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.


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.

Manley believes in the mountains. “They challenge us to be more than we dreamed we could be,” says the 26-year-old teacher. “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘Never doubt in the valley what you learn to be true on the mountain.’ When you’re up on the mountain, you’re facing 100% physical and emotional and mental and spiritual challenges, and you can overcome them if you take them one step at a time.

“When you get back to school or get back to work, if you can hold on and remember what you learned to do on that mountain, to not give up, then you’re going to make it a long ways. I believe that with all my heart.”


Halfway up the trail, she says later, she is secretly amazed that Teague has not given up. She continues to encourage him but gives him the choice of turning back.

“I’m not stopping,” Teague says. “Those guys up there have all the food.”


After the crash, Kaye Cowley moved the family back to Livermore, back to the house she and her late husband, Craig Cowley, bought in 1983 and lived in before moving to Wisconsin. Last November the family moved into a new house. It was, she says, an important step in getting on with her life. She still has a photograph that shows Craig in the driveway with the kids, painting shelves.

She has spent the past five years rebuilding herself and her family. She suffered a broken shoulder blade and a leg sprain in the crash. Daughter Cosette, now 18, had a broken jaw, head injury and her teeth knocked out. Only oldest son, Sam, 21, did not make the trip.

Kaye’s memory of the incident is sketchy. She thinks she was reading a book. They had just stopped for lunch at McDonald’s and were anxious to see the mountains, announcing the last leg of their trip.

She remembers looking up and seeing the other vehicle. She remembers the sound of the helicopter as it transported her to Denver. She remembers knowing that something terrible had happened.

Kaye planned her husband’s funeral from a hospital bed. She and Sam flew to Utah for the service for Craig--who was 43 and vice president of a biotech firm at the time of his death--leaving Teague and Cosette in their hospital beds.


The dynamics of the entire family changed dramatically following the crash. Craig had always been the person in charge. In accordance with their Mormon beliefs, the father was the head of the family, the provider and protector.

When he died, those responsibilities shifted.

First it was Sam, then 16, who held things together while his mother, brother and sister were hospitalized. With Kaye and Cosette in one hospital, Teague in another, Sam recalls driving back and forth, listening to loud, angry music on the radio to vent his feelings. He remembers watching Teague scream as they lowered him into a tub to bathe him. He remembers the shock of seeing his brother’s charred body the first time they removed the bandages.

There were long silences as he sat next to Teague’s bed. “I remember him just trying to cry,” Sam says, “but he couldn’t really cry very good because he was all wrapped up and couldn’t move. But he tried.”

Once Kaye was released from the hospital, she took charge of the family. Sam felt he was old enough to not be treated like a kid. It was upsetting that his mother did not allow him to handle more adult responsibilities.

“When we got back to Wisconsin, I didn’t want to be around anymore,” he says. “Mom was trying to control me. I was there, and I saw her when she couldn’t control anything.”

Cosette felt left out. All the attention was going to Teague because of the depth of his injuries. But she, too, was injured; and she, too, lost her dad.


A close family that had cherished skiing and boating and camping trips, that had its own family quartet with Sam and Kaye on violin, Cosette on viola and Teague on cello, was ripped apart in a matter of seconds.

Kaye was broken down to her very essence, her own spiritual beliefs. She wondered how God could do this.

“I remember going into a bank to sign some papers, and it was my 40th birthday,” she says. “I told them it was my birthday and they said, ‘Oh, happy birthday.’ I said, ‘Yeah, thanks. I wish I was dead.’ ”

As she looks back, she can see what pulled her through: the love of her children and the love of friends.

The family flexed in different directions, but did not burst. For a period, Kaye worked two jobs--drafting and teaching--to support the family before Craig’s death benefits became available, before settlement was reached in a lawsuit filed against the manufacturer of the other vehicle, which had burst into flames.

Earlier this year, she married Ken Sivori. Both work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A new home, a new name. She has moved forward with her life.



The burn camp, sponsored jointly by Denver Children’s Hospital and Cheley Colorado Camps, incorporates two of founder Marion Doctor’s fundamental beliefs.

She knows that saving lives is not enough. Once young patients left the hospital, they were thrust into an oftentimes cruel world, where they were called such names as Crispy Critter or Kentucky Fried. About 30% of children treated at the burn unit are victims of abuse or gross neglect. Their lives were not that easy even before they were injured.

Secondly, Doctor believes in the magic of the mountains. She has been among them all her life and knows they offer their own healing qualities.

Doctor’s specialty as a social worker is helping people through loss and bereavement. She is, above all, a healer, unafraid of her own vulnerability.

When she founded the burn camp in 1983, there was nothing similar to serve as a model. (One North Carolina program brought children with burn injuries together for a weekend retreat.)

Since then, burn camps have started all over the country, including three in California. That was her vision.


