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Challenged Tour: A time to heal

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You won't find much about golf here, just tales of human beings, some of whom happen to be golfers.

The bombings at the Boston Marathon brought unspeakable tragedy to hundreds of lives. Families and friends will have to cope with the loss of those who have died and many more will have to come to grips with the loss of limbs and other horrifying, life-changing injuries.

Regular readers of these Challenged Tour columns know that I write about golfers who have disabilities, often the loss of limbs, and how they deal with and overcome them. All these people went through, to one degree or another, what the injured Boston victims will go through – shock, depression, anger, bitterness. But they also eventually experienced acceptance, hope and productivity. And they all are dedicated to helping others who find themselves in similar, seemingly hopeless situations. With this in mind, I asked them and others to share their struggles and challenges, and most importantly, what got them through their ordeals.

These, then, are their stories, in their own words. 


Blame, faith and forgiveness

Eddie – his last name has been withheld at his request – lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. In this segment, he writes about his initial despair and desire to die, about the physical and mental pain he endured, and about the faith that eventually enabled him to forgive the man who took away his leg.

From the age of 16, road motorcycling was my passion. Nine years later, a drunk driver abruptly changed all that. At the hospital, when the surgeon told me it was necessary to amputate my left leg, I implored him to not bother saving me.

The ensuing physical pain and mental anguish in considering myself less than a whole person was excruciating at times. Those dark days seemed an eternity back then.

After being fitted with my first prosthesis, I recall the elation of taking tentative first steps without the aid of crutches. Learning to walk again presented formidable goals that I was determined to achieve: discarding crutches, then a cane; climbing and descending stairs; eventually walking with a completely normal gait. People have long been, and continue to be, incredulous upon learning that I wear a prosthesis. Even friends who know me well often comment that they forget that I am an amputee.


Driscoll donating $1k for birdies at Heritage, Zurich


I also took up golf, 19 years after my accident. Even though I never was athletically inclined growing up, I must say that I more than hold my own on the course. Golf has long been and continues to be my passion.

Career-wise, I continued in biological research until deciding to shift to outside sales of medical research products. My foremost concern was about my ability to walk all day, every day, as I was to travel frequently, covering a multistate territory. One more mountain to climb; one more goal to exceed. I excelled! Five years hence, I had been named National Salesperson of the Year for my company – for three consecutive years. I am retired now, but reflecting back, I am proud of what I overcame and achieved in my career.

Though I was able to achieve much physically, my mental struggle took far longer to overcome. For months I continued to appear in my dreams an “able-bodied” person. I believe the door to acceptance was cracked open when I began appearing in my dreams as the “new and changed” me. Forgiveness, however, took considerably longer.

I attended high school with all four men in the car involved in the accident; one was my first cousin. I never received acknowledgment of sorrow or blame from the driver or his family (though I even worked with his mother during my college years). During the trial (which I won), she even exclaimed from the gallery at one point, 'What is he complaining about? He has his knee.' Can you imagine how hurtful that was? And it wasn’t just them who aligned against me – there was a faction of people from my hometown who considered me to be the offender, not the victim. All of this fomented a deep anger and bitterness in me.

It wasn’t until years later, after I became a born-again Christian at the age of 42, that I was able to let go of my ill feelings. I realized that anger and bitterness only destroy one's self, and do not a bit of harm to those at whom they are directed. Jesus' words, 'And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in Heaven may forgive your sins.' (Mark 11:25) impacted my being.  If Jesus could forgive those who crucified Him upon the cross, I knew in my faith that I could readily forgive the person responsible for my loss. I forgave, first in my heart, then in person during a visit to my hometown.

What liberating joy I experienced in that moment! 


A mother overcomes her anguish

Injury victims aren't the only ones who suffer. Their loved ones do, too, and sometimes their anguish is even worse than that of the victims. Eddie's mother, Alice – her last name has also been withheld – writes about the pain a mother endures when she has to watch her child suffer and know he might die. Like Eddie, she credits her faith for getting her through the ordeal, and says her prayer for a miracle for her son was instantly answered. She also writes about her decision to change her life as a thank-you for that answered prayer.  

When you are a mother, you go through every emotion known to man. Three years after the oldest of my five children graduated from college, he was run over by a drunk driver in a car while driving his Harley-Davidson. It was a group of guys his age who had been drinking heavily and were racing to yet another bar. They didn’t even turn their lights on during the late hour. My son was driving 37 mph in a 45-mph zone when they collided, or else he would have died instantly. 

