Defying Death Twice: Why Amputees Take Risks

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By Judith Philipps Otto

I'm going to break the rules of pacing and suspense, and give away the answer up front: nobody knows why people take unnecessary risks. Not even the risk-takers have a clear idea. What makes any of us who we are? Where is the source of that unquenchable inner fire?

Even the experts still don't know what forms us, drives us, and makes us individuals. Reams have been written, theories abound, verbiage impresses. We hear about overachievers, Type A personalities, sibling rivalry, reincarnated warriors. We listen to the nature versus nurture, the genetics versus environment arguments, and end up no wiser.

Under certain conditions, risk-taking is understandable and even necessary. Some people take risks in emergency situations, where the need is great and life or safety is at stake. Some people take risks as a way of life, to earn a living. Some people take risks to draw attention to themselves--although amputees already draw far more attention than most of them want.

Some people take risks because they enjoy the adrenalin rush. Ask anybody whose knees are still wobbling after getting off a roller coaster, and they'll tell you that fear can be fun.

Further complicating the issue is the problem of perspective regarding what constitutes risk. To some it may seem like sheer lunacy to voluntarily jump out of a perfectly good airplane--or even get on one--but skydivers take a different view and earnestly argue about how safe it really is.

Nobody knows why. But there's much more to the story than that simple answer, as one learns by listening to the tales of amputees who have achieved varying degrees of recognition and even fame because they not only overcame adversity but excelled in their chosen fields of endeavor, unquestionably taking risks in the process.

Singer Joins Family in Sports

Gracie Rosenberger
Gracie Rosenberger

As a talented 17-year-old college student, Gracie Rosenberger fell asleep at the wheel and eventually lost both legs as a result of the crash that nearly took her life. Now 38, she is an accomplished inspirational/pop singer who has not only entertained the president and five governors, but has also established a ministry to reach out and share her buoyant confidence and infectious humor, helping others to make life-changing choices.

But why the determination to also pursue such risky leisure activities as rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and snow skiing?

"Before I lost the legs, it was such a frustration to me," said Rosenberger. "There were so many active sports that I could not do anymore because my real legs were so hurt, that when I finally decided that I had to give up my legs, it was almost a relief. When I eventually lost them and received prostheses, I started wondering just how much I would be able to do with them. And having my boys doesn't hurt!"

Her philosophy is to try everything at least once, just to see if she can do it. Her active sons--ages 12 and 16--are eager to help her experiment, and ask, "Can you play basketball? Can you rock climb?" Never one to resist a challenge, she attempts everything--and since her bubbling vivaciousness covers a gritty tenacity, she usually succeeds.

"I've always been an achiever, and adversity always motivates me to try a little bit harder," she said. "But when I had just become a double amputee, I had my new Flex-Foot® Re-Flex VSP® legs covered with simulated skin. At that time, the most important thing to me was to have them look natural--which is just totally ridiculous. They're never going to look real--they're always going to look like artificial legs. But you just can't hear somebody tell you that when amputation is a new thing. Otherwise, it will crush you."

Let 'em Show: Get Active

One day in 1995, at her parents' seaside home in Florida, as she watched her family enjoying water sports without her, Gracie made a life-changing decision: "It's insane that I am more worried about how my legs look than getting out with my family and having a good time!" She decided she wanted to be able to jet ski and do other activities. "Really, that's when my mindset about it went in a totally different direction," Gracie recalled. "I really didn't care what people thought if the legs weren't covered."

Rosenberger called her prosthetist, who also is a long-time amputee, and asked him what would happen if her legs got wet. He said the skin would shrivel, ruining it, but that the water would not damage the functional components. "So I got a knife and just started cutting the skin off the legs," Gracie said. "The boys thought it was very cool and Schwarzeneggerish' of me. Then I just jumped in the water and started jet skiing, and I haven't looked back since."

People either accept you or they don't, Gracie believes. "Some of them act like you have leprosy--like it's contagious! But that's just the way it is."

She even met President Bush last fall in her VSP legs, wearing a skirt to let her prostheses show. "If I don't care, why should he?" she wondered, adding thoughtfully that she also felt that a skirt would make it easier for the Secret Service agents to see why she made their equipment beep so much.

Since that day in 1995, her family has adopted a new policy--they only do things they can all do together--and since she is determined not to hold them back, she tries everything--from jet skiing to snowmobiling, snow skiing, whitewater rafting, snorkeling and rock climbing.

"In 1997 the kids started getting into rock climbing and insisted I had to try it," Gracie said. "I did and I just loved it. I play basketball at home with the boys, and we started snowmobiling at Yellowstone--that was just absolutely fabulous."

