On December 10, 2016, I posted an interview with Geri Dickinson about the accident, the rehabilitation, their wedding and life together.[ Link] Geri and I have always been pretty open with each other, so it struck me during and after this interview was that not once did I hear a tone of voice or a hesitation suggesting marrying a guy who’d lost both legs might not be such a good idea. That speaks to their love for each other. Not many people are so fortunate.
My first interview with Chris was about his adventure with a mountain tribe in Indonesia. (Link) For the story of his accident, he tells Parts 2 and 3 tell the story from his side, first the physical, external difficulties and then the internal work which made rehabilitation possible. We spoke via Facebook Messenger when Chris and Geri were home in Florida, and I was home in the Philippines. Thanks to Geri for the photos and video.
Augst of 2015, the day before I was supposed to fly back to Korea. I was staying with my brother and his wife, when an old buddy called and said he had bought a new car and wanted to drive down and see me. Driving along the Florida coast, we stopped at an intersection but the car behind us didn’t. We got out, looked at the damage – only a slight indentation. As they talked amongst themselves, my friend asked me what I thought. Stepping out onto the highway, I looked to see there was nothing in any direction. As you know, Florida is very flat.
I was bending down between the two cars when someone screamed, “Look out!” I turned to see a black shape roaring at us. I couldn’t move either to the left or right, so I jumped, straight up, but I wasn’t Bruce Lee leaping to the top of the cars. When the car smashed into the other, it caught me at the knees, drug me underneath and down the highway. It happened so fast that I had no time to scream.
When the car was pulled off me, I looked down and saw that I was bleeding badly. I had been an army medic, so I told my buddy to take off his belt and tie my left leg tightly. I applied double pressure with my hands on my right. A crowd arrived, including a former medic, who tightened the tourniquet. Other people said they had called 911. Soon I was put in an ambulance, then a helicopter, flown to Pensacola, and met on a tarmac by a team. They rushed me to the operating room, where I was put on morphine.
I awoke two days later in a lot of pain.
“Hello. Good to see you back.”
“How bad is it, doc?”
“Well, we did have to take off your right leg above the knee, but your left leg…”
Unfortunately, a bacterial infection in the left leg from the “road rash” developed when scraped along the highway. Every other day for a week, they tried taking off bits at a time to save as much of the leg as possible, even putting me in a hyperbaric chamber to possibly rid the necrosis, but it persisted, so they ended up cutting the leg off above the knee like the right leg.
After two weeks, and finally infection free, I was sent down to do rehab at Brooks Medical Rehabilitation Center in Jacksonville. There, medical professionals specialize in care for amputees. For me, this is where the real adventure began. For the next two weeks, while I was working with a group, we built our muscles and trained for our new life. They taught our group of about eight how to get in and out of the wheelchair from a car, how to press a button on a street corner, navigate the streets without getting hit, how to wheel into a restaurant and order. It was quite the experience.
One of the clinicians confessed, that though we were limited to the wheelchair, he would teach us how to be most effective. A fellow in the back piped up and said, “You got it all wrong young fella. I’m not limited by my wheelchair. My wheelchair is my chariot.” I saw it was just a matter of seeing it another way.
It wasn’t until several months later, that I thought about my own two cousins who had muscular dystrophy at the ages of 17 and 18, when I was only eight years old. I had been amazed at what they could do in their chairs. I soon mastered the skill set taught at Brooks. At the end of two weeks, the director, Dr. Howard Weiss, came over and said tenderly, putting his hand on my shoulder, “We’d love to keep you here, but your insurance isn’t going to pay anymore.”
“Where am I going to go?”
They had carefully looked into this. If I stayed with my brother, living along the Gulf Coast, I could get therapy at a nearby rehab center. There, a little bus could take me back and forth and I could build my legs and learn to walk again.
“But my job is in South Korea!”
Geri, my fiancé, who had arrived while I was still under anesthesia, and stayed with me for the first week at Brooks, had to return to Seoul. We had decided, that if possible, during the winter break, we would get married and then, when I was capable, I would return back to Korea in the spring. I was determined to get back to my regular life, so I said yes.