The next day in the hospital after a surgery that took almost seven hours, I looked at my son and felt as if my heart was being ripped out of my chest. Eddie was healing very well when the surgeon came and told me he was worried that Eddie would develop gas gangrene and require further amputation.

This is when my faith in God took over. I was in my car, crying and praying. I asked for a miracle that somehow this would all go away. I happened to look at the clock in the car and it said 9 a.m. In the hospital, at exactly that time, a miracle did take place. My son got up, forgetting he was now missing a limb, and fell directly on his residual limb. The surgeon said, “Eddie did a better job than I could have done. There is no longer any need to operate and drain the fluid build-up.”

I thanked the surgeon for the wonderful way he helped my son and he told me he really didn’t save Eddie’s life, that the real credit belonged to an EMT who happened to come on the scene immediately after the accident and applied a tourniquet. The surgeon stated that Eddie would have bled out in seven minutes without this medical aid.

This impressed me so much that I decided to become an EMT. This was my chance to give back for my son’s life being saved. I was an EMT for several years and I saved the lives of three people, which gave me a great deal of satisfaction.

Eddie's medical ordeal was extremely hard on me. In the beginning I cried night and day. I was remarried so my husband was not Eddie’s birth father. The second night I cried my husband asked if I was going to cry every night. I went to see a doctor and told him I needed some nerve pills, but he wouldn't prescribe them. I attended a Tupperware party and they served wine, which calmed me down. The next thing I knew I was drinking wine at 10 in the morning so I wouldn’t be a nervous wreck all day.

One day, however, I sat across the room from my husband and cried like a baby. I told him I had nobody to comfort me during such a rough time. He got out of his chair and came over and held me and told me to cry as long as I had to. This was the start of the healing process for me and the end of the worst days.

One final thing about being a mother. I was so proud of my son when he was able to shake the hand of the boy who was driving drunk that night. 


A wounded soldier becomes 'a better person' 

Joe Hartley lost his left arm as a result of a Scud missile attack in Saudi Arabia while serving with the Army during Operation Desert Storm. He also suffered damage to his right arm and hand. He writes about going from thinking his life was 'finished in just about every aspect' to realizing that the incident helped him become “a better person.”

I went through stages. The first few days and weeks were devastating in that I thought my life was finished in just about every aspect. How was I going to work? Or drive? How would I be able to hold my daughter? It was tough to accept and I did not want family or friends visiting, as it just brought those feelings out more.

The next stage was determination in every little goal that I or the physical or occupational therapist had for me. From dressing myself to brushing my teeth, everything was an obstacle that I had to overcome. It drove me, and that's a trait that I believe is important in victims of serious accidents. Without that determination, they quit on everything, on themselves, their families and their loved ones. I had times I wanted to quit and I got very depressed and isolated myself. This is where my family and friends helped me the most, by getting me out and enjoying life again. 

But for me the most important phase was acceptance. This took several years for me and was like a switch. It was an ordinary event, but for me it was the day that I said I would no longer be embarrassed about or ashamed of my handicap. If someone can accept their handicap, I think it makes them a better person. My handicap has made me a better person; I am more talkative, open and a patient person.

For families of the victims I would recommend support, but it needs to be balanced. Pay attention to their moods and balance your support off that. Don’t overdo it or be 'pushy' in getting them to do things. I got started with bowling. It was just a visit with a friend of my dad's who was bowling that night. I sat and watched and was interested. The next week I entered the league and started bowling. If my parents had pushed me to go bowling I might not have gone.

It is tougher for the familes; you want to help but the victim wants to be independent. That's the balancing act. 


The little boy who changed my life 

Don Vickery is a double amputee, missing his left leg just above the knee and his right leg just below the knee. He is also missing a couple fingers on his left hand. In this segment, he writes about how an encounter with a little boy changed his life and how, through the help and encouragement of others, he became a PGA golf professional.

In 1989 I was involved in an explosion that left me in this condition. My initial feelings were fear and sadness. I was afraid of what was to become of me and sad because it was me. I think that anyone finding themselves in this condition would have similar reactions.

I struggled with the fact that internally I was the same person, but externally I was so very different. I was 31 when I was injured and for my whole life things had come so easy for me athletically, but in a single flash everything had become such a struggle. I found myself having to relearn very simple tasks. I remember going to the physical therapy room very early on, being really depressed and not wanting to be there. I was on one of those large therapy beds and I was supposed to be lifting 5-pound weights to get my strength back but I wasn’t really into it. On the bed with me was a little boy, probably 10 or so. All he did was stare at me. I was so wrapped up in my own pain that it irritated me. After some time I called the therapist over to move either me or the kid. “What’s with the kid?” I said. “He just keeps staring at me. Can I be moved?”

