What is your definition of a hero? It was a simple question. But when asked to personally define hero, Iraq veteran and Paralympian Melissa Stockwell, social worker Jenee Areeckal and former Major League pitcher Jim Abbott hesitated. They took long pauses and searched for the perfect string of terms that could do the word justice. It carries a lot of weight. All three struggled for an answer. But maybe that is the point. Sure, the word can be defined, but it is the actions of a person that makes a hero.
In this article, we meet three people – all amputees and all heroes – who are changing the lives of those around them.
Stockwell always had a passion for the American flag. Her sense of commitment to the United States growing up led her to the Army where she would defend the flag she loved.
“When anyone ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said, ‘to be in the Army,’” Stockwell said. “But I don’t come from a military family at all so my parents thought it was just a phase I was passing through.”
This was not just a phase. Stockwell told her parents she was joining the ROTC and spent her last 3 years at the University of Colorado in the program.
In March of 2004, Stockwell’s 1st Calvary division was deployed to Iraq. On April 13, 2004 on a routine convoy through central Baghdad, Stockwell’s HUMVEE was hit by a roadside bomb. What resulted was the loss of her left leg above the knee. Stockwell’s husband, Dick, who was also a soldier in a different location in Iraq, was the first person to tell her the devastating news.
Like Stockwell, Abbott had a passion and strived every day to pursue it. Abbott was born without his right hand but his mindset was to find a way around his disability rather than use it as an excuse.
“I think anybody, not just amputees, can benefit from the open-mindedness to any solution,” he said.
Abbott learned to perfect his throwing motion playing catch with his father. On the mound, he placed the right-handed fielder’s glove on his right wrist and threw the ball with his left hand. On his follow through, Abbott would slide his left hand into his glove, ready to catch the ball. Abbott played so much baseball as a kid that the throwing motion became second nature.
“It was a means to an end because I loved baseball, I loved to play and I never really thought about it in terms of work or practice, it was just something that I wanted to do and once we played catch we said, well let’s try this or let’s do that,” Abbott said.
Areeckal has been a clinical social worker at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) in California since September 2006. At CHOC, Areeckal works with teens facing amputation and oncology patients battling cancer.
“I think the mental aspect is so important, especially for late teens,” she said. “The teen population piques my interest the most because I was a teen myself as a cancer patient.”
Areeckal was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer commonly found among children at the age of 15. She was undecided about whether to amputate or try to fuse her knee. After a positive interaction with an amputee peer visitor she opted for the surgery and underwent a left transfemoral amputation.
Peer support systems for amputees can be effective tools in helping new amputees adjust to their new way of life. Areeckal’s peer supporter, Reny Matthew also battled ostoegenic sarcoma and lost her leg at the age of 10. In fact, Matthew was from the same Indian descent and had lived in the same Indian community as Areeckal’s parents. Areeckal related to and leaned on her peer supporter about subjects ranging from clothing to dating. For Areeckal, it was important for her to relate to a woman amputee, especially in her teenage years. They still remain friends today.
Stockwell spent a year at Walter Reed Medical Center in Virginia rehabilitating her leg. Like Areeckal, Stockwell had the comfort of knowing she was not alone.
“You’re in a hospital ward with 40 or so other amputees who have all gone through what you’ve been through,” Stockwell explained. “They’ve been hit by roadside bombs or rocket propelled grenades and have lost two or three limbs. You constantly talk to other people.”
Stockwell battled infections and was at one point, near death. After recovering, she continued rehabilitation at Walter Reed.
One of her exercises for physical therapy was swimming. The seed had been planted and after some pushing from her husband, the goal had been set. She was going to try out for the 2008 Paralympic swim team.
“You have to make a decision to either accept what happened and move on or you can kind of live in the past and say what if this and what if that and why me,” Stockwell said. “But there’s really no point to it. I wasn’t getting my leg back so I made the decision early to accept it and move on.”
Sense of optimism
Areeckal attended Cal State Fullerton in the fall of 1987. In 1988, doctors informed Areeckal that cancer had been found once again. The cancer had spread to her heart. She went in for open heart surgery and was put on chemotherapy. She survived and went back to school while undergoing chemotherapy.
“My doctor was understanding and encouraged me to do chemo and school at the same time,” she told O&P Business News. “It took me a little longer to graduate but it was a great way for me to teach my kids that even though the cancer is there, life goes on. Cancer shouldn’t be your life. Your life isn’t cancer.”
Areeckal soon realized she was gaining vast amounts of knowledge from listening to other amputees tell their stories and situations. Her oncologist also brought her in to speak with his cancer and amputee patients. Areeckal became a crucial part of the healing process for amputee patients. She became a peer supporter.
