Adaptability to disability: Don Christensen copes with MS so he can pursue his passion, hunting
WEBSTER, WIS. -- Le Ann Christensen nudged the power lever on her husband's wheelchair and guided him out the front door. She laid his camouflage blanket across his lap. She sprayed him down with a scent-masking compound.
Don Christensen was going deer hunting.
Multiple sclerosis may have robbed him of his arms and hands and legs. But Christensen no longer looks at what he has lost. Ask him about his disability, and he answers in three words.
"My head works," he said.
A passionate and lifelong hunter, he uses his head to pursue the activities he loves. And he continues to be a successful hunter, adapting his hunting gear to his abilities.
On this warm September evening, Le Ann guides her husband's wheelchair to one of three "shooting houses" on their 20 acres in the woods where he will spend an hour hunting whitetails.
His crossbow is mounted in such a way that, from his wheelchair, he can cover an area about 20 feet side to side and 30 yards of range by moving it up and down. He shoots through a window of the enclosed shooting house.
If Christensen were to see a deer he wanted to shoot, he would put his lips around a tube attached to his crossbow. At the right moment, he would suck on the tube.
The "sipper" mechanism would pull the trigger. The arrow would fly.
It has flown once already this fall, when Christensen took a nine-point buck on the fourth day of Wisconsin's archery season.
Always a hunter
Christensen, 43, has always hunted. Deer. Pheasants. Antelope. Elk. Ducks. Geese. He has hunted not only in the backyard but in Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and the Yukon.
All of that changed in 1996. That's when Christensen was diagnosed with MS, a disease of the central nervous system that short-circuits signals between one's brain and muscles. The disease progressed slowly until about 2002, Christensen said. After that, he lost use of his right leg, then his right arm, then his left leg and left arm. Was he bitter?
"Very much so," Christensen said. "It's the 'Why me?' attitude."
But he put his own situation in perspective when he helped a young boy in Texas who was suffering from cancer find a guide and make a dream bear hunt in Alaska.
"No matter how bad you've got it, there are a lot of people who are a lot worse off," Christensen said.
Medicine he began taking in 2006 "stopped my MS in its tracks," he said. He has continued to hunt deer, antelope, bear and wild turkeys. One look at the photos on his Web site shows how successful he has been. Bucks and does with crossbow, rifle and blackpowder rifle. Wild turkeys with shotguns.
He does miss pheasant hunting, which he grew up doing in southwestern Minnesota.
"I can't take my wheelchair in a swamp," he said.
When he was forced to quit his work with troubled children and go on disability in 2004, he started to help other hunters and anglers with disabilities. He became disability coordinator for outdoor television host Babe Winkelman, a position he still holds.
Winkelman paid for the first voice-recognition software for Christensen's computer, allowing him to "type" by speaking to his computer.
That same year, Christensen began developing his Web site, www.afarcry.info, designed to help those with disabilities keep hunting and angling.
Dealing with challenges
Le Ann's contributions are integral to Christensen's hunting and his helping of hunters with disabilities through his Web site. She supervises computer technology for the Webster public schools, working from home in the mornings and at school in the afternoons.
When Don's muscles need to be stretched, Le Ann stretches them. When his 180-pound frame needs to be hefted from his wheelchair and transferred to a recliner chair, Le Ann does the lifting. When his nose itches, she rubs it.
She has gutted deer, too, but typically that duty -- and dragging deer from the woods -- falls to the couple's son, Riley, 16. A daughter, Beth, 20, attends college, but she'll be home to hunt deer this fall.
Le Ann brings an upbeat personality and high energy to caring for her husband. But she admits it's draining.
"It gets a little bit frustrating, because you can't figure everything out," she said. "And it takes money."
The electronic wheelchair Don uses sells for nearly $20,000. He would like an electric door opener for the house, but it's $1,700. Insurance pays for some "durable medical goods," such as the wheelchair, but not nearly everything, he said.
Don and Le Ann have solved some problems with ingenuity. They fashioned a rifle rest for Don's wheelchair from PVC pipe, then had a welder make an aluminum version.
"They know us at the hardware store," Le Ann said.
They get in jams now and then because Don pushes his wheelchair beyond its recommended uses. Such as the time he mired down in a wet area along one of his trails. That necessitated a rescue by four-wheeler.
"You do not tie the tow strap to the arms of the wheelchair," Don said. "It pulls you down nose-first. I learned that from personal experience."
"One of these days, we're gonna get ourselves into a heck of a lot of trouble,"
Le Ann said.
A quiet evening
No deer came by Don's shooting house on this recent evening.
"It's too warm," he said.
At dusk, Le Ann came walking out to get him. She eased the wheelchair down the ramp and along the sand path.
On the way in from the shooting house, Don asked her to guide his chair up to another shooting house that overlooks a food plot. He sat there for a few moments, looking out into the thickening night for the shapes of deer.
When the darkness was complete, Le Ann turned the wheelchair around and eased Don along the path, back to the yard light and home.