Jeff Waldmuller poses for a photo, holding two oversized checks
and proudly showing off the most recent additions to his growing collection of
medals after placing first in the men’s elite kayaking division and third
in the elite rock climbing competition at Extremity Games 7 in New Braunfels,
Texas. Waldmuller’s accomplishments are especially impressive given that
only 3 years ago, he almost lost his right arm in the same accident that
claimed his right leg.
In December 2008, Waldmuller was studying music at the University of
Houston and had established a career as a professional musician. The then
24-year-old had returned home to Wichita Falls, Texas to visit his family for
the holidays. One night, he was riding his motorcycle and found himself
traveling in adjacent lanes with a tractor trailer. As they entered a slight
turn, the 18-wheeler abruptly cut into Waldmuller’s lane, trapping him
between the truck and a wall. Waldmuller was sucked underneath the truck by the
Images: Gilbride M. , O&P Business News
Waldmuller’s life was saved by the protective gear that he was
wearing, but he sustained extensive injuries to the right side of his body. His
leg and elbow were crushed, his knee, hip and ankle were dislocated and the
soft tissue in his leg had detached from the connecting bones.
“I woke up in the intensive care unit, and a couple of hours later,
the doctors unwrapped all of my bandages so I could assess what was going
on,” Waldmuller told O&P Business News. “There was a blue
line in the middle of my thigh and one going across my right bicep, and I
immediately knew what that meant.”
Waldmuller’s doctors recommended amputations of his right leg and
arm, but Waldmuller, a life-long musician, resisted the idea. He opted to
salvage his limbs and underwent a series of painful surgeries before returning
to his parents’ home in a wheelchair.
“Initially, the doctors told me that I would never walk again, and
if I did, I would be in a lot of pain,” Waldmuller said. “I went from
complete independence to complete dependence. I couldn’t do anything by
myself, so it was really tough.”
Waldmuller began working with physical and occupational therapists for a
few hours a day, 5 days a week. Although he made significant improvements with
the mobility in his arm, able to play the guitar and trumpet again after a few
months, his leg continued to hinder him.
“My heel had been crushed to the point where I wasn’t getting
circulation, and it became necrotic and basically fell off. So I had no viable
tissue to walk on and would have to wear modified shoes,” Waldmuller said.
“I was barely bearing any weight in my right leg.”
Drive to independence
Waldmuller was growing frustrated with his dependence on other people,
so in February 2009, only 3 months after his accident, he decided that he was
going to drive his own car.
“On my birthday, I got out of my wheelchair, my dad helped me get
into my car and I drove around my yard with my left foot,” Waldmuller
said. “That was a big turning point for me, and I knew that it was time to
get serious and become independent again.”
Waldmuller began driving himself to his appointments and slowly began to
reclaim his independence, but he was still frustrated with being limited to a
“One morning in March, I woke up and could smell my mom cooking
breakfast down the hall, and I decided, ‘I am going to walk today. I
don’t care how much it hurts, I am going to walk into the kitchen and hug
my mom,’” Waldmuller said. “So I stood up and walked down the
hall, and my mom looked up like normal at first, and then started crying, and I
walked over and hugged her. It was very emotional, as if I was taking my first
baby steps again.”
Decision to amputate
That fall, he enrolled at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls
to finish his degree. Despite the improvements he was making with his
rehabilitation, Waldmuller was still in a tremendous amount of pain.
“I was fed up with my leg, so 2 weeks into the semester, I decided
to visit a prosthetist against my parents’ wishes,” he said. “I
told them I was going to see a ‘foot specialist.’”
Waldmuller travelled to Oklahoma City to Scott Sabolich Prosthetics.
During his visit, he met Roderick Green, a Paralympic sprinter, who awed
Waldmuller with his athletic abilities.
“I watched him play basketball and run, and the things I saw him
doing were right up my alley,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I can
do this. I don’t want to be limping around for the rest of my life. This
is where I need to be.’”
That night, Waldmuller called his orthopedic surgeon and relayed his
decision to amputate. He was brought in the following Monday for a preoperative
visit, and 2 days later Waldmuller underwent a bone bridge procedure, where the
tibia and fibula are fused together, which Waldmuller describes as, “the
best decision of this life.”
In January 2010, Waldmuller received his first prosthesis.
“Walking on the prosthesis felt completely natural,” he said.
“I went home and showed it off to my family, and then I celebrated with my
friends by rollerblading through the hallways of their dormitory. After that, I
didn’t look back.”
Waldmuller, who had always been active in sports before his accident,
began to regain his athletic abilities. The Challenged Athletes Foundation
purchased him a mountain bike, and he started working with Scott Sabolich
Prosthetics and Roderick Green to improve his running.
“Losing my leg only accelerated my drive and determination to do
everything. To take more risks and try new things,” Waldmuller said.
“I’m much more athletic now than I have ever been.”
He competed in his first adaptive sports competition, Endeavor Games, in
June 2010, bringing home a few gold medals.
“That was only the beginning,” Waldmuller said. “Now
there’s hardly anything that I can’t do. I mountain bike, run track
and field, wakeboard and rock climb. You name it. I am out there doing it, and
I’m always looking for more opportunities to pursue adaptive sports.”
Waldmuller discovered Extremity Games (eXG) on the Web and immediately
knew that he wanted to compete. He went to his first eXG in 2010, winning the
gold medals in the elite rock climbing and novice kayaking competitions.
“Extremity Games is right up my alley because I love extreme
sports. Everyone involved is really awesome, a very tight-knit family,” he
said. “And I love that the organizers are there in person interacting with
the athletes and families.”
Waldmuller most recently competed at the US Paralympic Track and Field
trials in Indiana in early July. He raced in the men’s 100-m and 200-m
sprints, and competed in the long jump competition. Although he did not qualify
for the Paralympic Games in London, Waldmuller is confident that the
Paralympics remain in his future.
“It was a good experience, and I will take what I learned and use
it for next time, because I will go to the Paralympics one of these days,”
he said. “Now I will start focusing on the upcoming indoor track season,
and I will be aiming for the World Championships, which will be hosted in
France next year.”
Although Waldmuller is still involved in music, his accident has also
spurred him to pursue a new career as a prosthetist.
“I’ve performed more than 500 hours of internship already and
was recently accepted into the prosthetic program at Northwestern
University,” Waldmuller said. “My accident changed my entire life
around, and my doctors and prosthetists and CAF have been a wonderful help with
getting me to where I need to be. I can honestly say that it has been a true
blessing.” — by Megan Gilbride
Disclosure: Waldmuller has no relevant financial disclosures.