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Stories That Move You.
Amputee and Olympic hopeful, Katie VanDam

Olympic hopeful: Katie set new goals after she lost part of her leg in a traumatic accident.

by Amanda Larsen, Mary Free Bed writer

A competitive athlete, Katie VanDam knows how to set goals and exceed them. When she stepped into a crosswalk on an October evening, she didn’t know how her life and her goals would change. A speeding SUV struck Katie and threw her into the middle of the road. Her friend, Jeremy, was thrown onto the sidewalk, but kept her conscious until help arrived.

She spent the night fighting for her life. In the next few days, Katie woke to find a severely damaged pelvis, a punctured lung, a broken thumb, and a left leg amputated below the knee. The 10 days she spent in ICU where followed by weeks of surgeries.

By the time Katie started inpatient therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, she had lost 50 lbs of muscle! To recover, Katie began an intense schedule. An occupational therapist helped her get ready in the morning and took her to morning therapy. After morning therapy, Katie would sleep, eat, and return to afternoon therapy. “My therapists were caring and funny,” Katie said.

She had simple goals to meet on the way to recovery. “I remember lifting a 1 lb. weight and thinking, ‘I will never be back to normal’,” Katie recalled, “My therapist said that it wasn’t going to be easy, but we would do it!” The in-patient care resulted in increased strength in her body. The staff at Mary Free Bed (MFB) kept reinforcing their determination to get Katie to where she wanted to be.

Katie was thrilled to be released, but the realities of life as an amputee were overwhelming. When the home therapists from MFB started coming three days a week, they identified that she was goal oriented. The therapists reported her improvements in even the smallest increments. “It motivated me to know that I could bend my knee even just one more degree,” she said.

“The outpatient therapy was the most challenging stage of my recovery,” Katie remembered. “I was gaining functional strength, but I was still so weak. I told my therapists that I wanted to walk on two legs to the beach in Florida in April. That is what we started to work toward.”

Katie was eventually fit for her prosthesis at MFB. This was an intricate and painful process. Then she had to re-learn to walk, but every step was closer to the beach.

“Each new experience was a physical and emotional struggle. I would be nervous at first, and then figure it out,” Katie explained. “I was surprised at how much my life had changed.”

The struggle was worth it. In April, Katie walked onto the beach in Florida.

Katie is now a middle school teacher, an assistant swim coach at Calvin College, and an Olympic hopeful. After being introduced to the Paralympics two years ago, Katie has been training to compete in the 2012 Paralympics in London!

“At MFB, they listen to the needs of patients and family members” Katie said. “They plan care around a person’s personality.”  For this goal oriented athlete, that was the key to getting her back in the competition.

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