Getting in the Game.. .Staying in the Game

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Heath Calhoun: A Man for All Seasons

Heath Calhoun enjoys a good rush of endorphins. "Going on a two-mile jog will always make you feel better," he says. "You may feel like you are going to die when you are doing it, but there is no better feeling in the world than right after you stop feeling like you are going to die. You are high on life."

Calhoun may have thought he was going to die when nightmare turned to reality in Mosul, Iraq, November 2003. And he may have thought something similar when he awoke following bilateral transfemoral amputation surgery. But less than six months later Calhoun hand-hiked 4,200 miles cross country. He then learned how to snow ski and became a certified adaptive instructor. He's climbed rock walls. He golfs. He's thinking about joining a softball league this summer. He has his sights set on the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. Anything and everything that keeps him moving motivates this all-season athlete. "You finish playing a basketball game-wheelchair basketball or whatever-and its like, Wow, that was awesome.' You remember all the good things you just did versus how bad your life was a month ago when you lost your leg."

Most everyone at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington DC, was amazed by Calhoun's rapid progress following the amputations. He was the first bilateral transfemoral patient to come through the facility, so his ability to take tentative steps on full-length prostheses was exciting. "I thought I was doing good. People were telling me I was doing good, and I was really wanting it," Calhoun says of those first several months as he struggled to regain mobility. "But looking back I was just limping around on two prosthetics and using canes or crutches." As many miles as Calhoun biked, as active as he tried to be, ten unassisted steps was all he could manage on his prostheses. "It was a ton of work. It was painful. It was not a good thing" he says. He went through three prosthetists and every suspension, suction, and knee system he could find, but nothing worked. "It's not like I hadn't given prosthetics a chance, but 2% years later and I'm still in the same wheelchair I started out in. That's not where I wanted to be."

Calhoun was beyond discouraged. Functional mobility seemed out of reach, and he didn't know where to turn. Calhoun had never seen someone in his situation get around on prostheses, and he had come to believe that he would never be fully independent again. "I saw a photo of a bilateral, and I thought, 'How easy is that to get a photo of a guy.' He stands there, they snap the photo, and he falls over," Calhoun says. "Even I could stand there long enough to make it look like I'm a full-time prosthetic user."

Calhoun's outlook changed during a 2006 trip to Minnesota. Sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and travelling to take part in a lecture by Robert Gailey, PhD, PT, Calhoun met trilateral amputee Cameron Clapp and Hanger Orthopedic Group's Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP, and Randy Richardson. Calhoun was stunned to see Clapp running around on C-Legs*, moving with apparent ease. He watched footage of Clapp walking up and down stairs. He tested Clapp, not looking for what the teenager could do on his prostheses, but what he couldn't do. Finally, Calhoun asked for the secret, and Carroll and Richardson gave it to him-Clapp's short prosthetic legs.

Calhoun returned home to Tennessee and used the short legs constantly, building strength and balance. A month later he headed to Florida for rehabilitation and prostheses training with Carroll and Richardson. "I arrived on July 5, 2006, and that was the last time I was in a wheelchair," Calhoun says. "1 went to dinner for the first time with my wife since losing my legs, out in public, unassisted, no canes, no wheelchair." Calhoun advanced from there, slowly but surely and continuously forward

Cameron Clapp and Heath Calhoun - Photographs courtesy of Randy Richardson, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics
Cameron Clapp and Heath Calhoun - Photographs courtesy of Randy Richardson, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics

"Heath is really off the scale with all of the things he is doing now," Richardson says. "He has been able to show others what is possible for a bilateral, above-knee amputee who chooses to use prosthetics full time. It is truly amazing to watch him carry his mono-ski on his shoulder, outriggers and ski under his arm, all while walking on two prosthetic legs in the snow and ice to the ski slopes! And it is not like he barely makes it. He walks like someone with real human legs-very controlled and precise."

An inspiration and de facto counselor to other wounded veterans, Calhoun dedicates much of his time trying to help others cope with major injuries and amputations. He was recognized by the WWP in May 2007 with the George C. Lang Award for Courage during the years that followed his injury. More than anything, Calhoun understands the challenges facing someone who has lost a limb. "If you get hurt and the only thing you are living for is that you like to go skiing or you like to play sports, then so be it," he says. "Sports are huge."

-Brady Delander

Dick Witt: Swinging for the Fences

Photograph courtesy of Ron Sonntag Public Relations
Photograph courtesy of Ron Sonntag Public Relations

Dick Witt could hardly wait for the arrival of spring. It wasn't so much the winter weather that made the 71-year-old Witt anxious as it was his building excitement for the upcoming softball season. After having so much fun in 2007 playing in a 65-and-older league outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, Witt is ready to suit up for his second season of action.

When Witt strides to the plate for an at-bat, he does so knowing that he has already hit a home run. In 1996 Witts right leg was amputated as a result of diabetes complications. His left leg was amputated in 2003, and doctors said he would most likely need a wheelchair to get around. But that didn't work for Witt. "That would be too confining," he said. I've always been active."