“It showed other amputees that here is a patient that we have and she’s done very well and she’s going to college. It was my oncologist that kind of got me in this route of either becoming a doctor or a social worker.”
Abbott understood that spectators, coaches and opposing players would judge him at first glance. However, Abbott learned that his abilities on the field overshadowed his disability.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s wearing a prosthesis or just a little different way of switching the glove on and off,” he explained. “It’s finding a way to get yourself in the game.”
His drive and mission was to get the most out of himself.
“I dedicated myself almost entirely to do the best I could on the field,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s dedication to his craft certainly paid off. He played so well in high school that he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. He elected, however, to pitch at the University of Michigan. Here, Abbott was awarded the Golden Spikes Award, an honor given to the most outstanding college baseball player in the country. In the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, Abbott pitched a complete game for the U.S. baseball team giving the United States its first gold medal in Olympic baseball competition.
Stockwell was an underdog as she trained for the 2008 Paralympics at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. She knew she was an underdog, everyone did, but for a woman who lost her left leg to a roadside bomb, fought off numerous infections and was competing to swim for the Paralympics, underdog loses its meaning. She was swimming in front of cheering friends and fans, in front of a loving family and a team that always supported her. How could she lose? She did not lose. She shaved 17 seconds off her best time and qualified for four events at the Paralympics. She was headed to Beijing to represent the United States.
After becoming one of the best amateur pitchers ever to the play the game, the California Angels selected Abbott eighth overall in the draft. Most players spend years in the minor leagues, honing their mechanics and fundamental skills, waiting for that one chance to make it to the major leagues. Abbott was not most players. He went right from the college level to the major leagues, completely skipping the minors.
“I felt as though I was really fortunate,” he said. “I was blessed with a lot of ability and I was trying to make the most of that ability as I possibly could. That was my mission. That was my drive.”
In 1993, pitching for the New York Yankees, Abbott threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium. All the hours spent playing catch with his dad, perfecting his throwing motion, sliding his glove from one hand to other, came together on baseball’s biggest stage.
“It’s good to make it and it’s good to get the chance, but it is fantastic to get the chance and then do well,” Abbott said
Areeckal has been playing wheelchair tennis for over a year. She believes it has been a powerful tool for her because it is a way for her and her peers to stay active.
“I think sports are a great way to show that you can do it,” Areeckal said. “I think tennis gives you that confidence that you can play with able-bodied people and your peers.”
With that enjoyment in mind, she created a tennis clinic for the cancer patients at CHOC who have become amputees due to cancer. She hopes to open more clinics for CHOC.
“I have one amputee who is a below-the-knee and we got him into the clinic,” she explained. “He loves it and now he is playing all different kinds of sports. He’s doing great and he has a great attitude. I think sports have really showed him that he can be around his own peers.”
“I honestly believe there is a hero in everybody and I know that must sound so cliché,” she explained. “I just think everyone can contribute to making a difference in somebody’s life and in society itself.”
Areeckal continues to educate amputee teenagers and cancer patients. She is also a witness to the struggles of her patients paying for their prostheses. It is difficult for many of them to obtain insurance. Without a proper fitting prosthesis, activity levels may drop.
“Sometimes I feel like once I’m finished being a social worker maybe I need to be an advocate and push these insurance companies to understand the importance of allowing amputees to have a prosthesis,” she said.
When she was younger, Stockwell would decorate her room with the American flag. In 2008, she was chosen to hold our flag for the closing ceremonies at the Paralympic Games in Beijing. Today, she is working to become a certified prosthetist. Similarly to Areeckal, Stockwell’s own experiences drew her to the O&P field. She is currently working on her residency for Scheck and Siress Prosthetics and Orthotics in Chicago.
Abbott will be the keynote speaker at the 2009 American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association National Assembly in Seattle. Along with motivational speaking, Abbott works with young children with disabilities.
“I am proud of that role and being able to talk to them and passing on that sense of optimism that I was fortunate enough to encounter when I was growing up. And that is my goal and mission at this point,” Abbott said.
These three heroes share a common thread. Their sense of optimism rarely wavered. For Abbott, despite having only one hand, he completely trusted his skills as a baseball player. Areeckal graduated from college despite surviving numerous relapses of cancer and is now speaking to kids fighting the same battle at CHOC. Stockwell quickly accepted her amputation and accomplished one of the greatest feats in Paralympic history.
“You need to be constantly active and have a good state of mind to tell yourself that you can do anything even when there are those times where you can’t,” Areeckal explained. “You have to try to find a way around something you can’t do.”
Anthony Calabro is a staff reporter for O&P Business News.