Last week, I shared Taylor’s story and her battle with Lyme Disease and had such a tremendous response that I decided to post another interview I did with a man who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident.
So, here’s another sneak peek at my newest book, Against All Odds: How Twenty Courageous People Overcame Debilitating Illness, Disease, and Other Physical Challenges, where I’ll interview twenty different individuals and tell their stories about how they overcame immense odds to regain their health, rebuild their lives, and became influential role models of perseverence and passion.
Every story is different…but each of these courageous people demonstrated similar character qualities which inspired me and I’m sure they’ll encourage you as well.
Chris’s Story: Transtibial (Below Knee)Amputation
Imagine yourself at nineteen years old and the future seems like an expansive world of possibilities. At this point in your life, there are no limits. You’ve just purchased a motorcycle from a friend, so you’re already on the fast track to fulfilling one of your dreams. You’re very athletic and used to excelling in physical sports of all kinds. You thrive on new challenges and at your age, fear of getting injured doesn’t really enter into your radar. It’s true, you’re still young enough that you might take some things for granted, but overall, the future isn’t anything to be afraid of and you’re ready for whatever comes.
Life immediately following high school is a new start, a promising beginning for many young adults. At this early hopeful juncture, no one expects his or her life to take a sudden sharp turn that puts a halt to every project, plan, or dream. But that’s exactly what happened to Chris Duling when a motorcycle accident resulted in the loss of his lower left leg at age nineteen.
As tragic as this experience was for Chris, it is neither the accident or the loss of his leg that defines Chris most accurately. Rather, it is the courage with which he met this devastating situation and how he dealt with the aftermath of repercussions both emotionally and physically (and continues to deal with some twenty years later). The journey that follows isn’t one Chris would ever had intended to walk, but he, like so many people, didn’t have a choice. Then again, he did. As you’ll see, Chris realized sometime after losing his leg that he could continue to die a bit more each day or choose to live. Courageously, Chris chose life.
What started out to be a relaxing evening at a friend’s house for a bonfire back in the woods turned into a life-defining day for Christopher Duling. After owning his motorcycle for only four days, Chris took his bike for a ride in the early evening not far from his house. After mingling with his friends for a short time, Chris decided to run his new bike back home before returning to the bonfire. Chris and his friend started out for Chris’s house and were traveling on the main city streets when a car suddenly slid to a sudden stop directly behind them. Chris turned around and told the driver to watch what he was doing, visibly angered, the other driver aggressively pulled alongside Chris in the fast lane and glared at him. Chris, noting that driver looked crazed, sped ahead to get away from him and thought he succeeded.
Chris then drove further down the street and turned into a nearby gas station to fuel up after he noticed his friends were there. Without warning, this same driver had followed Chris and suddenly whipped his vehicle around into oncoming traffic (forcing two cars into telephone poles) before sideswiping the now stationary Chris and his friend who were sitting on the motorcycle at 70 mph. Chris’s companion flew 70 feet in the air while Chris was drug 70 feet under his motorcycle. Immediately upon hitting his victims, the driver fled from the scene with his bumper deeply indented with the yellow dye from Chris’s ski jacket.
Meanwhile, the still conscious Chris carried his friend out of the street without realizing he was injured. People then came running to help and Chris looked down and saw that his heel was completely shredded. Partly in shock now, his main concern was that he took the motorcycle out for a drive against his dad’s wishes. Chris remembers telling everyone around him, “I need to get the bike back home. My dad is going to kill me…” As Chris kept trying to get up and move, onlookers then held him down until the ambulance arrived and he was transported to a nearby hospital.
Once there, physicians assessed his situation, considered his youth and then recommended the amputation of his lower leg, but ultimately it was Chris’s decision. In shock, but still conscious, Chris’s father helped him make the hard call and agreed to the amputation. Chris’s dad, a big man whom Chris had never seen shed a tear before, stood crying as he watched his son lay there. He realized life would never be the same again for his son. After this monumental decision was made, Chris was sedated and his foot and lower leg were amputated. He remembers waking up two days later in the ICU and thinking it was all a bad dream, then he felt for his leg and it was gone. Reality hit hard.
Amazingly, Chris was only in the hospital for a short five days before he was released to go home. Immediately, he began physical therapy at a nearby clinic. Daily, Chris would make his way to therapy where he quickly excelled and adapted. Physically speaking, Chris was told he improved faster and more efficiently than anyone they’d seen, but the mental strain was enormous. Chris remembers the first time the therapists removed his bandages and he looked at his stump and how he almost passed out when he saw the damage that had been done. Intentionally, no less.
Chris had learned after the fact that the driver who hit him had just been released from jail and had earlier that day beaten his father and girlfriend with a baseball bat because he’d missed his grandfather’s funeral. He had then stolen a car and was bent on hurting someone…and he did. Caught and convicted, this violent offender only received four months in jail for causing a multi-car accident and for taking Chris’s leg. It’s no wonder that Chris had to deal with the injustice of this criminal’s meager punishment on top of his own permanent physical loss.
Though Chris diligently and successfully mastered using his prosthetic leg, he continued to battle with inner demons. Thoughts of suicide permeated his mind for months after the accident and for over two years, Chris felt so ashamed of his appearance he refused to wear anything but long pants. To his way of thinking, if others didn’t know of his disability, it lessened the sting of it. He realizes now that his youth played a big part in how much emphasis he played on his changed physical appearance as it would to anyone at nineteen-years of age. Assuring everyone he was fine, Chris coped as well as anyone could given how dramatically and violently his life had altered, but inside he wasn’t fine.