“Mr. Vickery,” he said, “the little boy’s name is Michael. He is 10 years old and a few months ago he was riding his bike and fell from it, hitting his head on the curb and has a traumatic brain injury. He cannot move, he cannot speak, and will probably remain this way the rest of his life.”

All at once it hit me with the rush of a flood. That little boy was lying there wishing he could do what I was doing. It’s funny how self-pity can be converted to empathy. I was broken-hearted, but for another person, not for myself anymore. Although my condition was bad I did have something to work with and that was hope. I knew from that experience that I was going to give life my best shot.

I quickly learned to stand again and with the aid of crutches learned to walk a little. I also learned that the more I walked the more I could walk, so I practiced it as much as my body would let me. After a year or so I was walking without crutches for short distances. I would fall now and then but I would always get up and continue on. I did learn how to fall without  hurting myself – a professional faller, if you will.

One day a friend of mine invited me to play golf. I was a little apprehensive but thought that it would be nice to just see a golf course because I had never been to one. We get to the course and he’s showing me this and that and I’m thinking, I’m never going to do this, it feels awkward, I don’t want to look silly, but most of all, what a great friend. I continued to play golf with my friend and my balance became better and I was able to hit the ball more consistently. After four or five years I was shooting scores in the 80s and now and again in the 70s. I began working at a golf course in Savannah, Ga. And the professional there thought that I could become a professional, too. I took the playing-ability test and passed that and began the grueling process of becoming a PGA member. In May 2009 I achieved that goal and today I am the director of instruction at the Wilmington Island Club in Savannah, Ga. The point of me telling you this is that I am what I am today because people who loved the game of golf shared that love with me.

I know it’s not easy to deal with devastating injury. I know the range of emotions that one feels. I also know that there are wonderful things that life has to offer to anyone willing to live it to its fullest. Are there times when things seem hopeless? Sure there are. Is it really hopeless? Not in this universe. We all face change, we adapt and we move on. Will it take time? Sure it will. Will it get better? It will get better every single minute of every single day. Have a little faith in yourself, humanity, and most of all in God. It’s going to be OK. 


The healing power of golf

Judy Alvarez is a South Florida-based PGA/LPGA Master Professional who works with people who have disabilities, teaching them and helping them to use golf on whatever level they are capable of to enhance their lives. The following is adapted from her book, 'Broken Tees and Mended Hearts. A Life's Journey Serving Wounded Warriors and Injured Spirits.'

Can what I, as a golf professional, and other golf instructors offer really change or shape the lives of someone who has faced a life-changing injury? Can we help make their lives better? Can we actually contribute to making a difference?

What can we possibly do to help them and their loved ones after what they’ve been through? Sometimes when I am teaching, I feel helpless (but not hopeless). Rehab teams are comprised of doctors, therapists, prosthetists, family and friends. Why not add a golf instructor to the team? The least we can do is take the time to listen, demonstrate compassion, provide lessons and adaptive golf programs, offer access to golf courses and tournaments and provide modified equipment. It doesn’t sound difficult.

Perhaps as golf professionals this is how we can “give back.' We can facilitate the process and simplify the procedures. We can be catalysts for change in the rehabilitation program. We can send out an invitation to the injured.

If you’re reading this chronologically, you’ve just read the story of  Don Vickery of Savannah, Ga. Actually, you read only part of his remarkable tale. He served his country from 1976-83 and lost both legs in 1989, then became the first double amputee to earn PGA membership. “Golf pros are always willing to help someone,” he says. “It’s the nature of who we are. We don’t want to leave people behind.” Let’s use the golf course as a road to recovery, one fairway at a time, one swing at a time. We already have the ball field – we just need to send out the invitation. We have built it – let them come.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to talk to many men and women who have served in the armed forces in combat theaters. The reoccurring theme has always been that golf on a variety of levels is an important therapeutic tool and a saving grace.

It’s fascinating to me that these veterans feel that golf can facilitate the transformation of changing and saving lives, snap someone out of depression, lift a spirit and enhance a family nucleus. I know as a golf professional, we get caught up in the everyday requirements of our business and forget just how powerful a representation our ball field is for our veterans and for anyone with traumatic injuries.

Golf is a potent prescription for broken spirits who carry around “hidden wounds” and have lost their compass on life. By introducing a wounded warrior to golf, we can help them begin to feel better about themselves. As Vickery says, “Whatever you want to do in life is not up to your injury, it’s up to you. Don’t let your injury dictate what you can and cannot do in life.”

You get just as much out of the game of golf and life as you put into it. Don’t give up. Fight!