Clara Gardner of Northampton gets back on her own two feet

Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON - For 10 days over her college winter break, former Northampton High School student Clara Gardner, 21, traveled to Israel with one of her best friends, Rebecca Warren, to visit a mutual friend studying abroad.

With them, she navigated crowded Tel Aviv streets, jostled by the throngs of people. She shopped in teeming markets. She played pool, went to nightclubs, to the beach and spent an afternoon on a sailboat on the Mediterranean Sea.

Her life as a college student is being lived in many respects as it should be — four years after surgeons amputated both legs after she was hit by a drunken driver. One doctor said it was likely that she would never walk again.

Gardner takes great pride in the fact that she’s been entirely out of her wheelchair since last April. Sure, she was exhausted from her trip to Israel, but more than that, she was thrilled.

“It was probably the most walking that I’ve ever done, even with legs,” she said. “It was miles and miles of walking.”

On Tuesday, Gardner drove her hand-controlled Volkswagen Jetta down to Springfield for a meeting with her prosthetist, Thomas Mesick, telling him her legs needed a “tune-up” from all the activity in Israel.

With great delight, she challenged Mescik to guess how long she wore her legs in one stretch, to which he responded 25 hours.

“Forty!” she said triumphantly. “I think it’s a record!”

Gardner’s relationship to her prosthetics these days is a far cry from where she was a year ago, when she was very close to settling for life in a wheelchair.

Life changes

Clara Gardner was 16 when she was hit by a drunken driver Aug. 2, 2008. She was putting her luggage in a van outside the Springfield train station as she returned from a Spanish language immersion program in Mexico she had attended for a month with her two best friends and her father.

The injuries were so bad doctors could not save her legs, leading to amputation of both legs above the knee. Afterward, a doctor told the family it was unlikely that their daughter would ever walk again.

Gardner spent six weeks in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, returning to Northampton High School for her senior year on Sept. 30, 56 days after she lost her legs.

Described by friends and family as driven and feisty, Gardner is naturally upbeat.

Asked if her circumstances get her down, she answers: “I have my moments.”

The hardest of those moments came in the fall of 2011, when she decided to put getting proficient on her artificial limbs at the top of her priority list. Prior to that, she said, she had not given it her all.

“I was just being lazy,” she said. “I wasn’t really trying to get up and walk because I was in college, and I just wanted to be in college.”

Adding to the difficulty was the fact that she needed to have additional surgeries, called revisions, to remove bone fragments that were causing her pain, operations that required recovery time. And also, her first prosthetics were not ideal for her situation, something she would learn later from other above-knee amputees.

When she began working hard and still found it nearly impossible, she says, she went into a funk.

“That was when I was most discouraged,” she said.

Warren, who was with her in Mexico and at the scene of the crash, said witnessing Gardner’s struggle at times has been hard because she didn’t know how to help. “She was in a dark place with her wheelchair,” Warren said.

Gardner said she remembers having a conversation with her father, Darien Gardner, and telling him, “I’m really depressed about the idea of spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.”

And up to that point, she said she had no interest in meeting other amputees.

“I didn’t want to identify as disabled,” she said.

Peers helping peers

But as it turned out, meeting other amputees was a turning point.

A friend’s mother told her about Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun, an Iraq war veteran who lost both of his legs above the knee in 2003. Gardner Googled Calhoun and found him on a YouTube video. It seemed as if he was directly addressing Gardner’s experience. He, too, had found his first set of prosthetics painful and discouraging.

“I’d come to terms with what I thought my life was — life in a wheelchair with prosthetics that were uncomfortable, and in my mind, unfit to use,” he says in the video.

Then the video shows how he found specially designed suction sockets, which allowed him to leave his chair entirely. It shows him running, skiing, walking down stairs without holding on to the handrails, driving a car with a clutch and no hand controls.

“Until you prove that you can’t do it there should be no limits, and if you prove you can’t do it, maybe you just didn’t try hard enough or you don’t have the right equipment,” he says.

In the final image, Calhoun, with a relaxed southern drawl, looks directly into the camera. “I think there are things that are impossible,” he says. He takes a big pause. “Haven’t really found ’em yet. I’ve found things that are different. But not impossible.”

In a series of email exchanges, Calhoun encouraged Gardner to look into the prosthetic system he used.

Gardner was motivated anew. She felt she had come to a profound revelation: “I was trying my hardest to get up, but it was not functional equipment,” she said.

