Friday, January 9, 1998

LePage Park becomes a winter wonderland at 41 below this morning. By Saturday Whitehorse will be warming up to a balmy 28 below. Yukon News photo by Mike Thomas

Musher recovering in Vancouver

by Karan Smith
Yukon News reporter

Yukon musher Peter Zimmerman was determined to finish the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race this year.

"We used to kid him because he had such good dogs and I'd say, 'Peter you've got to be competitive,'" said fellow musher and Quest champion Frank Turner. "And he'd say, 'No, I think I'll just have the best non-competitive team.' He just wanted to make it to the end."

That dream came crashing down a few days before Christmas when Zimmerman injured himself.

He was leaving his yard with 12 dogs while training for this year's race. Lashed to his sled to prevent losing his dogs, Zimmerman was thrown off while taking a corner, hit a tree and was dragged behind the charging animals. The accident left him lying in the snow with a broken neck.

It isn't known if he'll be permanently paralyzed. Friends suspect he'll spend months recovering in Vancouver, where he was medevaced. But support for Zimmerman and his wife Enrika Nadalini is clear.

Both originally from Switzerland, Nadalini obtained landed immigration status and Zimmerman was in the process of doing the same. Now, he's considered a tourist, uninsured for medical expenses, and it's costing close to $2,000 each day he's in the hospital.

So far, more than $40,000 in costs have accumulated. Bank accounts at the CIBC and Royal Bank were opened in Whitehorse by supporters. After initial deposits of a few hundred dollars, they now hold about $5,000. A telethon and possible auction are planned to add to that money.

The support -- from flowers, organic food packages and possible auction goods -- from the Yukon, and elsewhere, has been overwhelming, Nadalini told Frank. On Wednesday, Turner received a letter from her. It recounted the mixed emotions she's felt through this crisis. They were married in October.

"Peter and I have talked a lot about life and death in the past," she wrote. "And his attitude has always been that just being alive is a risk, so why worry about what could happen. "I reminded him of that when he kept asking me, 'Why me?'

"I don't know why our lives have been turned upside down. But I do know that this was part of our destiny and we could not have been able to fight this injury, even if we stayed in the house all day. "I think we have to go through this without asking questions. The answers will come to us later."

She thanked everyone who was helping out or thinking of them. It was almost unbelievable how the Yukon community had accepted them, she wrote. "There are no words to express how deeply Peter and I feel about all of you. This has been the most heartwarming experience we have ever had."

Zimmerman, 35, is improving steadily as he works on his arms, legs, hand and feet, she said. He can't move his fingers or legs. "I'm convinced that he'll be on his feet before we know it. We need to be patient and never lose faith."

On Christmas Eve, a Whitehorse immigration official phoned the spinal chord unit to enquire about Zimmerman's citizenship status. But there's no threat of deportation, said George Varnai, regional manager of citizenship and immigration for B.C. and the Yukon. "Nobody's going to deport a person in his condition at this time, number one. Number two, I don't think he's done anything to be deported for," he said from Vancouver Thursday.

Earlier, Varnai apologized for that initial call, saying it was inappropriate in time and place. The officer, Piers Drew, was trying to be helpful, he noted. "It's just the impact of getting a call when your brand new husband is being operated on, and is in very serious distress, getting this kind of call, talking about potential deportation and this and that, freaked the heck out of her, which it would have done out of me as well." Varnai has visited the couple a few times at the hospital since the incident. Although he couldn't speak about their immigration status, he said federal laws allow a Canadian resident to sponsor their spouse.

The department assesses eligibility, which includes a medical test. "If a person fails medical, but is married to a Canadian, we can consider on humanitarian grounds what is called a minister's permit that allows them to stay in Canada for five years usually," he said. "And then after five years, there's a possibility under the law to become an immigrant at that time." The minister's permit would include consultation with the jurisdiction responsible for the health care.

Ron Tyler, the couple's Mayo Road neighbor, has spoken with Health minister Dave Sloan about Zimmerman. "Because of the fact that he's not a citizen it's unlikely that he would be able to get on Yukon medical or be covered for the injury," he said Wednesday. "Same thing with the Swiss government. He's really fallen between the cracks."

The couple's plight inspired Tyler and his family to get involved. They're helping co-ordinate fund raising during a season that is generally hectic for dog mushers. The work at this end has almost been like a full-time job, said Tyler, a potter and restaurant food consultant who has helped organize, co-ordinate payments to the hospital and made many, many calls. He hasn't even met Zimmerman and Nadalini. But since the accident, they have spoken on the phone, sometimes several times a day.

He's been told six months in the hospital could mean $200,000 in costs. Just being in the hospital costs $1,795 each day, not including additional therapy, tests or doctors fees, Tyler learned. He wrote the Vancouver General Hospital, asking them to reduce the daily fees because Zimmerman is a Yukon resident, not a tourist, but the hospital refused. "It would make a difference between $1,800 and $800 a day."

He also called the Swiss consulate in Vancouver this week, but it doesn't look too promising. They said their help would be a "last resort" after the couple and both their families had sold everything and exhausted all funds, he said.

He said he believes this help is part of the northern way of life, noting they can still use volunteers. Turner and Tayler got to know the environmentally conscious Europeans in April when they moved to Whitehorse from Alaska. Zimmerman ran in last year's Quest but scratched in Braeburn when his dogs got sick.

It's comforting to know their 28 Alaskan Huskies are being cared for, Nadalini told Turner. Some of those dogs might be on the race trail this year, as six were loaned to musher Dan Turner from Haines and Turner himself is also trying out four.

The accident has made Turner and his partner think about the dangers of mushing, but also the generosity of people. "You get 12 dogs, which he had, that's a lot of power. "People are getting bruised and they get thrown off the sled occasionally, you pull muscles and stuff like that, but something like this is not really usual. "But sometimes it's such a fine line between something not happening and something happening. I don't know why that line seems to move for somebody and not for other people.

"I guess we're all vulnerable to a similar extent in the long run."