Amputee ‘Gets His Life Back’

By Miki Fairley

Gary Hooks, winner of the 14th National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA) National Seniors Invitational Championship April 11-12, in Tampa, Florida, is a guy who loves life. And losing a leg below the knee in 1969 didn't change that.

Only 16 at the time, Gary was on his high school basketball and baseball teams. Six months later, he made the baseball team again. "I was a pitcher, so I didn't have to do much running," he said. "At that time, we had hard sockets, 16-18 plies of socks, and waist belts--it was painful to run. Now with gel liners and such, it's not a big deal--but there wasn't the technology back then."

Gary also made medical history. He was the first person to successfully undergo a pure oxygen treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, a procedure which saved his knee.

As he was riding with his parents in a pickup in Virginia, an accident nearly cost him his entire leg. In the accident, a tractor-trailer ran them off the road, then smashed into the side of the pickup, driving a tree through the door where Gary's legs were supposed to be. It took rescuers four hours to extricate Gary from the truck. He lost quite a bit of blood and stopped breathing a couple of times on the way to the hospital. It took two days for his condition to stabilize. By then, gaseous gangrene had spread to his hip, and an orthopedic surgeon wanted to perform a hip disarticulation. Although his father had suffered a concussion, he was able to plead with the doctors to save Gary's knee if possible. (His mother was more severely injured, but both parents later recovered.)

Gary was then taken to Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, where he underwent the hyperbaric treatment. His leg was amputated about four and one-half inches below the knee and the wound was left wide open with drains installed. Twice a day for five days, two hours at a time, Gary had a plastic bag taped over his head and chest and breathed pure oxygen. The oxygen treatment drove the gangrene out the distal end of his residual limb, thus saving the knee. "Back then, it was radical; now it's a common practice," Gary said.

Besides rejoining the baseball team, Gary also played golf during his senior year in high school. His love of the game continued and in 1998, he won the National Amputee Golf Championship. His prosthetist at the time introduced him to Ohio Willow Wood representatives, who offered him a sponsorship and products. Ohio Willow Wood had just released its Pathfinder" foot. Hooks liked the foot, plus he appreciated the sponsorship, since he did not have insurance to pay for prostheses. "It had been sort of like car payments--I was paying about $300 a month or so for my prosthesis," he recalled.

While serving as a patient model for Ohio Willow Wood at a trade show, Hooks met Carl Caspers, CPO, CEO of TEC Interface Systems, Waite Park, Minnesota. Caspers, also an amputee, invited Hooks to Minnesota, where he fitted him with the new TEC VASS (Vacuum Assisted Socket System)".

Gary was excited about the new system. "It's pretty close to getting your original leg back," Gary declares. "It's GOOD!"

In fact, Gary was so enthusiastic that in February 2000, he sold his thriving barbecue restaurant to go to work for TEC. It took about three months to persuade Caspers and TEC to hire him, he remembered with a chuckle. "I had played wheelchair sports in the 70s and had played amputee golf, so I knew a huge number of amputees. But I would only see them at golf tournaments and other events. I thought if I could just go to work for this company, it would be a lot faster way to get the word out to them."

He feels that the company's recent acquisition by Otto Bock is a positive move, since Otto Bock has strong resources for research and marketing to help Caspers develop more of his innovative ideas.

Gary has lived in Florida for the last 18 years. Born in Pennsylvania, he moved with his parents to North Carolina when he was only six months old. Later, he bought his boyhood home from his parents when they retired and moved to Florida in 1974. About ten years later, Gary too came to the Sunshine State. He and his wife have been married for 17 years and have a 15-year old son. As to athletic goals for the future, Gary hopes to qualify for some of the PGA senior events. Being an amputee is no hindrance, he feels. With the TEC VASS system, "It's like getting your life back," he says. "From the time I put the leg on in the morning until I take it off at night, I'm not even aware of being an amputee."