“The camp experience has absolutely been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

The weeklong camp, just outside Estes Park, Colo., typically is limited to 50 participants, ages 8-18, most of whom receive sponsorships to cover the $375 fee, but Doctor allowed more than 60 to attend this year. “How can I say no to them?” she asks.

At 58, Doctor finds herself at a personal crossroad. Two years ago, her husband died of a heart attack. Last November, she was a victim of cutbacks at Children’s Hospital. She lost a job that was more like a calling.

“Life isn’t without trauma, and the real test is what you do with that trauma, the crisis,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to help the kids with, and that’s what I have to do.”

Camp staffers come from all walks of life. A real estate agent specializes in horseback riding and paid the camp fee of one child who was unable to find sponsorship.

Four Denver firefighters run youngsters around on an old firetruck and also serve as counselors. Jerry Dunn has served 24 years with the Denver Fire Department. He was 19 when he fought his first fire.


It was in his old neighborhood. Three children died. As a rookie, he was instructed to stay close to his captain. They walked inside the house, and he watched as the captain picked up the body of a child.

“I thought it was a doll,” Dunn says. “When I found out it was a child, I almost quit.”

Jarecke, the nurse clinician, visits former patients at their homes. Some people tell her she shouldn’t get so close to patients, but she says she can’t help it. To see them heal, to know them as people rather than patients, to be here in the mountains for a week refills her soul.

“It’s so hard,” she says. “A lot of people would still say we’re wrong to save their lives when their lives are going to be like that, and I don’t believe it. Teague and every kid here, you can use words like brave and incredible and strong, and they’re all of that, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Most of them seem to be charged with that desire to live.”

Teague cannot remember the pain he endured. That part of his memory is hazy, except for pleasant fogdogs: getting a Nintendo in his hospital room, being told by a doctor that he could eat and drink whatever he wanted.

But those who saw him fighting for life can remember his pain. They can still hear his screams, smell the infection eating away at his body. They can see the miracle that Teague cannot.


As they approach timber line, Teague is exhausted. The sky is still mostly blue. “Yep,” he says, “it’s going to rain.” He hyperbolizes a rain gambol to beckon the clouds.


When you have encountered all the obstacles he has in his life, perhaps you begin to expect such encroachments on even the brightest of days.

They are almost to the top when the others arrive on their way back down the mountain. They take a break to dine on tortillas, cheese and salsa, or bagels with peanut butter and jelly, kickshaws to their enormous appetites.

Teague takes his fill, then stretches out on the ground. He makes no mention that with his prosthesis, going uphill is easier than going down.

The hike back is filled with conversation. It eases the pain. Manley knows that if she can keep Teague talking, it will take his mind off the fatigue. Teague gives his account of the movie “Braveheart.” He explains to her how CDs are made, how lightning works, how there must be life on other planets.

Midway down, it begins to rain.

“Yes!” Teague shouts, his face toward the sky. The others put on rain gear, but Teague is content in T-shirt and jeans. He keeps walking. His hand is tired from leaning on the cane, which has worn through its rubber tip and been taped together.

They laugh and sing their way off the mountain, beating darkness to the van.

A short distance down the road, a double rainbow, intersected by a third, appears, and everyone climbs out of the van. They are tired and hungry. The cooks at camp have stayed late, keeping dinner warm for their arrival. It is after 7 p.m.


They stand on the side of the road, admiring beauty that seems more like a gift, a sky gilded in rainbows.


Teague spends the next day resting. The end of camp is nearing, and the older campers leave for a place called Trail’s End, where they will sleep in covered wagons or beneath the stars.

“It was a challenge,” Teague says of the hike as he relaxes by a stream. “It was fun to get up there, but it was hard work for me.”

He went on the hike for no particular reason, he says, not to prove anything to himself or others. “Sometimes people look at my problems and say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of problems, nothing compared to my problems.’ It makes their goals appear more direct. I don’t know why people think that.”

In many ways, Teague is unchanged by his injuries. What good would it do, he says, to remain bitter and angry. He knows that if he chooses to stop, to live on the sidelines rather than the playing field, life will continue without him. So he chooses to move forward.

“Some people see me as some kind of hero,” he says, “and I don’t know why. I don’t get it.”


When asked who his hero is, he pauses before answering. Then he smiles.

“Indiana Jones.”

The action-adventure film character takes on new frontiers, and that is what Teague craves.

His favorite book is “The Hobbit,” which he read years ago.

“It’s about this little guy and how he faced the challenges to defeat the dragon,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I like it.

That night around the campfire, everyone gathers to sing songs and listen to an old-time wrangler known as Cowboy Bob tell a story.

Around the fire, songs are sung about a house at Pooh Corner, about mountains and freedom and the goodness of friendship. Surrounded by darkness campers and staff sit in a circle around the fire and sing and laugh and stare pensively into the flames.