This year on her 38th birthday, she got special skis. "I had some old racing skis from before my accident, and they were so long and so fast that even with the adaptive equipment, I couldn't get them to slow down." Rosenberger trained for nine years with an adaptive ski school in Montana, and about three years ago, she was able to begin skiing more with her husband Peter. Then, last year, it was just Gracie and Peter skiing, without a trainer. "So now, finally, I have my own skis, and that was a big benchmark for us," Gracie said.

Sharing the Funny Times

Gracie's irrepressible spirit has won her numerous fans and admirers and qualified her as a member of Team Ossur, a group of lower-limb amputees whose strength and actions embody the spirit of a life without limitations, as Ossur notes. That same zest for life and great sense of humor invites audiences to laugh with her at the "tons of really funny stories" she is eager to share.

For instance, in her first meeting with Tennessee Governor-to-be Phil Bredesen, she slipped on a slick tile floor on her way to his table and did a split in front of him and the rest of the restaurant customers. Nothing daunted, she proclaimed, "Ta-dah! Hi, it's nice to meet you. I'm Gracie Rosenberger."

Then there was the time she was riding horseback and her prosthetic leg came loose and was "beating the horse because it wouldn't fall out of my pant leg."

Another time Gracie was riding up a ski lift when her leg fell off with the ski attached. "It totally freaked people out--they started screaming. I had to get off with one leg--which I wasn't used to--and recruit people to help look for the leg."

"Being a new amputee is a really scary thing." Gracie admitted. "Most amputees wake up as an amputee without ever knowing they were going to be. I at least had the choice to make on my own--after many surgeries trying to save everything. The choice that I put off making for so long was the very thing that needed to be done. I was in my 20s crawling around on the floor with my toddlers because it hurt too much to walk. I could have had all that back if I had just been able to let [my legs] go."

Gracie and Peter have established Big Sky Ministries to take her message about making choices into schools, churches, and especially gatherings of military and other amputees.

His Dream: Appear on Survivor

Bill Lord
Bill Lord

As a 21-year-old sailor on leave in Belgium in 1982, Bill Lord, BOCP, ROS, RTP, lost his leg in a railroad accident. Lord has since channeled his restless urge to be active into service as a prosthetist, yet he still longs to push the envelope and appear on the TV show Survivor.

He and his buddy were reliving boyhood antics shortly after getting off the ship in Belgium, Lord said, explaining the circumstances of his accident. "We were headed out to have some fun and found some parallel railroad tracks, so we decided to put some coins on the railroad track and let the train run over them and smash them. A train that had just passed blocked my view and my hearing of the train coming around the bend in the other direction at about 70 mph, and I walked behind the first train and then stepped in front of the other one coming from the opposite direction.

"I was almost an AK, but I have to applaud the surgeon who did the amputation--he did a tremendous job of saving what was left of my knee," Lord said. "The accident didn't actually sever my leg. I was in the hospital almost a year while several procedures were done, but ultimately infection got me."

Lord modestly disclaims his daredevil insouciance, but does admit that there are a few things he's done since then that have been extreme--such as skydiving.

"I had thought about it before, but on my own, I never would have taken the initiative," Lord continued. "But we had a group of folks in our office who said, Hey, let's go skydiving!' and I said, Hey, that sounds great!' So there we went. It really did sound like a good thing to do--absolutely. I love things like that."

Becomes a Prosthetist

Lord has been a prosthetist for 20 years, and says his choice of profession was only partially inspired by his accident. "I'm a doer. I always have to be doing something; I can't sit behind a desk unless I have to do essential paperwork. Not too long after my accident, I was back in Evansville, Indiana, working for the post office and getting no job satisfaction whatsoever. I was also having problems with my leg. My prosthetist, who was new to the area, was in the process of making my leg when he invited me to join the staff."

Lord took advantage of a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rehabilitation program that allowed Lord's employer and the VA to split the cost of his salary. As he continued to work there through the years, the company picked up more and the VA lessened its share of payment.

"I was made for a job like this," Lord says. "I love going to work every day. I don't really advise or encourage my patients to do things in extreme, but I advise them to do the things they want to do in spite of their limb loss. I'll encourage that to the utmost point. If somebody was a skier before, I'll do everything in my power to get them back on skis or on their bike, or whatever.

"It all depends on their will to succeed," Lord continued. "In my opinion, what we do as prosthetists at an O&P firm is about 30 percent of what it takes to get the patient rehabilitated. I think the rest of it relies on the mindset and the heart and the determination of the patient."

As far as his own example, Lord said that he's actually increased his activity level since he's been an amputee. "I think part of it is because I'm a homeowner. I do all my own yard work. If something's wrong with my roof, I'll climb up on the roof; if a tree needs to be worked on, I'll go climb up the tree. I just love the outdoors, and I love to do things. I think if it were not for my obligations to my family and my job, I would probably go whitewater rafting on a regular basis. "

Lord took a two-week sabbatical in 2000 to go hiking with his dog in the West Virginia mountains. He rides a bike, he runs a couple of miles a week, and he's keeping himself in shape, hoping for that opportunity to do battle as a member of the next Survivor cast!

