Courage Fuels the Fire Inside

In many inspirational stories, amputees work hard to relearn skill sets after their amputations. In Isaac Feliciano’s case, he fought for a job he was more than able to do, but was told he could not.

Feliciano’s story begins when he was 4 and a half years old and suffered from spinal meningitis. Gangrene set in his left leg and doctors decided to amputate below the knee to prevent spread of the infection.

For a young child, the 6 months Feliciano spent in the hospital was a lifetime.

“[In] the hospital, when I didn’t have my leg, it seemed like an eternity.”

Even at his young age, he used that experience to fuel his determination. He remembers the first day after he returned home from the hospital. He used his new prosthesis and a walker to go into his mother’s room and wake her in the morning.

But after that, Feliciano said, “I don’t remember using the walker ever again.”

Keeping busy

© 2008 iStock International Inc./TheImageArea

As Feliciano grew up in Paterson, N.J., his prosthesis never prevented him from joining his family and friends in various activities, both recreational and school sports. In high school, he played baseball and was captain of the football team. He took up running the 100 and 200 meters after college but his job and young daughter demanded the attention he would need to qualify for the Paralympics.

Despite his capability in sports, Feliciano spent most of his high school career hiding his prosthesis. Embarrassed of his leg, he always wore long pants so his classmates could not see it — even those who knew he was an amputee.

“I was constantly reevaluating my walking and my running, because I was trying to hide [my prosthesis],” he said. “I guess that kind of perfected [my gait].”

However, he never felt ashamed of his prosthesis at home or in his neighborhood, Feliciano said, and after high school, he stopped trying to hide it. He had found his comfort zone.

“I consider that a blessing because I think when you are younger, it’s much easier to adapt,” he said. “Nowadays, I’m not a person who’s worried about performing. Some people look for excuses — not me.”

Currently, he exercises and plays softball and flag football, the latter on a competitive team he helped take to the championship more than once. He also plans to begin training for an upcoming distance race.

Joining the department

In Feliciano’s community, firefighters are like super heroes, he said. Instead of capes, they have trucks; instead of super human powers, they have courage.

When Feliciano found out the Paterson Fire Department was recruiting new firefighters, he jumped on the chance to join the squad. He and a friend began training for the department’s physical exam, like running 20 flights of stairs with weighted vests. With all their preparation, they both scored well on the exam and eventually were hired for the department.

Before he could begin working, however, he needed to be examined by the department’s physician.

“The doctor looked at my leg and said, ‘What is that?’” Feliciano said.

He explained that he had had a prosthesis since childhood, and, in addition, took — and passed — the physical exam and obstacle course with that prosthesis. The physician was not convinced, and after a series of exercises, still denied Feliciano was fit for the department.

The Paterson Fire Department was unable to hire him without the physician’s approval, and this left everyone at a loss. The hiring chief at the department advised Feliciano to enlist a lawyer.

“There were a lot of [firemen] pulling for me,” he said.

The lawyer began an appeal and a new team of doctors evaluated Feliciano’s physical capabilities. After a wave of local publicity, the decision was overturned and he was hired to the department.

His first official day as a firefighter in the Paterson Fire Department, Engine 1, was April 1, 2007.

“Here it is, more than a year later, I’m on the job working just like everyone else,” he said.

Feliciano joins fellow recruits of the Passaic County Fire Academy Feliciano addresses the media after commencement exercises at the academy
Left: Feliciano joins fellow recruits of the Passaic County Fire Academy. Right: Feliciano addresses the media after commencement exercises at the academy. Feliciano set a legal precedent by overturning the fire department physician’s ruling that he was unfit for duty.
Images reprinted with permission of The Record. ©2007 The Record (Bergen County NJ). Photos by Leslie Barbaro.

Pursuing his dream

Feliciano grew up with quite a few firefighters on the Paterson Fire Department, and they played sports with him for years before he joined the department. Those firefighters welcomed him, and made sure the rest of the department did too.

Although Feliciano never asks for special treatment because of his prosthesis, he does do some things differently from the rest of the firefighters.

The way he gets ready for a fire call, for instance. Most firefighters roll down their uniform pants, step out of their boots and leave that pile intact to step right back into when they get another call. Feliciano, on the other hand, has an extra prosthesis that stays in his boot. When he gets a fire call, he takes off one shoe and one prosthesis, and steps into one boot and another prosthesis.

“It’s like an extension of my boot. I just jump into that and nine times out of 10, I’m in the truck waiting for [the other firefighters to get ready],” he told O&P Business News.

Setting new goals

Now that he has set a precedent with his court case, Feliciano spends time talking to people about his experience. He does not hide his prosthesis; instead “I own it now as a responsibility to show people who are not aware, like the [department’s physician], that people with prostheses can still do the job,” he said.

In addition, he has joined the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA), and has spoken to many people who say they are inspired by his story and his courage.

Feliciano’s friends in the ACA were not surprised that he made it to the fire department, he said, because they know that amputees are just as capable as able-bodied people. It was the able-bodied people who were more surprised — and inspired — by his achievement.

His only regret, he said, is that he did not learn of the larger amputee community and programs like the ACA and Paralympic team when he was young.

“My goal is to reach out to those people, people who might be interested in [participating in those activities],” he said.

He told O&P Business News about wanting to enter the Jordan Shoe Disability Essay Contest — set up by Brand Jordan and April Holmes, the fastest female runner in the United States — in which each winner receives 100 pairs of sneakers. But he does not need 100 pairs of sneakers, he said. Instead, he wants to win so he can donate them to kids who are less fortunate.

“You can’t enjoy all this stuff by yourself,” he said. “You have to help out others. If I can help anyone come along, that’s what I’m all about.”

Stephanie Z. Pavlou is a staff writer for O&P Business News.

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