Getting used to living without a limb is difficult enough, Chris simultaneously had to adjust to using a prosthetic to relearn how to walk on grass, on uneven pavement, and move up stairs and down as normally as possible. Chris explained that when a person is learning to maneuver with the use of a prosthetic he has to change the axis of his hips, and back twenty years ago, the prosthetics were different than what is available today. Chris went from weighing 155 lbs to around 120 lbs the first year after his amputation, so the physical adjustments were dramatic every time Chris looked in the mirror, every time he got up to perform even the simplest tasks from dressing to eating to taking a single step.
Over time, Chris did adjust and accept his new “normal” but it took years of wrestling through “what-ifs” and “why didn’t I” types of internal dialoguing. Eventually, his physical strength returned after months and months of hard work on Chris’s part…and in time, so did his mental toughness. He believes everyone who endures such trauma has to decide for himself or herself whether they’re going to die a little more each day…or choose to live again. Clearly, Chris chose life despite his early dark emotions and his ever-vacillating feelings. Chris exercised an inner-strength of will to overcome his tragedy despite all odds.
Today, twenty years after his accident, Chris still contends with the ever-surfacing aftereffects of his amputation. He deals with skin issues that can lead into infectious sores and cysts (and he’s had 5 operations since his amputation). Chris is constantly replacing sleeves that cover his prosthetic leg which are an out of pocket expense and new prosthetic legs that should be replaced yearly (but aren’t covered by health insurance this frequently) run around $25,000.00. His longtime work at a local auto plant was quite strenuous and Chris worked there for over fifteen years before complications from his amputation forced him out for health reasons.
Chris views life and the sudden uncertainty with which it can change with a sober mindset. His two daughters, Madelyn and Kristin, are his priorities now. Chris understands life’s brevity and appreciates every day…perhaps one of the truest measures of his inner healing is evidenced by the fact that Chris is again the proud owner of a new Harley Street Glide. Says Chris, “I realized what happened to me was never the bike’s fault,” so on he goes taking life one day at a time, one road at a time. “What you can’t change, you learn to adapt,” he concludes.
It is important to note that an injury involving only the extremity at the foot (as in Chris’s case) typically results in the loss of the entire lower leg because blood vessels pump blood down to the calf muscle. Dr. Creighton Wright, President and Director of Cardiac, Vascular & Thoracic Surgeons, Inc., explains, “Crushed and avascular tissue does not heal and must be debrided in Chris’s situation and in war wounds.” It becomes more difficult or almost impossible to get a proper prosthetic fit if surgeons allow more than five inches of stump to remain below the knee.
An Expert Comments
Surprising to many people, over ninety percent of amputations are due to a medical condition called peripheral arterial disease (PAD) which is a hardening of the arteries resulting in loss of circulation to the extremities. Other reasons for amputation include cancer, congenital amputation at birth, or traumatic injury. As in Chris’s case (and for the majority of individuals under the age of 50), it is a traumatic injury scenario that necessitated his amputation.
Regardless of the underlying reason for the amputation, before surgeons prepare to operate there are multiple considerations they must determine prior to entering the operating room. They assess the damaged limb and the tissue surrounding the area and check for any present infections (remembering that healthy tissue is tissue that is getting good blood flow), the surgeon assesses which body tissues have the best survival rate. For someone who has suffered a traumatic injury there can be additional complications resulting from the accident such as crushed bone or high-grade open fractures with associated nerve injury, soft tissue loss, and irreparable neurovascular injury.
Once all vital decisions have been made, the surgeon will perform an intricate and complex procedure cutting through skin, muscle, nerves, blood vessels, and bones. Specifically, the steps for the type of surgery Chris went through (Transtibial [Below Knee] Amputation) as explained by Dr. Wright are as follows. “The surgeon creates two flaps of skin and tissue, then the muscle is cut and the main artery and veins at the tibia and fibula bones are exposed. Next, the surgeon will sever these arteries and veins (once the injured limb is removed the natural collateral connections between the artery/veins and capillaries maintain a pathway for blood circulation). The surgeon will then cut through the exposed tibia and fibula bones. At this point, he closes the muscles with sutures over the bone ends. Finally, the remaining skin flaps are then sutured together completing the stump.”
Consider the intricacy of this medical procedure as the surgeon looks ahead to his patient’s immediate recovery as well as his long-term ability to function successfully without a limb. Consider now how Chris’s body worked hard to knit skin, muscle, nerves, blood vessels, and bones back together…because it did. Even after being injured at the accident and subsequently severed and cut during surgery, the nerves inside Chris’s leg were able to heal over time, and his blood vessels (with their new connections) continue to pump needed blood into the tissue of the remainder of his leg, so that within about eight weeks, Chris was successfully wearing a prosthetic leg. The body’s ability to adapt, heal, and compensate is amazing. When correctly understood, it is a life-giving, life-altering concept.
Creighton B. Wright MD, MBA, FACS, FAHA, FACPE
President and Director of Cardiac, Vascular & Thoracic Surgeons, Inc.
Dr. Wright also was on active military duty and was chief of professional services in the first Gulf War.
Cardiac, Vascular and Thoracic Surgeons, Inc.
4030 Smith Rd., Suite 300
Cincinnati, OH 45209