First Descents Prescribes Good Medicine From the Great Outdoors

Program brings together people with similar diagnoses for weeklong activities

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by Hawken Miller |

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First Descents adventure | Multiple Sclerosis News Today | MS patients prepare to take a kayak trip with First Descents

MS patients and their guides prepare for the rapids ahead as part of an event organized by First Descents. (Photo by Nate Simmons)

Doctors typically prescribe medications to help manage symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), but a veteran nonprofit focuses on a little-known, much-overlooked part of treatment: therapeutic adventuring.

First Descents was founded in 2001 to bring free outdoor activities to young adults with cancer. After a successful pilot study, the program was expanded in 2019 to include people with MS.

Multiple sclerosis patients | Multiple Sclerosis News Today | MS patients in kayaks on a First Descents event

Multiple sclerosis patients navigate the rapids in their kayaks as part of a First Descents adventure. (Photo by Nate Simmons)

MS was a natural fit for the nonprofit organization because of the demographics of MS patients and the nature of the autoimmune disease, Michael Neustedter, First Descents’ director of partnerships and recruitment, said in a video interview with Multiple Sclerosis News Today.

People are typically diagnosed with MS early in life, at a time when they are getting married, starting a family, or advancing their careers. The disease is all new for them and they have no one else to turn to. They rarely know anyone else who has gone through the same thing, Neustedter said.

“What First Descents does is it provides an opportunity for young adults who have a similar diagnosis to spend a week together,” said Neustedter, who has been in the therapeutic adventure space for the past 15 years. “It just allows them to connect and ask questions and just know that they’re not alone in experiencing this type of a life event.”

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‘People just felt so empowered’

A First Descents adventure can improve self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their own capacities, and reduce anxiety, according to an MS pilot study by the California School of Professional Psychology. No statistically significant changes were detected in terms of depression, quality of life, and social support scores. The results inspired First Descents to connect with the MS community.

Like cancer, an MS diagnosis comes out of the blue. Most patients are able to safely perform activities like kayaking, rock climbing, and skiing. It was a relatively easy pivot for the organization, though they have had to keep accessibility front and center during adventures with MS patients.

Neustedter said that means arranging remote lodging that includes accessible bathrooms and partnering with local outfitters that have experience working with people with disabilities. In collaboration with the Colorado Mountain School, which has a history of guiding people with mobility issues on rock faces and ski slopes, First Descents organized a rock climbing excursion in late August at Estes Park, at the mouth of the Rocky Mountains.

Since the MS program launched, Emily Reilly, 34, who has relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), has signed up for two First Descents excursions. One of the most memorable moments came from the first during a Colorado skiing trip, she said in a video interview with MS News Today.

Reilly and a small group of MS patients spent a week on the mountain. First Descents provided individual skiing instructors and personal chefs who cooked healthy food, preparing both paleo and plant-based dishes.

multiple sclerosis patients | Multiple Sclerosis News Today | Emily Reilly skis in the First Descents program

Emily Reilly skis in the First Descents program in Crested Butte, Colorado. (Photo by Sunnybrook Photo)

Reilly was diagnosed with RRMS at 17, just after signing a college scholarship to play soccer. MS didn’t stop her from playing all four years, but today she experiences and tries to manage spasticity in her legs, cognitive challenges, fatigue, and symptom worsening when the temperature rises.

She said the skiing trip taught her that she was stronger than MS and that people battling this condition aren’t alone. That was clear at the end of the week as she watched other skiers conquer a mountain they thought would be impossible at the beginning.

“It was just a really powerful moment because I think MS can be really, really discouraging to live with. It can feel limiting; it can feel like it’s taken things from you,” said Reilly, who lives in Virginia and works for the National MS Society. “And at that moment, I think people just felt so empowered, like, almost maybe that for a second they forgot they had MS.”

Brad Ludden, a professional kayaker, created First Descents in part because his aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 12. Once he became a prolific kayaker, Ludden started teaching young cancer patients how to kayak. From that, First Descents was born.

“Nature is a very objective place, it doesn’t care whether or not you’ve had cancer. It’s an incredible creator of community,” Ludden said in an interview for CNN’s Heroes series. “We start to see them realize they’re not the only person facing the challenges that cancer presented.”

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Prescribing adventure can be ‘life-changing for so many’

The organization will typically fund and create around 100 programs a year, but COVID-19 has limited international travel and restricted the number of events First Descents has hosted recently.

The nonprofit sponsored 39 outdoor activities this year, mainly focused on cancer patients. Neustedter hopes the MS program offerings double from three to six next year.

Lodging, equipment, food, and guide staff for participants are all covered by First Descents, which raises around $5 million per year. Participants handle travel to the location, though Neustedter said they won’t turn anyone away and travel scholarships are available.

multiple sclerosis patients | Multiple Sclerosis News Today | First Descent participants learn how to surf

First Descent participants learn how to surf in some programs. (Photo by Nate Simmons)

People on these adventures will often experience a natural high from being outdoors and overcoming their fears, but then undergo feelings of letdown upon returning to their normal reality.

To ensure more people are able to take advantage of the camaraderie and outdoor time First Descents offers, the nonprofit also arranges smaller-scale Community Adventures. While it doesn’t provide monetary assistance for these outings, First Descents promotes them and provides advice on the best trails and gear to use.

First Descents is focused on helping participants reach outside of their comfort zones, Reilly said, with slogans like “Challenge by Choice,” “Prescribed Adventure,” “Out Living It,” and “Healing it Adventure.” She recalled wanting to ski the most difficult black diamond course, yet was afraid. Ultimately, with some time and teaching, she made it through.

Growing up around the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona, Reilly was no stranger to skiing or rock climbing. However, when she surfs at a First Descents adventure in Santa Cruz, California, at the end of September, she said she will be as green as they come. Reilly will be taking on the role of mentor and volunteer.

“There’s just this magic that happens when you get yourself outside, away from the chaos of this world and you get to be outside and do things,” Reilly said. “It really is life-changing for so many and then you make new friends and you build community.”

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