Transtibial amputee Ben Quinn spends most of his time wakeboarding, or dirt bike riding when on dry land. But it was a skydiving accident that brought him to this place in his life.
On Aug. 21, 2004, Quinn went skydiving with a friend. As they separated, 6,000 feet above the ground, his friend stayed above him, and Quinn’s parachute opened directly below his friend, causing a mid-air collision at 4,000 feet.
Three months and $3 million
“I went from 120 miles an hour to 20 miles an hour, and he was still cooking at 120 and pretty much slammed right into me,” he said.
The accident caused nerve damage in his leg and kept him in and out of surgery. He faced severe depression as he came to accept the fact that doctors would not be able to save his leg. Finally, they told him that infection would lead him back to the intensive care unit if they did not amputate soon.
He prayed and spoke to other amputees who assured him that prostheses were advanced and that he would be able to regain his activity level after his recovery.
“It was encouraging to talk to other amputees and know that I was going to have my life back,” he said.
Quinn took their words to heart.
“I decided to go through with it and quit fighting it,” he said. “I wish I would have made the decision sooner.”
In early October 2004, doctors amputated Quinn’s left leg below the knee. He spent 2 months at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, and then another month in and out of surgery in Washington state, where his mother, a retired operating room nurse, cared for him.
“Three months and $3 million. I’m pretty sure the insurance company knows me by name,” he said.
Amputation did not quell Quinn’s long-running interest in sports, and that fueled his recovery process. He also said he owes his quick progress to his prosthetist, Tom Broselle, CPO, at Cornerstone Prosthetics & Orthotics in Bellingham, Wash., and the rest of his rehabilitation team.
“They never closed a door,” he said. “They never said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to do that.’ It was, ‘Let’s see what we can do to make that work.’”
Within one month of his amputation, Quinn received his first prosthesis and started learning to walk again. Beginning with the parallel bars and then a walker at home, he quickly progressed to using crutches and a cane, before he was able to walk unassisted only a short time later. His rehab team switched him to a stationary bicycle to rebuild his strength.
He made it back on to a snowboard in Lake Tahoe by February 2005, just 6 months after his accident.
“It probably wasn’t a good idea but I did it anyway. It wasn’t a good idea,” he said.
After his post-amputation snowboarding attempt, he decided to try wakeboarding. His years living in Lake Tahoe had given him a good deal of experience at this sport. Because of the small size of the resort community, Quinn and his friends frequently went wakeboarding — and participated in other sports — with riders at the professional level, who instructed them about form and technique.
“That definitely benefitted me when I was trying to learn with a prosthetic,” Quinn told O&P Business News. “Working with a prosthetic was kind of learning it all over again … I just realized that I could probably get back up to the level of riding fairly quickly if I could get behind a boat enough.”
He began making contacts with anyone he knew who had a boat, which he found to be more difficult living in Bellingham than it had been in Lake Tahoe. Broselle introduced him to friends with wakeboard boats, and also to the sporting event that brought back life to Quinn.
Quinn had recounted all of his pre-amputation extreme sports stories to his prosthetist by the time he settled with a prosthesis. Once Quinn began skydiving again, Broselle suggested he enter the Extremity Games, then in its first year. Quinn said it was just the type of competition he would have joined prior to his amputation.
“I was all about it, but at the time, I just didn’t feel ready to compete,” he said.
He waited until the next year and signed up for the recreational wakeboarding category in the second Extremity Games in 2007. He placed first.
In Quinn’s second year competing — the Extremity Games’ third year — he stepped up to the advanced division and placed third. He will be back to compete again this July.
He does not compete just to win, however; he enjoys the excitement of the Games, and the ability to participate in such an incredible event, he said.
“They need to throw [Beth Geno, Extremity Events Network board member] a huge party. I can’t imagine what kind of stress she goes under trying to get that thing going. They did an excellent job,” he said.
Without the motivation to compete in this way, Quinn said he might have never become athletic as an amputee.
“I probably wouldn’t have pushed. It gave me an extra drive to get back into sports and really push myself and get back in shape,” he said. “There are a lot of us who are really competitive and the Extremity Games is something that drives people to do that.”
The Extremity Games are not only important to him personally, but critical to the whole O&P profession, Quinn said.
“This is progressing prosthetics,” he said. “Each time I go out on the water, each time I get in a sport, I’m talking to my prosthetist and we change things. That’s how you progress a sport. That’s how you progress equipment.”
Now 27, Quinn has given some thought to his career recently, and has decided to begin studying rehabilitative medicine, specifically prosthetics and orthotics, this fall. His current job as a fabricator at Architectural Elements, where he builds artistic architectural products, allows him the opportunity to work with his hands, and because of his experience as an amputee, he feels compelled to help others in similar situations.
“I’ve been realizing that would probably be a pretty good fit for me,” he said.
Quinn said he also plans to continue competing in the Extremity Games, and encourages other amputees to attend the event because of the wealth of information available — from both company sponsors and other amputees — about new prosthetic technology and ways to adapt to various situations.
“I would go even if I wasn’t competing,” he said. “It shows amputees that you can still get out there and have fun. It’s not the end of your life.”
For Quinn, it was the beginning.
Stephanie Z. Pavlou, ELS, is a staff writer for O&P Business News.