June 30, 2007

Positivity: Athlete Lost Her Leg at 20, Still Competes

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 6:48 am

From Rockford, Michigan:

June 4, 2007

ROCKFORD, Mich. — “Are you ready, ladies?” Valerie Wallace calls out to her exercise class. “I have a lot of fun planned for you today.”

She grins. They groan.

“It’s because I love you,” Wallace says, turning on the music and launching into her litany of bend those knees, drop those hips, shoulder blades back, press across.

“Hey, Barb, do you ski?” she asks one of her students as they stretch and sweat. Barb does. “Do you want to teach ski lessons to the disabled? It’s two hours a week at Cannonsburg.”

Wallace skis, but most of her right leg is titanium. Her high-tech computerized knee can think faster than you can.

It’s the first artificial leg that’s been able to keep up with her.

Wallace, 46, coaches the girls’ junior varsity tennis team at Rockford High School, heads much of the Rockford band’s fundraising, teaches exercise classes at Champion Fitness in Rockford, mentors new amputees at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, has a sewing business and is active in the Grand Rapids Wheelchair Sports Association.

People always say how cheerful she is. The word “bubbly” keeps coming up.

She’s had some pretty dark times. She has a way of pulling other people out of theirs.

“I don’t allow negative,” Wallace says, sitting at her kitchen table in Rockford. “I’ve been known to pull girls off the (tennis) court if they’re having a temper tantrum.” She smiles. “I say, ‘Don’t make me take this leg off and beat you.’”

She’s made jokes about her prosthetic leg from the beginning, since she lost her own at age 20 in a car accident. It’s been a way to make other people more comfortable around her, she says.

“When she comes in, even if it’s freezing out, she often wears shorts, so people can really see her prosthetic,” says Kelly Merz, recreational therapist for the amputee program at Mary Free Bed. “It’s just who she is. She lays it out there ‘This is who I am.’”

“People remember her,” Merz says. “With Val, it’s all about `Look what I’m still doing.’ There’s a lot of fear, and she takes some of that fear away.”

Wallace tells about losing her leg.

One night friends from the German restaurant where she waitressed went to Oktoberfest. It was late when Wallace drove home. She hadn’t been drinking, she says, but she was tired. She dozed off. Her Subaru veered off the road, hitting a tree.

Panicked, she leaned over to block her 15-year-old passenger from going through the windshield. That move saved her life, she says. She later learned the steering column was imbedded in her seat. It would have been imbedded in her chest.

Wallace woke up in the hospital three days later. She had broken both hips, her right leg, her ankle. Two vertebrae were crushed. She spent a month in intensive care and endured pins, surgeries and traction, but ultimately the blood vessels in the leg were too damaged.

“They said I’d never walk again,” she says. “If I kept the leg, they said I’d be on crutches my whole life. If they amputated it, I could probably play wheelchair pingpong. That was all there was at the time.

“I said, `Take the damn thing.’”

There would be more surgeries down the road, to take more inches off the leg.

“I was doing a little of the pity party thing,” she says. “Why me and all that crap.”

Wallace received a prosthetic leg and, over the years, married, had a son and threw herself into being a mom _ PTA, band boosters, volunteering for everything.

“I’ve never had a leg that could keep up with me,” Wallace says. She was notorious for breaking them, stressing them beyond what they could bear.

She learned about a high-end, German-made prosthetic leg she could program to keep up with her. Even with health insurance, she couldn’t afford the $52,000 appliance…..

This is a story that must be read to the end. Go here for it.


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