In 1987, Anthony Zukowski was 21 years old, working his way through college at a steel service center in Grand Rapids, Mich. On Oct. 8, he happened to be in “the wrong place at the wrong time” near the new $1.5 million steel slitter machine, and suffered a degloving injury and 76 fractures in his left arm.
His injuries led to a 4-inch transradial amputation, as well as a skin graft covering a square-foot from his mid-bicep to the end of his residual limb.
“It definitely changed my life,” Zukowski said.
It was an entire year before his skin graft healed, and Zukowski was unable to be fit with a prosthesis during this time. Several physicians suggested re-amputating above the elbow because of his extensive injuries but, in the end, his orthopedic surgeon saved the joint.
His first prosthesis consisted of a hard socket, and shear forces caused painful skin breakdown.
“Back then prostheses were quite cumbersome,” he told O&P Business News. “I wasn’t able to do a lot for a long time, and I didn’t have a lot of hope.”
Zukowski continued to struggle with his prosthetic device for almost 15 years after his accident. As time passed, prosthetists began applying technology from lower extremity prostheses to upper extremity prostheses, such as with gel roll-on liners. His prosthetist eventually fit him with this liner, which prevented the skin breakdown and allowed him better use of his arm.
But because he had been in pain for so long, he did not become active right away.
“I didn’t do a whole lot. I pretty much sat on bar stools and smoked cigarettes for a long time,” he said. “One day I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and went out and bought a mountain bike.”
Some of his friends had become involved in biking and, with their insistence, Zukowski joined them in the fresh air.
Once Zukowski decided to become active in bike riding, he went out and bought a mountain bike. But before riding, he needed to figure out how the bike would accommodate his condition. He found a steering wheel attachment that worked with his hook, and moved the bike’s front break lever and front derailer shifter so that all of his controls were on the right side of the bike and he could manipulate them with his sound limb.
“It was pretty cumbersome at first,” he said.
However, being a mechanical designer, he deemed this his pet project and spent the next few years perfecting the design. Now he has an attachment device that connects to his everyday prosthesis, so that he never is stuck on the trail with only a specialized terminal device. Over the years, he also fashioned a bicycle-specific prosthesis that holds his posture while he rides, preventing him from leaning over asymmetrically.
“Pretty much any time I’d go out on the bicycle it was a [research and development] ride. Some variable changed, whether it was another prototype hook attachment, something within the bike, or even something on the [prosthesis],” he said. “There was always something different there for a long, long time.”
Now 43 years old, Zukowski is a board eligible prosthetist at Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics in Salina, Kans. He made the switch to prosthetics in 2003, and while attending Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., he heard about the Extremity Games.
He had just begun mountain biking, and the first annual Extremity Games, in 2006, offered a BMX race, so he adapted a low-gravity mountain bike and drove down to Orlando to test out his racing skills.
“I didn’t think I had much of a chance,” Zukowski said. “I was just there to have fun and show off what I did with the bike.”
He hoped to help other amputees through his strength and experience creating adaptations for his bike.
“Lo and behold, I won the event that year.”
In 2007, he made additional adaptations to a single-speed mountain bike, and took first place in both the BMX race and the mountain bike race.
Last year, the Extremity Games moved to Michigan, and the short track mountain bike race became a 10-mile course at Pontiac Lake Recreation Area in Waterford. In addition to second place in that race, he also won first place in the BMX race.
He said he looks forward to this year’s Games.
Overall, Zukowski has suffered only minor scrapes and scratches since he began biking, until September 2008. By far his worst biking injury, he sustained a right elbow break, which resulted in olecranon fixation.
“That was my good [arm],” he said. “That has been challenging.
“When I broke it, I couldn’t feed myself or dress myself. I couldn’t take my prosthesis on or off.”
Because he lives about 1,000 miles from his family on both coasts, he had to enlist friends to help him get ready in the morning.
His physician has given him the go-ahead to work on strengthening his arm, but he still is 30· from full extension, which he hopes to get to 20· to 15·. In the meantime, Zukowski maintains his strength by running, swimming and throwing punches in the water to further stretch his tendon. He would like to get back to biking soon, starting with some easy bicycling on his road bike, but he is waiting to regain arm strength that will support his upper body.
Jump right in
His first order of business coming up is to straighten his elbow and increase his degree of mobility. Once he checks that off his list, he plans to jump right back into biking, and some other activities, like running.
When Zukowski lived in Michigan, he participated in the Fifth Third 25K River Bank Run, and set his personal best by completing it in fewer than 2 hours.
“I smoked cigarettes for two decades. To finish a 25K run in 2 hours is pretty good for a guy like me,” he said.
He hopes to participate in more events like this — such as the XTERRA Off-Road Triathlon and the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s San Diego Triathlon Challenge, once he can coordinate a team — and continue competing in the Extremity Games each year.
Zukowski said he is thankful for the ability to network with others like him through amputee organizations and events, like the Extremity Games. These resources helped rescue him from what he called “a dark and gloomy time” and bring him into the light.
“Nowadays we’re globally connected with the Internet. We can see pictures of other people doing these things, and that gives people hope. You know that you are able to do things despite having some challenges,” he said. “I think that is a great thing and I’m grateful for that now.”
Stephanie Z. Pavlou, ELS, is a staff writer for O&P Business News.