Volume XVII, Issue 39 # September 24 - September 30, 2009

No Easy Steps

Moving forward takes faith, friends and technology

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

“The night of September 27-28 is my one-year anniversary,” says the pretty girl, long brown hair swinging, who walks to the stage a little stiffly, with the help of a crutch. “I got in a car accident with one of my oldest friends.”

photo courtesy of Don Patterson, The Cane Man www.oohrah.net/aha

Jordan Wells was the sole survivor of the crash last year of Maryland State Police medevac helicopter Trooper 2. Thanks to many surgeries and a new prosthetic leg, she recently “danced with three guys — the state policemen who rescued me.”

Of course, as every Marylander remembers with shivers, it wasn’t the car accident that crippled 19-year-old Jordan Wells of Waldorf. Wells could have walked away from that accident, achingly, but on two good legs — instead of one leg and one prosthesis.

It was the crash of Trooper 2 that crushed her body and, days later, took her right leg. The Maryland State Police medevac helicopter fell from the sky in rain and fog while flying Wells and her friend, Ashley Younger, to Prince George’s Hospital Center. That crash killed four people: Younger, pilot Stephen Bunker, state police EMT Mickey Lippy and local EMT Tonya Mallard.

“I was the only one who survived,” Wells says.

“I was thrown out the roof, but my legs were still pinned inside. I was found two hours later, hypothermic, with my back broken in six places, one side of my face crushed [her fingers trace her repaired eye socket], all the bones in my legs broken below the knee — and my feet just hanging on.

“I prayed to Jesus and cried out for help. Then, finally, I heard somebody in the woods.”

This September picnic is not the first time Jordan Wells has told her story of that night just a year ago — and its aftermath. She’s told it to family and friends, including the kids at her old high school; to the Maryland General Assembly, helping to strengthen Maryland’s Medevac procedures; and to the vast, anonymous audiences of Good Morning America and 20/20.

But she’s never had a more empathetic audience than here in the barn at Jefferson Patterson Park in southern Calvert County, where a group called Amputees Helping Amputees has just tamped down with slices of carrot and coconut cake a feast of barbecued ribs, pulled pork and hot dogs, all cooked on the spot by Randy’s Ribs of Hughesville.

Here, when Jordan finishes, everybody cheers. But not everybody claps.

Not everyone has hands.

Kids on the Run

Eleven-year-old Dayton Weber, also of Charles County, lost his hands and lower arms, feet and legs to a terrible streptococcal infection that struck when he was 10 months old. But Dayton has running legs that put a bounce in his step.

The Flex-Run legs are a match for Dayton’s energy.

“They’re good for getting around, and they’re fun,” he says.

“Running legs are the way to go for an 11-year-old boy. There’s not much walking,” says mother Natalie Weber.

On the blade-like extensions that attach by suction to Dayton’s legs, he runs track and he skateboards.

photo courtesy of Don Patterson, The Cane Man www.oohrah.net/aha

Dayton Weber, who lost his hands and lower arms, feet and legs, takes a spin on the Segway of friend and fellow-amputee James Culver.

But he’s just as able without his running legs. “I play football and wrestle,” he says.”

Without any prosthesis, Dayton’s done what any kid would at a picnic: tossed and caught a football with his father, Moonbounced in an inflated chamber, eaten a hotdog and drunk a can of Pepsi for lunch, then romped and rough-housed with friend James Culver, 10, of Lusby.

James, who lost two legs and an arm to a Strep Group A bacterial infection three years ago, came to the picnic with his new 10-year-old-sized Segway. With it, says mother Cathy Culver, “he can keep up with kids on their bikes.”

James isn’t as talkative as Dayton, who’s a natural at striking up conversations with strangers or speaking to a crowd. But James is generous, and soon Dayton, minus his running legs, is scooting through the park on James’ Segway.

Stepping Forward . . .

Ability is what the annual picnic of Amputees Helping Amputees is about.

photo courtesy of Don Patterson, The Cane Man www.oohrah.net/aha

After losing both legs and an arm to a bacterial infection three years ago, James Culver can keep up with kids on their bikes with his customized Segway.

You still move forward,” says founder Scarlett Schall, an orthopedic nurse at Calvert Memorial Hospital who describes herself as “there when a lot of these folks got their lives back” through amputation.

Horrific as the stories are of these life-shattering bolts out of the blue, they are only prelude.

Last April, seven months after Jordon’s horror story began, she was able to bear her own weight and get her first prosthetic leg.

