INDIANAPOLIS — After a moped exploded six years ago, Christopher Allen McCoy was in a coma for four months. He woke up in a hospital, missing both of his legs and his right hand.

“I was so scared,” said McCoy, 32. “I hated myself.”

McCoy sat in his wheelchair for three years after waking up, unsure of what he now could be. Amputees are often scared to use prosthetics because they do not have enough support or training to learn how to use them, leading them to give up and use a wheelchair.

For McCoy, that fear ended when he started following famous athletes with upper- and lower-extremity prosthetics. Two of his role models, Paralympic gold medalists Dennis Oehler and Todd Schaffhauser, invited McCoy to try out their Amputee Walking School in Indiana.

Oehler and Schaffhauser started the New York-based community service in 1989 in an effort to help people with artificial hands and legs achieve their life skill goals.

“We want everyone to be up and walking and to pay attention to the steps they take per day,” Schaffhauser said. “We’re taking all basic exercises and asking, what can you do with them?”

Six years after the explosion, McCoy is trying to make it as an actor with prosthetics in both legs and his hand. He sees himself playing a cyborg. He is also writing a comic book called Mr. Bionic, all drawings made with the artificial hand.

“The school has given me hope and inspiration because we’re around other amputees,” McCoy said. “When you unite people and bring them together you see so much more of a happiness feeling. Everybody walks away feeling a little bit better about themselves.”

Oehler and Schaffhauser started the first walking school to teach people how to run. But many of the amputees seeking help came from an older population, including patients with diabetic and vascular diseases who wanted to learn to do more with their artificial legs, arms or hands.

They found that rehab isn’t enough.

“Just when someone starts to really get to the point to do more, physical therapy ends because you’re functional,” Schaffhauser said. “Therapists do a great job, but they run out of time. Eventually, the leg could end up at a corner of a room.”

Amputees do not reach “second nature,” they said, a stage where a patient can do everything they could do before their amputation.

To help them achieve this stage, the school contracts with hospitals, prosthetic companies and therapy groups to provide free training programs for amputees and therapists.

Schaffhauser, who became an above-knee amputee at 15 years old because of bone cancer, said the walking school is not therapy, but rather a wellness program teaching amputees to be comfortable with the artificial limbs after their physical therapy ends.

The school has expanded to 14 states and 28 cities. About 20,000 amputees have attended the program nationwide, Oehler said. He became a below-knee amputee at the age of 24 after a car accident.

“There’s too much on our plate, but it’s all good, man,” Oehler said. “It’s all about making a difference. There’s too much hate in this world right now, so the more love we can give out, the better off everyone is going to be.”

The school is also open to therapists, who usually receive little training on biomechanics of prosthetic devices and how to teach amputees to move with the new device, Schaffhauser said.

Mentoring sessions also are available for patients who will not opt for an amputation even after the doctor’s recommendation. There is a common narrative where patients would rather die than lose their leg because they don’t know that they will be able to walk in six to eight weeks, Schaffhauser said.

After the moped explosion, that choice was made for McCoy. And he had to learn to live with it.

“People said after my amputation, ‘Chris, you’re not going to be able to go here, you’re not going to be able to do that,’ ” McCoy said. “I came here, I saw Dennis and Todd, I heard about their gold medals, and I got a little jealous.”

Family members and friends can attend the training sessions and participate. Spouses may sometimes become the trainers if, for example, patients cannot go back to physical therapy because their insurance does not allow them.

Exercises to train different muscle groups include hip extensions, squats, balance and core strengthening. Everything is done with the intent of applying it to real-life situations, like driving, using a moving walkway at an escalator, or even walking up stairs.

“I can’t stress this enough,” Schaffhauser said. “If you show someone what they can do, that’s a life-changing moment.”

McCoy said he can now do everything he could before the explosion.

“I’m getting on my knees and I’m taking my camera and I’m taking a picture, or I’m walking, holding my camera and being steady about it, but because they showed me how to bend, how to move around cornered chairs, how to move around obstacles in life.”

This story was published in USA Today July 15, 2017. 

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