Amputee athlete Kristen Lusk, 14, scales up a 45-foot rock wall at the Bakar Fitness & Recreation Center located at UCSF Mission Bay.
Creighton Wong looked out at a sea of amputee athletes gathered last weekend for a specialized clinic at UCSF. Some lost their legs to cancer; others lost them in motor vehicle accidents. Some are new to this world of artificial legs, and others learned to adapt many years ago.
For Wong, 38, he knows no other existence. He is a congenital amputee, born without the lower half of his right leg.
"Growing up, I made do the best I could with whatever was given to me," said Wong, who was raised in Oakland, Calif. "Now I look at these kids and the opportunities that we're able to provide for them. A lot of it is having the new technology and the new equipment that's going to support active lifestyles and their sports lifestyles in much better ways.
"And not only is that important, but it's also the community that's being built up with people to mentor them. Because it's a lot easier to figure out how to run when you have somebody that you can model running after," he said.
First Civilian Amputee Athletes Program
Wong was among more than 60 amputee athletes participating in UCSF's Amputee Comprehensive Training (ACT) program, the first civilian program of its kind designed to assist amputees in maximizing their physical potential through a broad range of resources offered by the UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
Vietnam War veteran Tim Woodville goes for a brisk run at UCSF Mission Bay.
"We are providing services beyond therapy," said Matthew Garibaldi, CPO, director of the Orthotics & Prosthetics Centers at UCSF. "We have instrument and data analysis to assess a patient's running stride and gait. We also have certified trainers on staff who are addressing core instabilities, necessary strength training, in addition to prosthetic experts who round out a truly comprehensive training experience for our patients."
The ACT program has quickly become popular, attracting athletes as far away as North Carolina and the Bahamas.
"It's been a pretty thrilling day to be here," Wong said. "There are a lot of familiar faces in terms of accomplished athletes and world class athletes, but just as importantly, I'm seeing many new faces, new amputees, who are learning how to walk, or run for the very first time. To be able to pass that knowledge on to them is rewarding and exciting."
Exploring a New World
One of the new athletes is 14-year-old Kristen Lusk, who lost her leg to cancer when she was seven.
"I love that you can do different things here," Kristen said. "You can learn to run or ride a bike, and this program at UCSF is very helpful for that."
Matthew Garibaldi, director of the Orthotics & Prosthetics Centers at UCSF, fine tunes amputee athlete Geoff Turner's running blade.
Her mother said the event helped Kristen explore a new world she otherwise would not have known.
"It's amazing to see her be around other people who have the same challenges," said Carol Lusk. "She is trying things she otherwise wouldn't try with other able-bodied children, so it's a great confidence booster."
Building on the Momentum
Saturday's ACT program is the third - and largest - amputee athletes program sponsored by UCSF, which held the first one in May.
"In my experience, talking to a lot of amputees, especially cancer survivors and people who have been injured during war, they all say the exact same thing: The best therapy they've ever experienced is learning how to walk again, learning how to run again, or learning how to ride a bike again," Wong said. "Having that purpose is the therapy that got them out of their depression or feeling sorry for themselves, and on a track where they actually realized they could accomplish way beyond their imagination at that moment in time."
Iraq War veteran David Ladd, who lost his right leg during the war, was one of more than 60 civilian and military members who participated in Saturday's amputee athletes clinic.
That journey is something to which Kristen and her mom can relate.
"It was very hard to accept that (Kristen) was going to lose her leg. That was a choice we were going to have to make, but it was the best choice," Carol Lusk said. "But with family support, and church and friends and places like this, we learned that it's not the end of the world. We go on and keep pushing forward, and there have been great opportunities because of it."
Stories like these continue to inspire Garibaldi and his team as they continue to provide this unique clinic for amputee athletes.
"It makes me feel great to know that it's possible that so many people are willing to come together to make something like this happen," he said. "This is just the beginning. It's a dream come true, but it's also a sign of a lot more work we need to do."
Challenged Athletes Foundation Swim Clinic instructor Alison Terry teaches amputee athlete Alan Shanken how to maximize his freestyle stroke technique.
Photos by Leland Kim