Gait-keeper Dr. Frank Chang helps kids with life’s giant slalom

Caregivers / Researcher

Dr. Frank Chang

Dr. Frank Chang dodges another biographical question and changes the subject yet again. “I’m not very good at talking about myself,” he demurs.

What Chang, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital Colorado, would much rather talk about is skiing. Specifically, skiers he’s worked with over the past three decades.

“I work with two groups of skiers,” Chang jokes. “Disabled kids who want to become Olympians, and able-bodied Olympians who want to become disabled by doing crazy freestyle stunts.”

The first group, the disabled group, includes hundreds of kids Chang has taught to ski. For 33 years he’s volunteered with Adaptive Recreation for Childhood Health, a sports therapy program at Children’s Colorado – “the best adaptive sports program in the nation,” he says. Chang volunteers as both medical director and a ski instructor.

But Chang hasn’t just taught kids to ski; he’s enabled them to ski, performing life-changing surgeries on some and finding alternative treatments for others: regimens of stretching, strengthening, physical therapy and extensive gait training.

Guiding Chang’s work is the Center for Gait and Movement Analysis at Children’s Colorado (“the gait lab” for short), which he pioneered a decade ago. After countless hours studying videos of Olympic freestyle skiers and years of seeing video analysis improve skiers’ performance, Chang realized that similar studies could help his patients—many of them kids with cerebral palsy—become better walkers. So he pushed and pleaded and fundraised, helping to create a state-of-the-art gait lab in the new hospital.

The lab is equipped with an array of motion-capture cameras, like the ones used to create special effects in Hollywood thrillers. Plantar pressure plates map how weight is distributed in the soles of the feet – so precisely that the map changes as the heart beats—while special force plates measure the energy in every step. Computer software animates patients’ movements as they walk and run. Their movements are also captured by video cameras that track reflectors mounted on knees and ankles, thighs and calves, feet and hips, all making it easier to pinpoint gait problems and find ways to solve them.

One gait-lab alum is a woman Chang first saw at age 4 after she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

“We did surgery to lengthen her calf muscles and hamstrings,” Chang recalls, “and she did a lot of physical therapy and gait training. She also joined our sports therapy program. She skied with us for 10 years, then went on to ski in the Paralympics in 2002, 2006 and 2010.”

“She could barely walk when we first saw her,” he marvels, “but she became a three-time Olympic skier, and she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Recently she’s become a kayaker, and she’s hoping to make the U.S. Paralympic Kayaking team and compete in the 2016 summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.”

Chang cues up a video of Zach Miller, a 14-year-old who’s been his patient for a decade. Zach’s parents first brought him to Children’s Colorado at age 9 months, concerned because he couldn’t yet sit up. He was diagnosed with left hemiplegic cerebral palsy, which severely weakened his entire left side.

Chang spent hours with Zach, studying his gait and helping an orthopedics team develop stretching and strengthening exercises, plus sensory training and new movement techniques. Zach went on his first ski trip with Dr. Chang when he was 6. At age 8, he found a new passion: snowboarding. In 2012, he won a national competition, and he’s now training with the U.S. Paralympics’ snowboarding team, aiming toward the 2018 winter games.

As Chang talks about skiers and snowboarders, still skirting the subject of himself, it becomes clear that he’s given his patients far more than simply a love of sports; he’s given them wider horizons. Higher aspirations. Stronger bodies. Brimming self-confidence. Richer, fuller lives. Success and even triumph.

In the end, despite Chang’s reluctance to talk about himself, those gifts speak volumes. Not just about the recipients—the patients-turned-athletes—but about the giver, too: about Chang, the gait-keeper and gait-giver.

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