Norm Lawrence: Surviving the Unimaginable

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By Maria St. Louis-Sanchez

In a life full of near-death experiences, using a prosthetic leg has been perhaps one of the easier challenges for Norm Lawrence to overcome.

"He's one of those guys who has nine lives or more," says Mark Benveniste, a retired prosthetist who treated Lawrence for several years and is now one of his close friends.

Surviving any one of the disasters that befell Lawrence would be astounding for most people, Benveniste says, but Lawrence's ability to make it through them all and keep a positive, kind attitude is what makes him truly remarkable. "You wouldn't have any idea of what he's been through when you first meet him," Benveniste says. "He's the ideal patient. He is an enthusiastic, kind, and gentle guy."

Lawrence, 74, who has numerous medical issues, was unavailable to speak for this article, but he gave Benveniste permission to tell his story, which begins with growing up poor in Rhode Island. As a young man, Lawrence fought in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. On his second day in the country, he and 60 fellow troops were ambushed; he was one among 11 soldiers who survived the attack. Another time, he was in a group of 180 soldiers who were ambushed and was one of 17 who lived-this time by pulling dead bodies over himself and playing dead.

He left Vietnam only to return one year later, taking his brother's place. Lawrence says he thought he had a better chance of survival since he knew what to expect. During his time there, he was a tank commander, tunnel rat, and helicopter door gunner. He survived two helicopter crashes and hand-to-hand combat. Miraculously, he was never wounded seriously. When he returned to the United States, he was placed on burial detail; it was his job to tell service members' families about the death of their loved ones and help them cope with the loss.

Lawrence describes war as horrific, exciting, a chance to feel powerful, a time to feel helpless, heartbreaking, miserable, scary, tension filled, and at times, even fun.

As many other veterans experienced, he came back to a country that blamed the soldiers as much as the politicians for the war. The contradictory emotions and experiences of war triggered post-traumatic stress disorder and Lawrence later became estranged from his family and dependent on alcohol.

Eventually, Lawrence found himself in Houston where his survival instinct served him well yet again after an accident that took his left leg and led to chronic pain. In 1984, Lawrence was working as a welding company owner-supervisor. One of his projects was at a building that was to be renovated into a big box store. He was about 60 feet up on a lift, inspecting the building, when he heard creaking and suddenly the roof-and the steel girders that were supporting it-came crashing down. A girder slammed into the lift, bringing it down and shearing off Lawrence's leg above the knee. Lawrence had the presence of mind to try to slow the bleeding with his hands but passed out just before the paramedics arrived. He heard one paramedic say he was gone. That woke Lawrence up and he said, "Oh no I am not!"

Norm with kayak

Lawrence uses an ST&G VGK knee system and waterproof foot to pursue his passion for water sports. Photographs courtesy of Benveniste.

He was airlifted to the hospital with an amputated leg, broken neck, and broken back. Physicians told his wife, Shirley, that he would never recover. He was in a coma for six months but did eventually get better.

His first post-operative prosthesis was a pylon with a foot and no knee. Through the years, he's been fitted with almost every type of pneumatic and hydraulic knee available, and has excelled at using them all, Benveniste says, in part because of his natural athleticism. Lawrence, who is meticulous about his appearance, was initially self-conscious about his prosthetic leg and that sometimes his socket would lose suction and fall off. He likes to use a variety of custom knee covers and can often be seen sporting a knee with an American flag or camouflage pattern.

"People see that knee, that RoboCop look, and it looks cool and the rest of him looks cool," Benveniste says. "He got attention for it and he liked it better."

Lawrence used settlement money from his accident to move back to his home in Rhode Island, where he became a personal trainer and ultimately bought the gym where he trained. For a decade, he worked 12 hours per day, seven days per week. After suffering burnout from the grueling schedule, he retired and moved back to Texas, where he met Benveniste at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, Houston. Lawrence was in his late 60s and Benveniste fitted him with an Ottobock C-Leg Compact knee joint.

That was what I would normally give a well-functioning geriatric patient," Benveniste says. "He came back and told me that he was on a treadmill going five miles per hour in the knee. That let me know the knee is sophisticated enough to have a variable gait and that I should have given him an even more responsive knee."

Lawrence was fitted with a regular C-Leg outside of the VA, and Benveniste later fitted him with an Ottobock X2. Lawrence eventually also received an ST&G VGK knee, which he is impressed with, although it does not offer the same cosmetic benefits as the X2. He uses a system Benveniste made him with this knee and a waterproof foot for swimming and kayaking. Benveniste also fitted him for the first time with a pin suspension socket. Benveniste would prefer that Lawrence use a combination pin with proximal suction ring suspension, but early attempts at an experimental version were not successful. Getting the right fit was problematic as Lawrence's residual limb changes volume more than most patients, Benveniste says. To mitigate his chronic pain, Lawrence has an implanted nerve stimulator, which presents an additional problem for socket fit. When the stimulator fires, it contracts the muscle and makes his muscle mass larger.

Norm with kayak

Lawrence doesn't let using a prosthesis keep him from enjoying kayaking.

"The pin suspension system alone is not my favorite, but with this system, his leg stays on, and it gives him confidence, and he prefers it over skin suction," Benveniste says.

Through the years, the pair has developed a close bond.

"He saw me and he said 'Mark, you're not in great shape. If you want me, I'll train you,'" Benveniste says. Soon enough, Lawrence was commuting an hour and a half to be a personal trainer to his prosthetist. "He'd meet me at the gym and keep me there for two to three hours," Benveniste says. Lawrence was so good at training that the gym staff asked him to stop training there because he made the other trainers look bad, says Benveniste.

After working out, the pair would often go to a restaurant for breakfast where Lawrence would tell the stories of his life to an astonished Benveniste.

Through the years, the trials of Lawrence's life have caught up with him, Benveniste says. Lawrence is battling heart disease, cancer, celiac disease, and chronic pain, as well as the effects of Agent Orange exposure, which include diabetes. He's gotten used to life with his prosthetic leg and it's the least of the health issues he deals with, Benveniste says.

The challenges he's faced in life have not brought him down though. He tells Benveniste that, instead, they helped.

Lawrence says, "I have a greater appreciation for life and I am a kinder person."

Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be contacted at .