Special Operations

Six weeks after returning home from Iraq, where she served in the U.S. Army, Lt. Col. Patty Collins was hit by an automobile while cycling to work. Her left leg was mangled. She sustained compound fractures to her tibia and fibula and lost the majority of the cartilage in her tibiotalor joint. For 10 months, Collins battled through pain and endured rigorous physical rehabilitation in the hopes of saving her leg. Collins competed in Ironman distance triathlons while in college at Rutgers University and began competitive cycling while in the Army. For Collins, the thought of being unable to continue her active lifestyle would be nothing short of a nightmare. Her doctors recommended ankle-fusion. She refused. Collins had another idea. On May 9, 2007, she opted to undergo a transtibial amputation.

Mind over body

Image reprinted with permission from Disabled Sports USA.

“I do not regret my decision … and would not take my leg back if it were offered,” Collins said.

In sports, preparation and a positive mindset are arguably more important than physical ability. As an athlete and soldier in the Army, Collins understood this. She may have lost her leg, but her mind would not let her body fail.

“I was an athlete before losing my leg, lost my leg as a result of being physically active and never doubted I would continue to pursue athletics afterward,” Collins told O&P Business News.

Collins was raised not to let inconveniences get in the way of accomplishing her goals. It was this mindset that helped her ultimately succeed.

“Your mind is exponentially stronger than your body and if there is something you want to do, your mind will enable your body to find a way,” Collins said.

Following her amputation and recovery, Collins completed numerous 5K runs and bike rides 100 miles in distance. She has also worked with programs allowing amputees the opportunity to participate in sports as a form of rehabilitation and recovery. One such program is Ride2Recovery, which targets wounded veterans and introduces them to bicycling as a form of mental and physical rehabilitation.

“Meeting and cycling for a week with amputee veterans from Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan is a really special experience,” Collins explained. “In particular, cycling with veterans in their 60s who lost their limbs more than 40 years ago is true motivation and an indication of what we have to look forward to as we age.”

Operation Rebound

Collins is also involved in the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) program Operation Rebound sponsored by Accenture, Buddy Bowl, National Bank of Kansas City, Ossur and TriWest Healthcare Alliance. Operation Rebound is a program for veterans and first responders who have experienced traumatic injuries. According to the CAF Web site, the goals of Operation Rebound are to reach out to wounded service members and veterans to provide education on what is possible as an amputee, foster dialogue and help answer questions for participants suffering permanent disabilities and inspire service members and veterans to become active and physically fit through participation in CAF events.

Like Ride2Recovery, Operation Rebound gives participants the opportunity to remain physically active despite their disabilities. In Collins’ view, the program is a way to take back emotionally, what they may have lost physically. Collins also pointed out the importance of the friendly competition and camaraderie that is brought to the program by its participants.

“The program offers the feeling that there is a group of men and women who have been or are going through where we’ve all been,” Collins said. “The overwhelming support of the communities who come out and raise funds and race with us is really fantastic.”

CAF partners

While at the San Diego Triathlon Challenge in 2008, Collins met transfemoral amputee veteran and paralympian, Melissa Stockwell. There, they watched as the CAF presented a 9-year-old girl with her first Ossur Junior Flex running foot. As they watched the girl accept her new hot pink running prosthesis, Collins and Stockwell realized the full appreciation they had for their military health care and the Veterans Affairs. Collins and Stockwell never had to wish for better care or more of a variety in prosthetics.

“There are many children and families who do not have unlimited resources for a variety of prosthetic options and they may be held back from just going outside and enjoying everyday activities,” Collins explained.

Collins and Stockwell exchanged different fundraising ideas and presented them to Jill Prichard, director of programs at CAF. Collins and Stockwell, with the support of Aflac Iron Girl, raised funds at the Aflac Iron Girl Triathlon in Las Vegas to help pay for specialized equipment, training and coaching expenses for physically challenged girls. Collins hopes to continue the relationship as an annual event.

Continued dedication

Collins is currently deployed in Afghanistan as an Army signal officer. She works with communications equipment such as computers, phones, radios and satellites. She is also an advisor on the International Security Forces Afghanistan staff working to bring new technologies and information management tools to the coalition forces.

Collins has been in the military for more than 18 years and has begun to contemplate life outside of the military. She is seriously considering staying within the O&P field in some capacity and is certain that she will work with amputees and athletics in some form. There are more projects on the horizon and in the future she envisions an outreach program for the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered limb loss as a result of recent conflicts.

“The losses of innocent families and children here is significant and yet their health care resources are so very limited,” she explained. “It is simply unfathomable to think the majority of them will never have a prosthesis.”

Collins refuses to sit on the sidelines in any aspect of her life.

“Yes, it is an absolutely long and difficult road to recovery, but it is one which will strengthen you, both mentally and physically,” she explained. “The reward of learning to run again was so much sweeter at 38 versus when I was a child. I could remember and experience every new step all over again and never take it for granted.”

Anthony Calabro is a staff reporter for O&P Business News.

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