In 2009, Randy Herlein’s life changed in an instant.
It was a simple chore: helping his son move. He was running up the stairs in his son’s house when his right leg snapped in half.
“I sat there on the steps thinking, legs don’t just break. What happened here?” Herlein said.
For three months, Herlein wore a cast and waited for his leg to heal. During that time, he contemplated whether or not there was something more that contributed to his leg breaking and set up an appointment with Mayo Clinic.
Randy was diagnosed with bone cancer.
“That is a moment no one wants to experience, or hear the words, ‘you have cancer,’” Herlein said.
The first thing physicians wanted to do was to stop the cancer’s spread. They told Herlein they would like to be able to save his leg, but they would need to save his life. Less than 24 hours after Randy arrived at Mayo Clinic, his leg was amputated.
“That began my journey with ‘OK now what do I do?’” he said.
Finding the right prosthetist
Herlein became a patient at Prosthetic Laboratories, which has seven ABC-accredited facilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“When I first met Randy Herlein, he came to our office from Mayo Clinic. He originally was diagnosed with a bone tumor, kind of like I was, and his leg was amputated above the knee,” said Mike Schulenberg, CPO, Herlein’s prosthetist and fellow amputee.
When Schulenberg met Herlein, he could tell Herlein was struggling with his prosthesis.
“He couldn’t find anybody that would make things work for him,” Schulenberg said.
During one of Herlein’s checkups at Mayo Clinic, he also met with several practitioners from Prosthetic Laboratories who asked him: “If there was anything in the world you could do, what would you do?”
Herlein’s request was clear. As a lifelong athlete and outdoorsman before he had lost his leg, he was planning to hike down the Grand Canyon. As an amputee, his wish was the same: he wanted to hike down the Grand Canyon with a prosthetic leg.
During the next few years, Herlein’s prosthetic team built him a new prosthetic leg and socket. They continued to monitor his progress and customize his care, and advocated for the use of a microprocessor-controlled prosthesis.
“I started training in 2012 for the Grand Canyon hike when I got my Genium knee. Then I really began getting serious,” he said.
Ribbons for others
As Herlein trained, he thought his journey shouldn’t be just for him. He decided to raise money for the American Cancer Society by selling colorful ribbons that he would put on his backpack as he ventured into the Grand Canyon. The ribbons represented a person who was fighting or had fought their own battle with cancer. Each colorful ribbon represented its own cancer — pink for breast cancer, yellow for bone cancer, etc.
Not only did he hope to raise money, but he also encouraged other cancer patients as he trained. He ended up selling 416 ribbons and raised more than $2,500 for the American Cancer Society.
As Herlein’s journey to the Grand Canyon neared, he started having doubts about what he was trying to accomplish.
“You have those questions: Had I trained enough? Is my leg going to keep working? Are they going to haul me out on a backboard? All those things go through your mind, but I didn’t let those thoughts stop me,” he said.
As the sun rose on a brisk October morning in 2013, Herlein and his team started the 9.4-mile descent into the Grand Canyon.
“The trail gets very difficult. There are 200- to 1,000-foot drops all over the trail. A person with two legs could easily stumble and fall, meaning I had to stay focused on the trail the entire time,” he said.
It took Herlein and his team 2 days and a combined 20 hours of hiking to get to the bottom, where they spent 2 nights in the Bright Angel campground. While they rested before their trek back up the canyon, Herlein took all the ribbons from his backpack, strung them above their campsite and let them dance in the breeze.
“As the ribbons were fluttering in the breeze over camp, it was almost like everyone was there with me and it was an emotional moment,” he said. “You draw on your experiences of life and you draw on your faith. You draw on those things that are going to get you through. I survived cancer, and I survived chemo. I’m living life like there is no tomorrow. ”
Back at Prosthetic Laboratories, they knew this was not the end of Herlein’s journey, but just the beginning.
“We helped him achieve his goal and now he is setting new goals, and we are going to have to work through whatever he wants to do now,” Schulenberg said.
“I am driving 10 hours, one way, just to get to Prosthetic Laboratories. The interesting thing is, not often do you have relationships in the medical community that turn into real friendships,” Herlein said. “When I tell people back home about my prosthetist, I say ‘I know that they are the best in the world.’”
Herlein said he has started thinking about his next adventure.
“I thought I would like to go to the Great Barrier Reef and scuba dive. People think, ‘There you go again. You’re thinking way out there.’”
“Well, the Great Barrier Reef is a goal of mine and if I get to scuba dive, that is my next finish line,” Herlein said. He added he is looking forward to one day going on an adventure with his prosthetist and fellow sports enthusiast and amputee, Mike Schulenberg. — by Kovin Benziger