This past July, spectators watched two members of the amputee skydiving team “Pieces of 8” jump out of an airplane during a demonstration at the opening ceremonies of the O&P Extremity Games by College Park. One of those men was Keith Ragusa, a modest American hero.
As a skydiver in the mid-1980s, Ragusa accumulated about 100 jumps before heading to the Middle East with the military. Today, he is sharing the value of everyday and making every jump count along with the other members of “Pieces of 8.”
Keeping the peace
As a young infantry officer in 1988, Ragusa was a member of the military long before the current conflict in the Middle East and one of its predecessors – Operation Desert Storm. He was on a peacekeeping mission which was packed with more danger than any of the officers could anticipate.
Ragusa was picking up an observation team when their vehicle hit an anti-tank mine. The blast left Ragusa’s legs shattered from the knees down. He sat in the desert heat for more than 1½ hours waiting for a Canadian helicopter to find and airlift him to an Israeli hospital. When he arrived at the hospital, Ragusa was unsure of the status of his health. As doctors examined his legs, they told him there was a likelihood they would need to amputate both.
Relieved to hear that his life was not in question, Ragusa instructed the doctors to do whatever they had to do. He was just happy to be alive.
The doctors did not amputate as planned, but later Ragusa would undergo a left leg amputation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He is now a long below-knee amputee up from the standard Symes by about a half an inch.
Important things in life
Following his amputation and return to his home state of Washington, Ragusa met with his prosthetist, Mike Podrasky, CPO, owner of Valley Orthopedic, to whom he was referred following his recovery. This meeting would later develop into a lifelong working relationship as well as an unexpected friendship. They have been working together for more than 15 years.
“I do not plan on limping around for the rest of my life,” Ragusa told Podrasky in one of their early appointments and Podrasky was determined to help Ragusa meet his goals.
“We are in the business of giving people opportunities and possibilities,” Podrasky told O&P Business News. “That is the fun part of it. Actually sitting down and connecting with these individuals is an important part of the process and we need to do that as prosthetists and orthotists.”
“He has given me back a free range of options,” Ragusa said.
Podrasky can relay personal stories about Ragusa’s skydiving adventures including one tale in which Ragusa’s prosthesis came off during a jump. He tells the story like an old friend modestly taking little to no credit for the role he has played in increasing Ragusa’s activity level.
“We have a professional side and we get serious when we have to get serious, and you listen when you have to listen, and you bring that into the context of who this individual is so you get beyond the professional end and they share with you things that are important to them in their life. By establishing that relationship, you can work together. That is what it is all about … it is about them.”
Life in the sky
“Pieces of 8” was founded in the 1970s by Al Krueger and Larry Yount. As amputees, they could not find a place to skydive that would accept the liability of the two men jumping on their premises fearing injuries. Throughout the years, what started as a couple of people looking for a place to jump, has grown into an international endeavor of about 50 members. Every few years, available members of the group join together for a world record attempt, the most recent of which was in September 2006 in Perris Valley, Calif.
Ragusa joined “Pieces of 8” in the early 1990s and has since had so many jumps that he has lost track over time. In addition to an avid interest in skydiving, he also participates in other sports including road and mountain biking.
Ragusa stresses how diligently Podrasky has worked to continue to provide him with the comfort and function he uses everyday.
“I guarantee that without some of the things we have worked on over the years, there is no way that I would have been able to do a lot of those things,” Ragusa said.
“Here is a gentleman who has had a life changing event and now he is looking at possibilities and we are here talking together exploring possibilities … seeing what his potentials are and using technology to hopefully meet those goals,” Podrasky said. “We have other veterans that come in and share war stories and personal events. He is an inspiration to a lot of people including myself. There are my heroes.”
Jennifer Hoydicz is a staff writer for O&P Business News.