So, I stayed at my brother’s house, rode on a minibus, learned to walk on little pegs, and eventually progressed to using crutches. During my rehab, I met another veteran – a soldier who had gotten his legs blown off in Iraq. When he learned of our plans to be married and my determination to walk down the aisle, he told my prosthetist, “I’ve got a pair of legs that don’t work for me. They’re the best available in the military. They were given to me, so I could be sent back to Iraq when I was ready, but they won’t work, because one of my legs is too badly damaged. I can’t get the X-3’s to work the way they need to; I’ll stick with this mechanized wheelchair.”
While I was struggling to walk on my pegged feet, my prosthetist, Jack, told me that the soldier wanted to give me his legs, so I could get married and walk down the aisle. It was such a beautiful thing to do. These Ottobock legs sell for over $100,000 each. Now, I was even more determined.
I have met many courageous souls, one outrageous vet who was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. Like me, he’s a double above-the-knee amputee, who is extremely skillful, despite his challenges. He climbs trees. He goes skydiving, wearing special plastic straps on his prosthetics, to keep them from flying off. When I met him, he also had a walking stick, explaining that walking down slopes is the hardest thing to do. As a mountain climber, I had learned to have three points of contact: your two feet and a walking stick in front. I fully understood this need.
Amputee vets underplay their injury. There’s a lot of kidding, rather than accepting any sadness or wanting pity. To someone who has lost fewer limbs than you, they will often say, “you’ve just got a paper cut.” These guys are happy and full of high energy, despite their challenges. They cheer you up, kidding one another about the various levels of injury. Even with them, it’s all a matter of perspective.
These people, including the staff, live their courage, showing there’s nothing you can’t do. You just have to find out how. I see people whose injuries are far worse than mine, but who deal with their traumas with humor, bravery and the will to win.
Both Geri and I were determined, and in fact, we married on December 27, five months after my accident. She flew over right before Christmas, and together with friends, we gathered at a beautiful house on the coast, complete with an infinity pool that dropped into the horizon. There were maybe 50-75 guests sitting on the chairs, by the pool with a walkway and a platform. Our dear friend, an ordained pastor, conducted the service.
From the onset, I was determined to walk and stand, to do my “I do’s.” As the minister was saying, “Christopher, do you take Geri Lynn,” my legs were releasing. I was lolling around like a drunk, with Geri on one side, and my brother on the other. I couldn’t understand what was happening, but my prosthetist, who also was in attendance, saw my plight and knew. My new leather shoes, rather than the tennis shoes I had been using, had a thirty-degree bevel, which caused my bionic knees to release. My prosthetist nearly hollered, “put on your tennis shoes!” but he didn’t. That was the only hitch to a beautiful wedding.
Though determined to go back and teach, I first wanted to improve my skill set. We settled on having our honeymoon that next spring in Hawaii, and from there, together we would return to work In Korea.
Seven years before, Geri and I had met at Seoul American High School, which was on USAG-Yongsan, an army post in central Seoul, South Korea. I was beginning a new year of teaching and coaching and she was the drug and alcohol counselor. Our house was then on the side of a small mountain, outside of Seoul. There in the “green zone” was the home of our landlady, an old shaman who taught a kind of Buddhist dance. She created her own institute, and had a little trolley, built to take her up the side of the mountain. It sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. There were seventy-two railroad-type steps going up to our home. Unfortunately, before the end of the school year, the monsoons began and the railroad ties became so slick, that I was slipping and sliding all over. Previously, doctors had warned that the microchips in my legs did not function well in cold weather. So, with the issues of both winter and spring, I contacted Washington and told them I needed another location.
A possible choice was given: “How about Okinawa?” We immediately agreed. We arrived a few days late in Okinawa, Japan due to a typhoon at the beginning of the school year. We had been told by someone in the DODEA office in Washington, D.C. that we would be able to live on the military base in an ADA compatible one-floor dwelling, and I could get around by using a golf cart. However, when we arrived at the housing office on base, we were informed, “We don’t have a place like that available on base. We are building and will have several available in about a year from now.” Unperturbed, we went looking off base and found a really nice place, one floor, about twenty minutes from the school, and a quarter mile from the ocean with an unbroken vista.
he only problem in our paradise was that I wasn’t active-duty military and therefore couldn’t get weekly physical therapy on base. Within a year, I realized I was starting to lean forward more and more, like an old man. Despite the three years we were in Okinawa, we did explore the island, went scuba diving and even taught and trained again in Mei-ka-ku-kai Aikido.