"I don't know if I'd win," said Lord, "but, man, I'd love to try!"

Biker Prosthetist Aids Others

Although Edward "Skip" Martin, CP, BOCP, is an avid biker and prosthetist, he's less of a risk-taker now than before the motorcycle accident 33 years ago that resulted in his BK amputation--so he says. But Martin still rides a king-sized Boss Hoss motorcycle powered by a 350 V-8 engine as he serves a clientele of active and athletic amputee patients, many of whom are also risk-takers.

"Most of the time accidents can be avoided if you use a little foresight," Martin said, as he downplayed the risks he takes. "When you're on a motorcycle, you have to expect accidents to happen every time you get on the road. You've got to have the mindset that everybody you see in a car is going to try to run over you. There's a lot of trust that we put in other drivers; as we ride beside another car, we're trusting that they're not going to go into a seizure and take a hard left and knock us off the road--because anything can happen. You've always got to give yourself a cushion and avoid tight spots."

Martin's accident occurred during the first year he began riding motorcycles, and he points out that he has continued riding for 33 years since then with no wrecks.

He regards his choice of motorcycle as one of his safety precautions. "The Boss Hoss is very big and a lot more visible than most other motorcycles. Not only that, but mine is now painted white, and that also makes it more visible, night or day. I've added extra lights down beside the radiator, low to the ground. They give it a unique look as it's coming toward you, so it's harder to overlook."

Returning to Extreme Activities

As a prosthetist, Martin's practice focuses on returning active people to the extreme sports and activities they previously enjoyed as skydivers, pilots, policemen, bikers, scuba divers, etc. "Our job as prosthetists is to rehabilitate people. If somebody's rehab involves going back to what they did before, that's just part of the job, getting them back to normal as much as possible and as much as they want to.

"If I feel there's a limitation that might possibly cause some more injury, then I'll throw my two cents worth in, and suggest that they get a three-wheeler, for example--choose a trike instead of a bike," Martin said. "I did that for one of my patients who lost an arm from the shoulder down. But no, he wouldn't hear of it. His job wouldn't let him return to work until he had two hands again, so we had to quickly get the prosthetic arm made, then he had to quickly learn how to use it. Then he returned to his job. Not only did he do that, but also he was able to get back on a two-wheeler and ride it. He's definitely one of the success stories."

Do such patients have a death wish? Are they trying to prove something to themselves by returning to their previous risk levels?

Martin believes the answer is much simpler. "In most cases, their activity was something that was so enjoyable to them before, that just the mere loss of a foot or arm didn't change their outlook. Most of the time, it's normal for people to return to whatever they were doing before."

He cites the case of the rock climber who was stuck when a rock shifted and trapped his right arm in a crevice on the side of a mountain. "He was there for five days before he finally amputated his own arm. Now that he has recovered, he has gone back to rock climbing."

Although prostheses don't work like the real thing, Martin points out that in some cases they can work better. "Like my leg: people ask me if my legs get hot on the Boss Hoss because of the engine. I tell them that one leg doesn't care. And in the wintertime when it's cold, I only need one chap. I hardly ever use chaps because my left foot will sit right behind the exhaust headers from the engine, where it feels like the heater vent is on--I love the Boss Hoss!--and the right foot just sits up on the highway peg, ignorant of the cold. That ankle will never sprain and that foot will never get cold. "So when I'm about to drop that Hoss and I have to push so hard, it doesn't ever hurt my ankle on that side. It's an air shock and a torque-absorbing release-spring leg! It's pretty high-tech."

Martin believes that what drives extreme athletes or achievers to excel with their prostheses comes primarily from within themselves. "If people get poor prosthetic treatment so that the prosthesis doesn't wear comfortably or function normally, then they're going to feel inhibited in whatever they do. But our job is to get them totally comfortable and very functional, and once that happens, we normally don't need support groups; we don't see a need to coach them in any direction other than Go back out there and get back to living! Life's just changed; it's not over.' Their own determination does the rest."

And so, they keep taking risks, pushing the envelope at rock climbing, skateboarding, motorcycling, skydiving, mountain biking, fighting fires, doing stunts--because they want to. Just because.

Editor's Note: This article included the stories of several other amputees; space prevented us from including them all. Watch for them in upcoming issues.

Judith Philipps Otto is a freelance writer who has also assisted with marketing and public relations for various O&P industry clients. She has been a newspaper writer and editor and has won national and international awards as a broadcast writer-producer.