Hector Picard: Don’t Stop Living

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By Betta Ferrendelli
Hector Picard

Hector Picard rides the bike he designed with brakes on the frame that allow him to squeeze with his thighs to stop the bike. (Photographs courtesy of Michael Farrel.)

When Hector Picard introduces himself to an audience, he begins by saying he is a son, brother, husband, and father of four. He runs a hand through his short hair and explains how it used to be a lot darker. Then he explains that he is a motivational speaker, a triathlete, and, oh yes, a double arm amputee.

"I say that last because I don't let that define who I am," says Picard, who was born to Cuban parents in Miami, Florida, in May 1966. "Some people call me handicapped. Some call me disabled and yet others use the politically correct term, 'physically challenged.'"

Picard considers his limb loss an obstacle in his life. But obstacles, he says, aren't barriers meant to stop him or anyone. Though everyone is presented with obstacles in their lives, they come in varying degrees, he says.

"Some of us are born with them, or suffer an accident. Some of us create them in our minds, or we let others do it for us," Picard says. "It is up to us to determine whether they are barriers or obstacles."

Picard's "obstacle" came in the form of 13,000 volts of electricity on the last day of March in 1992. He was working for the power company as an electrician on a substation transformer in Hollywood, Florida. The structure, the size of a large two-story building, supplies power to entire neighborhoods. It was near the end of the day when Picard was walking between two electrical wires. One was live. The other was not.

The rest of Picard's story was told to him in bits and pieces by others because he does not remember what happened next. He said he made a right turn to climb up one side of the structure, not realizing the wire was live. Electricity surged through his right hand and blew off the top part of his right foot as the current exited his body. He fell, and on the way down, he grabbed the wire with his left hand, and 13,000 volts hit his body a second time, passing through his left hand and out his left hip. He fell two stories to the ground, his torso covered in flames.

Chances that Picard would live were slim. He was transported to a Gainesville hospital. The first month, he lay in a coma, hallucinating that physicians were cutting him in pieces and nurses were taking advantage of him. He didn't mind hallucinating about the nurses though, because "they were pretty," he says. He finally woke in a place he didn't recognize. He couldn't speak because there was a hole in his throat. He couldn't move because he was strapped down.

"You can imagine my horror when I look down and see that my entire right arm is gone and half my left," Picard recalls. "My wife said the amputations had to be done; otherwise, I would have died from the infections."

The expected questions began to swirl in his mind: "Why me?" Then it changed to, "How do I drive a car, eat, go to the bathroom?"

To Picard's way of thinking, these were "obstacles to overcome." And don't say "I can't" to Picard. "That's the word I hate the most," he says.

He started physical therapy in the hospital. About two weeks before he was released, a man came to visit him who had lost an arm. He may have been there to boost Picard's spirits, but the visit left him depressed, he says.

"He [the visitor] was content to feed himself, button his pants and comb his hair," Picard remembers. "That was the extent of his rehabilitation after one year."

triathlon in 2009

Picard participated in his first triathlon in 2009 finishing 674th out of 728 participants.

But Picard had a one-year-old daughter at home at the time, and diapers to change.

"I needed to do more than that in one month," he says.

Picard says he was fortunate that he met an occupational therapist who was eager to work with him and provide the latest technology could offer in 1992.

That therapist, Cheryl Miller, OTR/L, national director of Therapy Operations, HealthSouth Corporation, knew two things the day Picard came to HealthSouth Sunrise Rehab Hospital, Sunrise, Florida: he had serious acute and long-term issues, but based on his disposition, he was going to be okay.

"He was one of the first, most challenging patients of my career then," Miller remembers, who had only been an occupational therapist about five years when she met Picard. "Hector was still wearing special garments because of his burns, but it didn't take him long to gain control of his environment."

Picard learned to do simple things immediately, such as turn on the radio, television, and lights in his room, Miller says. "He adapted very quickly," she said. "You learned right away that Hector is a can-do kind of guy."

Within five months of his accident, Picard was fitted with his first prosthesis, a body-powered hook for his left, dominant hand. A month later he was fitted with his first myoelectric arm, also for his left hand.

Miller worked with Picard, training him to harness his myoelectric sites to use the arm by holding an egg and a soda can. In the beginning, Picard would break the egg and crush the can, she said. Before long, however, he learned to use his myoelectric arm and hand. His arm of choice today is the MyoHand VariPlus Speed by Otto Bock HealthCare, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Picard says he also still uses a hook for heavy-duty work such as landscaping and painting. He has tried devices for his right hand, but the burns on his chest make it uncomfortable to wear on that side.

About six years after his accident, Picard had recovered to the point that he wanted to go back to work. He got a real estate license and made a good living selling houses until the market crashed in 2008. He also went through a painful divorce in 2008, after 20 years of marriage to his first wife.

For the first time in his life, Picard lived alone. He was nervous, he remembers. But not about cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. "I already did those things," he says. "I was nervous about talking to women."

He began seeing women via a dating website. His profile included photos of him participating in triathlons, which he had started doing competitively a few years prior to get back in shape.

"I figured it would filter out ladies who would have a problem with my disability," he says. It worked. He met a woman, and their first date was in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant. They were married in August 2010.

Picard was introduced to the world of triathletes through a couple he had met at the local fitness facility where he worked out. He was taking a spinning class when they suggested he compete in triathlons.

Picard's first thought was that people who did triathlons were crazy.

"I wasn't a swimmer, I wasn't a cyclist, and for sure not a runner, but I told them 'sure it's perfect for me,'" Picard remembers.

Picard knew he would have to swim without hands. That was an easy problem to solve—he swims on his back. How would he, however, steer his bike without hands, racing at 30-miles per hour—not to mention how would he apply the brakes? Picard went to a bike shop and told them what he needed. Sorry, they said, it can't be done. That's all Picard needed to hear. His first bike cost $100. He purchased some bolts along with some sprinkler and plumbing parts and built what "couldn't be done."

He rerouted the brakes to the frame to use his legs to apply the brakes. The plumbing device served as a handlebar so Picard could steer. His first bike didn't have gears to shift, and that made riding difficult. But thanks to the I Will Foundation, he now has electronic shifters on his bike, which makes it easier to shift.

"Cycling is my strongest event," he says. "Running is still a work in progress, but I'm training hard."

Picard completed his first triathlon in 2009, where he finished 674 out of 728 participants. That included finishing ahead of his able-bodied younger brother. Picard competed in eight triathlons that year. In 2010, he competed in 22 triathlons throughout Florida. He has competed in 20 triathlons so far in 2011 nationwide, including Puerto Rico. His goal is to compete in his first full Ironman Triathlon in New York City, New York, in August 2012. Though Picard began participating in triathlons as a way to stay in shape, he says he competes now to bring awareness to those with physical challenges.

"I want to show people it can be done," he says.

When Picard concludes a public speaking engagement, he thanks the audience for listening to his story. He encourages them to live their lives to the fullest and to remember that obstacles can be overcome.

"I received a second chance," he says. "I wouldn't look back. I would not trade my life now, not even for arms."

Betta Ferrendelli can be reached at