A month later, she says, “I went to a gala and danced with three guys — the state policemen who rescued me.”

To her great surprise, in two months, the sidetracked competitive swimmer “got in the water and won two gold medals and one silver” in the Para-Olympic Games in Arizona.

“And yesterday,” she says, “I started walking again after another surgery.”

Triumphantly though Wells describes her “long — though not so long — recovery,” no step is easy.

When No Step Is Easy

“We share our stories to let you know that every day is not easy,” says 47-year-old Wardell Swann of Hughesville, Para-Olympian and master of today’s ceremonies.

photo courtesy of Don Patterson, The Cane Man www.oohrah.net/aha

At 38, Wardell Swann was a fitness fanatic. Then an infection stole his legs and parts of nine fingers. Since then, the 47-year-old has competed and won in the Para-Olympic Games and founded On Higher Ground Inc. to help other amputees, including Dayton.

At 38, Swann was a fitness fanatic. “I did 400 sit-ups a day. I ran eight miles every other day. I couldn’t get enough,” he says.

A black belt martial artist with his own karate school, he was finishing five years of “physically and mentally strenuous” training to become a SMECO lineman.

On the last day of class, February 24, 2000, Swann didn’t feel well. The next day, he couldn’t walk. Two months later, infection had stolen his legs and parts of nine fingers.

“We had no resources when he came home, says Tammala Swann, Wardell’s wife of 17 years and mother of their two children, girls 14 and 10. “He had lost both legs. He had no use of his hands. I had to carry him.”

Of his ordeal, Swann says, “When God takes so much, he gives you so much back.”

Give back is what Swann now does. He’s founded On Higher Ground Inc. to “share success through determination, education, motivation, support and hard work.”

Thus Swann and his “sidekick” Dayton not only rushed to James’ bedside in Children’s Hospital. They got on the bed with the new amputee to “make him comfortable with who he was by making him comfortable with who he saw.”

Who else could imagine the darkness surrounding a seven-year-old triple amputee whose twin sister has both her arms and legs?

Three years later, James’ attitude is “so right,” his mother says. He’s learning Swann’s message: “You can’t say you can do whatever you want to do. But you try not to let that hinder you from doing anything.”

With a Little Help from Friends

Technology helps. Prosthesis and the people who invent, improve and fit them become, literally, the legs amputees stand on. Jordan Wells puts the prosthesis company Hanger next to God in helping her “every step of the way.” Natalie Weber wants credit to go to Annapolitan Dennis Haun, of Maryland Orthotics & Prosthetics, who fits her son Dayton with legs.

Today Dayton is giving thanks for another kind of technology, to another friend.

“One more thing,” the 11-year-old says, taking the mike. “I just got a new bathroom installed by Greg Perez. It has a sink that’s my size without my legs on, a shower with a head that goes up and down and a toilet that …”

Dayton considers the right words “… does everything for you. It’s also got a seat warmer. It’s pretty cool.”

The next of Amputees Helping Amputees’ (www.oohrah.net/aha) six yearly meetings is the second Tuesday of November, with a potluck holiday party following on the second Tuesday of December at Calvert Pines Senior Center in Prince Frederick. Tax-deductible donations are welcome: Calvert Memorial Hospital Foundation, P.O. Box 2127, Prince Frederick, 20678, for Amputees Helping Amputees.

Mark Your Calendar

The annual picnic of Amputees Helping Amputees returns to Jefferson Patterson Park in 2010 on the last Saturday of August. “It’s all free,” says founder Scarlett Schall, who’s hard to say no to when she’s seeking donations for her cause.

“We try to spread what we’re about, support and mobility, so everybody’s welcome,” she says.

“Even dogs.”

At this year’s picnic, Peanut, Schall’s sociable Jack Russell, welcomed whatever handouts he could beg. Bay Weekly’s Moe won us our welcome with an invitation to meet the Weber family’s new yellow Lab puppy Copper.

Steven Hietpas and Sheree Stamps’ dog Tractor, a Sheltie rescued from abuse, trotted into the picnic on three legs.

“I wanted to adopted a disabled dog because of my own disability,” says Hietpas, of Lusby, a veteran retired from Patuxent Air Naval Station. “It makes me feel selfish to say it, but I was hoping to take my focus off myself. I look at him and figure I have nothing to complain about.”

The strategy works.

“Tractor smiles all the time,” Sheree says. “He makes us laugh every day.”