Hanger Clinic, the Austin, Texas, prosthetics company that made the Comfort Flex Socket System that Calhoun uses, has a clinic in Springfield. In February of 2012, Gardner had her first consultation with Mesick, a certified prosthetist and the practice manager there.

Mesick began by putting Gardner in prosthetics known as “stubbies” or trainers, which don’t include a knee joint. Gradually, he inched her up little by little so she could adjust to being vertical and get as comfortable as possible with the socket, the part of the prosthetic where an amputee’s stump fits.

On Calhoun’s advice, Gardner signed up for a workshop in April in Oklahoma City specifically for above-knee bilateral prosthetic users. The day before she left for “boot camp,” Mesick fitted her with the final socket design, which attached to stubbies that put her at a height of about 4-feet-7-inches.

And then he worried that he had pushed her to fast, and found himself fretting about her every night she was at boot camp.

Boot camp

He needn’t have worried. But it was tough. What Gardner thought was a workshop was actually a four-day intensive boot camp for 25 bilateral amputees from around the country.

“I did not know what I was in for,” she said. “Basically it’s four days of pushing each other and having prosthetists there pushing you.”

Instructors, who included Calhoun and triple-amputee Cameron Clapp, minced no words. They told participants that if they were serious about wanting to walk, they would have to give up their chairs.

“They said if you’re going to get rid of your wheelchair some day, why not make that today? They encourage you to go cold turkey,” she said.

The training focused on teaching participants to fall. Since learning how to walk comfortably involves falling a lot, people must learn how to do so safely so they don’t break a wrist or sustain a head injury. Gardner practiced falling over and over again.

“Falling is considered a really good thing there,” she said. “They’re not going to offer you help, they’re going to clap and walk away.”

Boot camp also taught her to never feel embarrassed about her prosthetics, which is in part why she does not cover her legs with pants. (There’s also the fact that her prosthetics don’t get cold, so there’s no practical reason to cover them.) The philosophy she learned was simple: “Have pride in it. It’s cool. Don’t cover them up,” she said. “It’s about getting comfortable with yourself enough to not feel the need to hide it.”

Meanwhile, the parents and other caregivers had to be retrained. They had do learn, Gardner said, how to no longer be “Helpy Helpertons.”

“It’s definitely a struggle for anyone, and probably most especially parents, to back off,” Gardner said.

“There’s kind of a line between being helpful and considerate and being over-helpful,” said her mother, Kate O’Kane. “I had been kind of over-helpful at times.”

There were also field trips to malls and crowded restaurants, like Panera Bread, where prosthetic users were told to order their food and then go pick it up from the counter on their own. O’Kane admits it was hard to be sidelined.

“My instinct had always been to help her,” she said. “The other participants were encouraging those of us who were over-helpful to hold back. They’d say, ‘No, she can do it herself. She can do it herself.’ ”

Something that in the past would have been disastrous for Gardner happened on the flight home — the airline broke her wheelchair.

“If it had been any other time, I would have given them a really hard time, but it was fate,” she said.

The loss of her chair forced her to rely only on her prosthetics. When she’d relax at home, she would take the prosthetics off and get around the house using her arms.

“The airline breaking her wheelchair accidentally was fortuitous,” her brother Nolan said.

Gardner says she is glad it happened that way.

“It’s really a huge relief to not be in a wheelchair,” she said. Deep down, before boot camp, she was afraid to get her hopes up, she said.

“After boot camp, I knew that if I was determined, I could make it happen,” she said.

Gardner also credits the early work she did with physical therapists at Shriners Hospital with setting the stage for what she is doing today.

“They were the ones who taught me how to have a good gait,” she said. “I was ahead of the game because of that.”

Gardner said the hardest adjustment was wearing the prosthetics for long stretches at time, but the next hardest adjustment was getting the knee. Mesick didn’t introduce that until she was thoroughly proficient with everything else. For three and a half months, Mesick had Gardner walking around on stubbies. Over about four or five visits with Mesick, the trainers inched up until she was at 5 feet 3 inches. When she was settled in with that, Mesick gave her a microprocessor-controlled hydraulic unit (basically a computerized knee) at the end of July last year.

“You have to learn to trust the knee,” she said.

Becoming a role model

Mesick told Gardner about Camp No Limits, a nonprofit organization that offers programs for children who have lost limbs. Run entirely by volunteers, the camp requires those volunteers to pay for their room and board. Mesick offered to sponsor Gardner, and she and her brother Nolan volunteered at the camp on a lake in Maine last August.

For Gardner, it was another life-changing experience.

“It’s so meaningful to be at these camps,” she said. “You get so much out of it in terms of supporting the kids and serving as a role model, but also you’re working on your own thing, too.”

