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Loss of limbs, motion, doesn't kill dreams

By David Whiting / The Orange County Register / Published: Nov. 11, 2010


Greg Tyler at the San Diego Triathlon Challenge // The Orange County RegisterMany of us see someone missing a limb and look away, pushing aside the thought it could happen to us.

Then we wonder what happened – and if we could cope.

Greg Tyler, 22, rode motorcycles, a machine most every mother tells her son never to ride. My mom was lucky when I rode. Greg's mom, Heidi Tyler, was not.

Tyler lost his left arm in a motorcycle wreck.

But unless you're Tyler, perhaps the specific injuries don't matter. What matters is the quality of life after the loss of limb or movement.

Beth Sanden, 55, of San Clemente, was paralyzed in one leg after skidding on gravel while riding her bicycle. Andy Bailey, 71, of Laguna Beach, was washing his car in his driveway when a careening laundry truck took his right foot.

If you're like Sanden or Bailey, you discover that, yes, life after such an injury is more challenging but, no, it doesn't mean the end of your dreams.

And if you're like Tyler, you emerge with the idea that the trauma might even help you attain your dream. As the Saddleback College student says, life is "weird."

I meet Tyler last month at the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, a fund-raiser by the Challenged Athletes Foundation that helps pay for wheelchairs, hand-cycles and prosthetics.

We're at the tip of La Jolla in Scripps Park overlooking the ocean. Some 200 challenged athletes surround us.

Little kids, several younger than 7, bounce on curved carbon fiber feet. Teenagers move swiftly on mechanized legs, polished metal hiding computer chips.

Men and women, including some who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, swap one specialized prosthetic for another, transitioning from the swim to the bike or the bike to the run.

Tyler gingerly makes his way down several flights of steep concrete stairs to a small, sandy cove. He favors his right leg. His left leg is paralyzed from the knee down.

The ocean is cold. Most swimmers wear full wetsuits. Tyler wears one without sleeves. The scar is smooth over the slight protrusion that once was his left arm.

Tyler looks at the ocean warily. He has only swum in open water a few times and never for 1.2 miles.

Tyler grew up in Mission Viejo playing Little League and football. By the time he was 15, he knew he wanted to go into regenerative medicine. He wanted to discover how to create new organs. He wanted to help wounded soldiers grow new limbs.

Like Tyler says, life is weird.

He also wanted to be independent. After high school, he joined a buddy in Sacramento where the rents were cheap and he could attend inexpensive American River College.

Plus, Tyler could buy a motorcycle, something his mother had forbidden. Within a year he graduated to a red and black Yamaha R6, a powerful machine that satisfied a young man's thirst for speed and the elusive feeling that goes with it – freedom.

At 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2008, a car turned left in front of Tyler, pinning the motorcycle's front wheel. Tyler catapulted two stories into the air.

Flying, he smashed into things; a concrete light post, a brown power pole. His lungs were punctured in four places. He had broken bones in his left leg, left arm, sternum, neck, spine and upper and lower jaw (he was wearing a full-face helmet).

And the artery to his left arm was torn; Tyler was bleeding to death.

When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he was flat lining. Doctors cracked his chest open and massaged his heart by hand.

Tyler remembers nothing. When he came to two weeks later, he looked at his left arm and asked why it hurt so badly. Doctors tried to explain there was no arm.

It took four days before Tyler's brain allowed his eyes to adjust to the new reality.

But the phantom pain remained.

Beth Sanden competing in cycling portion of San Diego Triathlon Challenge // The Orange County RegisterEighteen months before the accident, Tyler decided to serve in the Air Force as a special tactics officer as a precursor to med school. He trained ferociously, swimming and practicing jujitsu and kick boxing. A week before the wreck, he joined the Air Force ROTC.

After the accident, he scoffed at physical therapy. He could put his good leg behind his head. He wanted something tougher, much tougher.

Another weird thing happened.

Tyler's grandmother knew Beth Sanden. And when it comes to making dreams happen through sheer determination, Sanden is among the hardest of the hard core.

Sanden was a champion triathlete before her own accident in her 40s. Since being paralyzed, she's continued to compete in triathlons and this year realized her dream of finishing the Boston Marathon. Sanden's also a personal trainer.

With Sanden coaching, Tyler mastered a customized recumbent bicycle and, this summer, roared in it down Santiago Canyon Road. He rediscovered freedom.

In the ocean off La Jolla, half-way through his swim, Tyler hits the wall. With just one arm and one good leg he can't battle the currents and waves. But Tyler won't accept anything less than success. He pushes his heart, lungs and muscles beyond what his mind considers possible.

Beth Sanden giving two thumbs up before swimming portion of San Diego Triathlon Challenge // The Orange County RegisterHe crawls onto the sand.

But Tyler promised himself he also would complete a 13-mile "wheelie" course. He zooms off.

We talk after Tyler crosses his final finish line for the day. He says in his matter-of-fact style that next year he'll finish a half-Ironman and then focus on a full Ironman, a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. At the same time, he'll earn his bachelor's degree.

And then?

He'll earn both a medical degree and a Ph.D. Tyler smiles and says he'll be a good doctor because "patients make the best doctors."

He has a point. And he's not kidding.

But Tyler is joking when he talks about growing a new arm.

Or is he?

David Whiting's column appears four days a week,