After deciding to retire with over 34 years overseas, we moved back to America and found a great ADA compliant home in Florida and I soon discovered that I needed a special driver’s license to drive. Using my Japanese device for driving without foot pedals—the SWORD—was ineffective. As I smashed into the house, I realized I needed to go get a special device that would adapt to my newly acquired pickup. I also discovered that I was required to take a special test, in fact, seven required tests, to prove I was capable. These tests included hand-eye coordination, color code, signals, assorted strength tests and perceptual awareness, not to mention the actual driver’s test, using a modified device, which could only be given through a prescription.
In order to follow-through with all of the requirements, I went back to the rehab at Brooks in Jacksonville, and after the testing, I looked up my old physical therapist. At that time, I was using walking sticks. Pleased, he said, “Chris you’re doing well, but you could do a lot better. You’re kind of all scrunched up.” I said, “Yeah, I know. Could I come down and stay awhile with you for a bit of training?” He smiled and said, “I think we can do that.”
or about six weeks, I went to a “boot camp” of sorts, learning how to extend my gait, and walk more upright. I had found it comfortable with being four-on-the-floor: two legs and two walking sticks, but I accepted the challenge, the arduous hours, the physical needs of even them sitting on me in order to get my legs to straighten out. In six weeks, they were smiling and so was I: walking upright without using my canes all the time. Back here, in Pensa about 45 minutes away, I also have a very good physical therapist. I’m working on the hardest things: walking down a slope without a cane, only a gait belt attached, so if I did fall, they can catch me.
How do you keep going? When you’re thinking you just want to sit down for a while. What switch do you turn on in your brain so you decide to do it?
I think it’s my need to know that I have to stay fluid and loose. Having done martial arts for 45 years, I have good stability. I am able to stand still, which they say is one of the hardest things to do. But for me, it’s walking down a slope because the bionic knees release automatically at a certain angle. It’s taken me years to learn. I’ve had almost six years of physical therapy, and I’m able to walk around without canes during my physical therapy. For my daily life, I have a pair of walking canes that I do use. My Honda truck has hand controls which allows me to drive and go where I need to. It’s a stick shift, and as I push the lever forward, it works as a brake, and pulling back, it works as gas, so I am pretty much independent.
That’s incredible. When I was listening to Geri talk about this, I had the impression that at one point, you were in the kind of shape where most people would not walk again.
Well, I’m not the superhero that most people think. They say, “You’re such an inspiration.” I say it’s better than being an exasperation.
the evenings, I get in the wheelchair and wheel myself around, work in the garden, plop in the pool, I know I will hurt if I don’t walk. Your muscles begin to regress and I really feel it when I get a massage. I know that if I don’t work out, my muscles hurt more and more. There’s an expression, “Your motion creates the lotion.” This lotion is more than just body fluids – it is the energy that flows through the body, so movement creates a dynamic momentum. This momentum also is prominent in your mind, so you don’t want to get stuck in one spot.
There are times that I realize, if I don’t move around, if I stay sedentary, my back starts to hurt, my legs hurt. I don’t have the flexibility range. So, I exercise to keep the body flowing, the energy moving through my body. When you don’t move, gravity wins. You get arthritic, and more problems plague the body. When you are sitting in a wheelchair, your body weight sinks, so if you sit in a wheelchair for a long time, your body gets achy. The more you’re able to stretch and extend your body, the more the flow goes through and the better you feel. If I don’t work out with my prosthetic legs, when I do, I’m more unstable. Stretching, staying active, is one of my motivations. I’m determined, someday, to be able to walk around without depending on aids. I’m hoping to teach martial arts again. Specifically, I’m hoping to work with people who also are challenged, and to show them how they are never truly limited.