At that camp, her own thing was practicing walking down steep hills, which Cameron Clapp showed her how to do amid many falls and much laughter.

Another was climbing to the top of a climbing wall with her brother and others watching.

“That was pretty awesome,” said Nolan Gardner. “She was not willing to give up.”

Since then, Gardner has been twice more to Camp No Limits, once in Maryland and once in Florida.

On Tuesday, Gardner drove herself to the Hanger Clinic in Springfield for her appointment with Mesick. Mesick was running a little late, and as he came out into the waiting room to greet Gardner, a man named Robert Blakley of Springfield was with him.

Using a cane, Blakely made his way slowly over to Gardner and told her he had watched from the window as she walked smoothly into the clinic from her car. He showed her his prosthetic leg and said, “I gotta get where you’re at, go fishing and all that. I miss that.”

Gardner told him she had just returned from Israel, where she went sailing in the Mediterranean. “So, it’s possible,” she said.

Inside the treatment room, Mesick carefully studied the places on her legs where the socket had chafed. Then he took them to a back room to modify the sockets so they would fit more snugly. As he worked, he talked about Gardner.

“She’s off the chart,” he said. “She’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that, or been involved with a case of someone who is that determined.”

He said he was amazed when she went to boot camp so early in their work together, and impressed that she was out of her wheelchair when she returned. He noted that it is much easier for young, healthy people to adjust to prosthetics. But her strongest suit, he said, is her fierce determination.

“I’ve seen her frustrated a little bit, but nothing like, ‘I’m going to quit,’ ” he said. “That word doesn’t exist in her vocabulary.”

He handled the legs with ease, making adjustments so the fit would be tighter. The work is part art, part engineering, part construction. When he was done, he studied his handiwork and said: “Sweet.”

He picked up the legs, one under each arm, to head back to Gardner.

“That’s a lot of equipment here, about 80 grand worth,” he said.

Back in the room, Gardner hopped down off the chair to the floor, where she attached her legs.

Mesick said, with obvious fondness, “There’s no can’t with you.”

O’Kane, Gardner’s mom, said much of the treatment and expensive equipment has been covered by insurance, although sometimes the prosthetists have to “tangle” with the insurance company.

Boot camp was free, and the expenses associated with it — travel, hotel rooms — were covered by a fund set up with fundraisers held in the months after the crash. The fund has paid for other essentials not covered by insurance — hand controls for her car (but not the car itself) and legs for rowing, for example. O’Kane said she has never tried to add up the total expenses related to her daughter’s limb loss.

Looking back

Reflecting back to her years in a wheelchair, Gardner said she remembers that strangers frequently approached her to say she was an inspiration. These encounters made her feel uncomfortable at times.

“I’m not doing anything. “I’m dealing with the life I got handed. The end.”

These days, though, she feels she has done something people might find inspirational. Out and about on the new limbs, she continues to attract attention, and often praise.

“That’s awesome,” people might say upon seeing her at her full 5-foot-6-inch height. Or: “You’re badass.” Some people give her the thumbs-up sign, or even salute her.

These compliments she gladly accepts. “I don’t want their pity,” she said.

It wasn’t easy getting back up on her feet. Being an above-knee double amputee is among the most devastating of limb losses. But she did it.

“I’m proud of that,” Gardner said. “Now I have so many things going on that I am proud of.”

Meanwhile, in January of 2009, the 20-year-old driver of the vehicle that hit her, Roberto Carasquillo Jr., was sentenced to three to five years in state prison and had his license suspended for two years.

Gardner’s feelings about Carasquillo, out of prison now, are complicated. Sometimes she thinks she would like to meet him, but has made no attempt to make that happen.

“He was just a stupid kid,” she said.

What angers her, she said, is the way society condones drunken driving. She questions why anyone who causes such a devastating accident should be allowed to drive again.

But mostly she’s been focusing on living her life, learning to walk on two new legs, and finding meaning.

Living life

This semester Gardner is on leave from Smith College and taking classes at Greenfield Community College. She plans to go back to Smith in the fall and graduate next year with her class. She’s considering a career in rehabilitation.

She is also planning another trip to boot camp. “There’s always more to learn,” she said.

In particular she will work on going up stairs and walking down stairs without using handrails. Mesick thinks she’ll be teaching at boot camp this time around.

Nolan Gardner said he likes seeing how healthy and strong his sister is.

“She has made it through this with her psyche perfectly intact,” he said. “She is such an amazing person.”


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