Carbon Monoxide Poisoned on the Iditarod: Local Physical Therapist Accomplishes Goals Unthinkable

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In 1994, Dr. Catherine Mormile, Iditarod musher, and co-owner of Mormile Physical Therapy was severely carbon monoxide poisoned while competing in the Iditarod. She was left severely brain damaged and emotionally demoralized. With the help of a supportive spouse and others, she set out on a 10-year plan of healing and recovery. In 2004, she met and exceeded her goals while learning strategies and lessons in life to help others.

While competing in her third Iditarod sled dog race in 1994, Anchorage physical therapist, Wasilla resident, and Iditarod finisher Catherine Mormile was severely carbon monoxide poisoned while resting in a shelter tent at the Finger Lake checkpoint, early in that race. Five of the other competitors were also affected, but Mormile lie close to death and severely injured by the poison. She survived the ordeal and returned home happy to be alive; but unbeknownst to her, the worst and the best were yet to be realized.

The years and the race went on and Mormile quietly slipped into Iditarod oblivion. The public had no idea of the rigors the she experienced during her long physical, cognitive, and emotional recovery from the poison; rigors that in all actuality left the Iditarod in pale comparison. But she was not resigned to sit by the sidelines feeling sorry for her self. Mormile, with the help of her loving and supportive husband, Don Mormile set out to be the champion of her “own race” so to speak. She never stopped working. She never stopped mushing the dog team that she loved. And with determination, Mormile stated that by the end of the year 2004 she would become a board certified orthopaedic specialist, obtain her doctorate, and publish a scholarly work. These were all very ambitious goals considering the fact that Mormile returned home with an IQ of 76, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, and severe cognitive learning disabilities. Remarkably and on schedule, Catherine Mormile accomplished her goals.

The path was riddled with disappointments, frustrations, and roadblocks. Cognitive rehabilitative treatments provided her by her doctors at the Duke University Medical Center brought her IQ back to normal by 1997. But the emotional hesitance to resume a normal life persisted much longer. Although most individuals were empathetic, a full understanding of the adverse effects of CO poisoning was not universally held at the time. There was a commonly held belief in her community that her withdrawal from the race was not because of poison but simply that she had not trained sufficiently. Strangers would approach Mormile in the grocery store and tell her how disgusting and a disgrace she was to the Iditarod. Several years into her recovery a fellow dog musher inhibited her fragile spirit by quoting to her local newspaper that “If she dared to show up at any Iditarod events, everyone would walk out”. But with each obstacle overcome, she fully recovered in mind and spirit while she learned and honed insights and strategies that would later prove to assist the most physically, and emotionally wounded souls who would seek her physical therapy services.

“I realized that in order to become fully autonomous, mindful, and responsible for the path I choose for my life that my vicarious role models needed to strengthen my self-esteem and the ability for me to visualized, internalize, and seek my personal success”. Mormile continues, “ It appears to me that many so-called role models become merely external cues and lofty images from which an individual attempts to seek validation. Today, I prefer to offer my patients an experience full of empowerment and self-efficacy, not external props.”

So, with renewal, empowerment, and confidence, Mormile sought her goals. In 2002, she successfully passed a peer-reviewed examination to become a board certified orthopaedic specialist in physical therapy. In 2003, she wrote and published a home study course on her clinical specialty, temporomandibular joint disorders for the orthopaedic section of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). And in May 2004, she accomplished the totally unthinkable attainment. She received a doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT), on-line from Simmons College, Boston Mass. If that was not enough, following Simmons College review, she was awarded the doctor of physical therapy with distinction degree this October presumably due in part to her 4.0 GPA and leadership abilities.

The traumas and tragedies of the past are long behind Dr. Mormile now but the memories and recovery strategies guide her every day as she and her husband Don treat patients in their Anchorage private practice. To celebrate their hard work and good fortunes, Dr. Mormile and her husband have moved their office to a larger, bright, and cheerful new office with many windows and a glorious view of the Chugach Mountains right in the middle of the city’s business district.

“No hiding for me. There is much to do now with the talents and skills at hand. I am very grateful for my husband and my teachers who helped me, a second change at life and opportunities to help others”, says Dr. Mormile. “I won that last race, my patients will win my next race”.




1600 A Street, Suite 215, Anchorage, Alaska 99501

(907) 561-1800, FAX: (907) 562-4705, http://

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