In early February, Sandpoint resident Peter Faletto was saddened to hear of the death of one of his greatest heroes, Jimmie Heuga.
Huega was a man who influenced Faletto in both his personal and professional life, and it is Heuga who Faletto will honor March 13 by raising funds in his memory and donating them to a cause to which Heuga devoted his life.
“Jimmie Heuga was only 66 years old (when he died),” said Faletto. “But he led a life that are only dreams to most of us.”
When Heuga was 15, he was the youngest member ever to be selected to the U.S. Ski Team. At the Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964, Heuga received a bronze medal in the slalom, finishing just shy of silver medalist Billy Kidd. For the next few years, Heuga continued to excel in the sport. But his glory was short-lived.
“He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the peak of his career,” said Faletto. Heuga first noticed symptoms of numbness and vision changes in 1967 but continued competing until he was diagnosed in 1970.
But just as Heuga competed to beat the odds on the ski mountain, he also was not to be defeated in his latest challenge in life.
The medical community had advised Heuga and others afflicted with MS to avoid physical activity. The thought was that activity would intensify the symptoms of the disease.
“He defied conventional wisdom that told him to go home and prepare to die and chose to work through his pain and fatigue instead,” Faletto said. “He pushed the envelop of life and his efforts helped doctors rewrite their ideas on how to treat MS.”
In 1984 Heuga started a foundation that is now known as Can Do Multiple Sclerosis. Heuga’s philosophy was that by engaging in physical activity and positive thinking one can slow the progression of MS. Now decades later, Heuga’s theory is the standard of care for treating MS.
Last year Heuga visited Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort in Sandpoint. He influenced the way Faletto, a physical therapist, treats his patients.
“Last year I had the honor of helping Jimmie Heuga get through his days at Schweitzer Mountain when he came here to support our efforts to help his foundation,” said Faletto, who works for Sandpoint-based Pneumex, a world leader in the treatment of back pain and performance enhancement.
But it was during his work as a home health aide in Logan, Utah, when Faletto began working with MS patients.
“One of my first patients was Gary Smith, a salty Marine with a huge heart and love for the outdoors that was greater than anyone I know,” Faletto said. “He managed to finish his master’s degree, write a book, record an album, had an Emmy winning documentary about his work, and built one of the first (handicapped accessible) homes in the United States – all of this after his diagnosis.”
For the past several years, area residents Billy Bob Goyen and Pam Burke have organized a fundraiser for MS at Schweitzer. Faletto has offered to help. This year’s fundraiser, called the 2010 Vertical Express for MS, will be on March 13 with proceeds going to Heuga’s foundation.
Faletto’s goal is to raise $25,000 in honor of Huega’s life and the 25th anniversary of the Vertical Express, a fundraising campaign at ski resorts across the West. Teams of skiers and snowboarders raise money to compete in events on the slopes. Prizes are awarded for fundraising efforts.
Teams that raise at least $15,000 will receive an expenses-paid trip to the Vertical Express Awards in Vail, Colo., in mid-April.
Faletto is not stopping there.
“For next year I am working with the Can Do center to establish a fundraising program that will generate between $150,000 and $300,000 every year from now on,” he said.