Zach Hanf: The Heart of a Survivor

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel

"Success isn't how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started."

—Steve Prefontaine, 1972 Olympian, American
middle- and long-distance runner (1951-1975)

Hanf and Crawford

Hanf and Crawford. Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Soto.

Michael "Mick" Crawford, CP, LP, with Capital Prosthetic and Orthotic Center, Zanesville, Ohio, will "bend over backward" to make a difference for his patients—whether it involves fighting an insurance company to get a particular prosthesis covered, making house calls to check the fit of a device, helping a patient return to as normal a life as possible, or even simply trying to make a patient smile. It all depends on the individual patient's needs.

To help Zach Hanf, 17, "return to as normal a life as possible," for example, Crawford has taken the cross-country runner to several indoor college track meets to watch Crawford's daughter compete. "My goal was for [Zach] to get back to doing what he loves to do," Crawford says. As they were concluding their first outing, Crawford recalls, "I said, 'Okay bro, we're going to walk around this track,' and Zach handed me his crutches, and we walked all the way around the track." That was ten days after Hanf had received his prosthesis.

Sidelined

Hanf, of Somerset, Ohio, began running track when he was in the eighth grade. He says that although he was not very good, his coach encouraged him to run cross country. He joined the cross-country running team his freshman year in high school. The change from track to cross country provided Hanf the spark he needed to excel. That year, he made the varsity team and was named most valuable freshman. The following year, Hanf was named team captain of the cross-country team, a position that he says taught him leadership skills and responsibility. The pressure he felt when lining up at a meet, "knowing there are 200 other people and you need to beat them," he says, fueled his competitive spirit. He is a four-time All-Muskingum Valley League (MVL) runner. He also collected all-district honors his sophomore and junior years, as well as all-region honors his junior year. He became an All-Ohioan during his junior cross-country season by placing 21st at the State Cross Country Meet. And until he was sidelined last fall, Hanf ran upwards of 345 days a year—rain or shine—his mother, Jennifer Soto says.

Hanf and Crawford

Crawford and Hanf.

On October 8, 2012, a car accident brought Hanf's competitive momentum to an abrupt stop. His back and left arm were injured, and his left foot was severed. Surgeons had to perform a transfemoral amputation because of the extensive nerve and muscle damage he had sustained. He received 46 units of blood and spent several days on a ventilator in critical condition.

When his condition improved, Soto recalls that "his trauma doctor told Zach that 'first and foremost I want you to know that you saved your own life because your heart was able to slow down.'" Because of her son's age, coupled with his lungs and heart being so well conditioned from his constant physical training, his body was able to keep up with the blood transfusions and fluids he was given, she explains.

Competitive Edge

While Hanf may be sidelined from running for now, he is not sitting still. After a two-month hospital stay, he returned home and began physical therapy (PT). He attends PT sessions three times a week and occupational therapy (OT) twice a week, and supplements his rehabilitation regimen with additional workouts on his own. He attributes his drive to recuperate and persevere to being a competitor.

He was fit for his prosthesis on January 3 and received it January 9, just three months after his accident. He took his first steps within three hours of being fitted. "I put the prosthesis on him at the patient table—12 feet from the parallel bars—and he walked to the parallel bars [on his own]," Crawford recalls "Now he wasn't very good, but it was his first time ever on a prosthesis...and that's pretty good. For Zach to recover that fast, go through rehab, heal up from the accident, get his prosthesis, and actually walk is just unheard of. He's an inspiration not only to me as a prosthetist, but his success as a runner is phenomenal."

Crawford says that Hanf's prosthetic solution—a College Park Soleus foot and the hydraulic Össur Total Knee—will allow him to transition to running.

Hanf in wheelchair racer

Hanf is training to compete in wheelchair racing at Ohio's high school state track meet in June.

Hanf says that taking those first steps were painful, but as many athletes can attest, although pain can be a sign that you are pushing your body's limits, it's not necessarily an indication to stop what you are doing. This is his attitude with his prosthesis, and for life in general, Soto says. "I'm on my feet so I don't care whether or not it hurts," Hanf says.

While pain, to varying degrees, will likely be a lifelong challenge for the teenager, learning to walk with a prosthesis came easier for him thanks to a surprising parallel to cross-country running. The walking process Crawford coached him to follow includes an adaptation Hanf had already made to his gait as a runner. "I have to step onto my heel and roll onto my toe...[then] the knee unhinges and I kind of swing it a little bit and it locks out and then I can go back onto the heel. That gait was already part of my everyday walking, so it's not any different than what I'd been doing." The correct form for cross-country runners is to run on the balls of the feet, Hanf explains, "but it is well known that distance runners land on their heels and roll onto their toes."

Stepping toward the Future

Hanf is working in PT and OT to gain the strength, skills, and confidence to walk properly with a prosthesis and regain balance so he can walk across the stage to accept his high school diploma. Throughout his recovery and rehabilitation time, Hanf has maintained a 4.0 grade point average and says college is definitely in his future. And while he originally wanted to be a trauma surgeon, an emergency room doctor, or a nurse anesthetist, "something along those lines in which you are going to be in that dire life-or-death situation," the accident has led him to consider a career as a prosthetist, "so I can help other people in similar situations," he says.

He is also participating in the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio (ASPO) and is training to compete in wheelchair racing at the state of Ohio high school track meet. ASPO will loan him a race wheelchair for the competition. According to Hanf and Soto, this is the first year wheelchair racing will be incorporated into the state track meet.

Ultimately, Hanf's goal is to run again. He says that he knows his amputation and injuries do not have to hold him back from pursuing anything he wants to do. "It might be different, it might be harder, it might take more work, but [I] can still live a normal life and do anything that anybody else can do."

"I have a pretty good feeling Zach's going to be trying [running] in the near future," Crawford says. "I'm confident of that because it is Zach."

Laura Fonda Hochnadel can be reached at