So Witt doesn't wheel to home plate, he strides up to bat on BioQuest Prosthetics PerfectStride IT feet and the use of LimbLogic™ VS from Ohio Willow Wood. "I can do things many people with two prosthetic legs can't do," he said, That includes driving his 1983 Ford F-150 with a stick shift, walking on his treadmill each night, and playing softball twice a week.

While a positive attitude undoubtedly plays a large role in Witt's accomplishments, he cites the care he receives at R.J. Rosenberg Orthopedic Lab Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, as another major contributor. Rich Rosenberg, CPO, said the vacuum system and prostheses Witt uses are ideal for all the action he sees. "There's no better way of holding a prosthesis to a patient, than with elevated vacuum, especially for a patient like Dick who plays softball and is running," Rosenberg said. "The other advantage is that it prevents dehydration, which causes a loss of volume of the limb and, in Dicks case, caused him discomfort at the end of the day. When a standard prosthesis is removed, the limb often rehydrates, stimulating nerves and causing pain. With elevated vacuum, he never dehydrates, so he doesn't have that pain." Witt previously used a mechanical pump, but if he sat or was inactive for a while, he'd lose vacuum and would have to manually adjust the pump.

Using his current prosthetic components, Witt can walk a mile in 23 minutes on his treadmill. But it's not all good news. "There can be drawbacks-like shopping," Witt said with a laugh. "My wife [Ann] is a shopper, and i like to go with her; 1 just walk around the whole time. Before, I'd have to say, 'Oh, I got to sit down. You go ahead and shop."' He doesn't have to do that anymore.

Ann Witt has seen great improvement in her husband since being fitted with the new prostheses and vacuum system. "He's a stronger person," Ann said. "He's more confident, has better stability, and he can do more, go more places."

Not content with softball (and shopping) alone, Witt and his wife are planning a Caribbean cruise in June. At one stop they have already made plans for a canopy tour, a zip-line ride over the top of the tropical jungle. "Dick's remarkable," Rosenberg said. "I don't know of too many double amputees who play ball and do what he does."

Diane Conti: 'Ace Machine' Has 15 Holes-In-One... and Counting

Amateur golfer Diane Conti, known as the "Ace Machine," ranks among the best golfers in the world when it comes to sinking a hole-in-one. Even more astounding than the 15 holes-in-one (at press time) sunk by Conti, 63, is the fact that she has done so as a prosthesis user. "I was born with a congenital condition that caused my right leg to be smaller than the left. I would not let it affect me, and over the years I've played many sports," Conti said.

Conti sunk her first ace in 1988 and her latest in 2007. She now has her sights set on number 16 and, believe it or not, Tiger Woods. According to Golf Digest, Woods has recorded 19 holes-in-one during professional and casual rounds, second all-time to 1959 Masters champion Art Wall Jr., who owns a jaw-dropping 45 aces. Conti stands alone in the female ranks, ahead of professionals Kathy Whitworth (11) and Nancy Lopez (nine). All of her 15 aces are extensively documented with numerous witnesses, newspaper archives, and sanctioned by golf professionals.

How does Conti do it? "J aim at the hole and try to hit it long enough, and then hope," said Conti, who has never taken a professional lesson in her life and hates to practice. Michael Krick, the head PGA professional at the Carolina Trace Country Club (CTCC) in Sandhills, North Carolina, where Conti established her reputation as a one-shot wonder, said the atmosphere can turn electric when Conti is on the course. "I have been at work on each of the days Diane has scored a hole-in-one," Krick said. "Our courses are extremely challenging.... You can hear the excitement all over Trace with a Conti ace."

Conti seems to be a natural at the sport that Winston Churchill described as "the best way to ruin a good walk." Four years after first teeing up she consistently broke a score of 80, but no round started better than the one during a women's tournament in 1993. Starting on the tenth hole, Conti's first shot of the day was an ace. Two years later she sunk a hole-in-one on each of the CTCC's four par 3s. In 2000, just 15 days separated her eighth and ninth holes-in-one. She is already looking for her 16th in 2008.

Conti averages about five days a week on the golf course when the weather allows, and while fellow golfers will mention Conti's skills on the links, it is her character that truly impresses. "I have witnessed most of her aces and, despite all of her golf achievements, Diane is a very humble person," said Jane Westmoreland, who has played with Conti since 1988. "She is a very honest person who will call you on the rules-she has a lot of class."

Added another longtime friend and golfer, Marie Carhart, "She can find something nice to say about the worse shot you've ever had." Another friend rightfully called Conti a true champion (Conti has earned the tide of Women's Club Champion 13 times at two different courses, in Illinois and North Carolina).

Conti's husband Ron, a fine golfer in his own right, said he had no idea his wife would develop such a reputation. "Little did I know when she picked up golf 30 years ago that she would earn the reputation of an Ace Machine," Ron Conti said.

Photographs by SM O'teaty