By Lisa Kimble
Bakersfield Police Department Officer Michael Crowe, 24, is the picture of health and fitness — from the waist up. His right leg is now a symbol of the courage and determination of the indomitable human spirit, which Crowe never imagined a year ago that he would posses.
A Centennial High and University of Arizona graduate, with dreams of a career in law enforcement, Michael is among the 1.9 million people in the United States who have had an amputation. “You have to retrain yourself to live again,” he said of his 10-pound fully functional artificial limb.
It will be a year next month, on the night of March 22, when Crowe’s life took an unexpected detour after hitting a seemingly insurmountable roadblock. His graduation from the police academy was the week before, and he was less than 24 hours from his first shift when a texting driver struck him as he was heading home.
Crowe and his motorcycle slid 200 feet. He was fine, he thought, with not so much as a scratch, until he looked down at his right foot. The ankle exploded upon impact with the car’s bumper. “The first few weeks I was in denial,” he said of just wanting to do what had to be done. He consulted with four out-of-town specialists about the odds of saving the ankle because all the ligaments were destroyed.
“The doctor said it is a coin flip as to whether you could walk again, even if the surgery to save the ankle is a success.”
His best shot at normalcy was a below-the-knee amputation. His muscular right leg was amputated below the calf muscle two weeks later. Following the surgery, the swelling had to go down before the stump could be fitted with a prosthesis.
But the full impact of how his life had changed hit him in July, as he watched televised coverage of the Summer Olympic Games. Before the accident, Crowe was used to running a mile in seven minutes. “That’s when I went into a deep depression and emotionally everything went crashing down on me.”
Friendships were strained and tested as Crowe processed his anger and grieved the loss of his leg. As reality set in, he preferred sulking and spending time alone to sessions with a counselor.
Getting back on both feet took a team effort of physical therapists and heart-to-heart conversations with fellow amputees, like Bakersfield police Detective Dennis Eddy, who lost his leg in early 2008, following an on-the-job shooting. “Dennis gave me tremendous support,” Crowe said of his colleague who taught him how to drive a car again.
“I was 38 at the time of my amputation. I don’t know how I would have handled it at Michael’s age. That is what makes his recovery so remarkable,” Eddy said, amazed at how quickly Crowe bounced back. “I just let him know it is possible if he put his mind to it.”
Crowe has paid that support forward by helping 9-year-old Ethan Perez of Bakersfield, who lost his left leg last fall. “What I am to Ethan, Dennis was to me.”
After two months of wallowing under a dark cloud of uncertainty, Crowe began talking to friends and put himself in the shoes of those far worse off then him. “There’s other people, soldiers, marines,” he said. “I had no excuse to not move forward. That’s what I did.”
He went to physical therapy three times a week, returned to the gym almost daily, and brushed up on what he’d learned in the police academy. His prosthetist, Trevor Townsend with Valley Institute of Prosthetics & Orthotics, said Crowe is one of the fastest recovering amputees he has ever worked with. “A lot of his hard work and willingness to put in the time at the beginning, along with his age and physical state really helped,” Townsend said.
Now, the everyday tasks most people take for granted, Crowe does a little differently so as to live normally. “I take both legs to the side and make sure I have footing. I can’t one-leg it out of the car anymore.” And he takes showers lying on the floor.
Despite going through what he calls “hell” — wishing everything could go back to the way it was and considering giving up — patience prevailed. “If you can, make a light at the end of a tunnel, even if that means making short-term goals. I got through it on a week-by-week basis.”
Crowe’s goal was to get back to work.
Six months after that ill-fated trip home, he returned to active duty this past November. His fellow officers donated their sick time. “I owe them everything,” he said. He has resumed running and playing football in the park with friends, and last year Crowe was invited to give a motivational speech for a leadership conference at Bakersfield College. “Getting back to work was the best feeling in the world.”
Unlike Crowe, 52-year-old Fernando Barrientes lost his right leg below the knee after battling diabetes. According to the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists, more than 60 percent of non-traumatic lower limb amputations are the result of diabetes.
Five years ago, a blister on the bottom of his right foot developed a staph infection. “It was either my leg or my life,” Barrientes recalled of his discussion with doctors. A diabetic since he was 33, his amputation, like Crowe’s, was an emergency situation. “It was probably one of the scariest things I have gone through.”
“I thought, ‘No way is this happening to me.’ This happens to soldiers and people on TV.”
It took nearly four months before he received his first artificial leg with a stationary foot. “After I got it, I took off running after I learned how to walk again,” he said with a broad smile. “It was really weird learning how to take your first steps all over again. Now it comes as second nature.”
His second prosthesis, a tall microprocessor foot, is a state-of-the-art limb. “Now I have pep in my step,” he laughed. This limb is computer programmed to adjust the foot to the incline. “Now it doesn’t seem like I am dragging my foot and doesn’t wear me out. It’s technically unbelievable.”
His prosthetist Logan M. Newton with Achilles Prosthetics and Orthotics said Barrientes fell into the 30 percent of his patients who are “really upbeat.”
“It greatly improved the way he can walk,” Newton said. “Fernando was really motivated and took off running. I remember the first time he went up and down a ramp, he broke down he was so happy.”
But getting there wasn’t easy. Anger and depression haunted him. One time, he said he threw his prosthesis across the room. Overwhelmed with caring for his aging stepfather, their house, and his own limitations, Barrientes said he never thought he would overcome the despondency that enveloped him after the amputation and that he felt like giving up.
But his daughter, and members of the military, inspired him to become hopeful again.
“My daughter wanted to drop out of college, and I explained what I had to change and I needed to be an example to her,” Barrientes said. “You see our soldiers coming back the same way, just seeing them overcome adversity, those are my heroes.”
Today, he isn’t out of the woods medically. He receives kidney dialysis three times a week. He sticks to a strict diet, does a lot of walking, plans to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, and is involved in a local Amputee Support Group. “You are able to talk, joke, laugh about it and see the humor in it.”
Every time Fernando Barrientes puts his prosthesis on, he reminds himself: “We can overcome anything as long as we try and put our heart into it. Every day brings a challenge.”
The Amputee Support Group meets the last Tuesday of the month at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, 5001 Commerce Drive, in Bakersfield. Contact Art Garcia at 323-5500 for more information.