always be smooth sailing, but at least now Dani can ride the waves.

Update: On June 12, Danielle Burt clinched her spot on Team USA after winning the adaptive stand division of the USA Surfing Championships.

For the media: To talk with Danielle Burt about her story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com or 858-499-3052.

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