Monday, November 15, 2010

Texas man trains to become first amputee pilot in the U.S. Air Force

From the Air Force Times:

Ever since he was little, 1st Lt. Ryan McGuire dreamed of becoming a pilot.

He worked hard in school, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008 and scored a spot in flight school. Everything was going as planned.

Then he lost his right leg in a freak boating accident.

Now McGuire is back in pilot training, after a year of wondering whether he’d ever take the controls of an Air Force tanker or cargo plane. When he graduates in May, he will be the first amputee to complete pilot training.

“I never thought I’d be able to stay on track. When I was at my lowest low, I never dreamed I’d be back on track,” McGuire said.

The tragedy that left McGuire an amputee started out as a day of boating and tubing with friends over Labor Day weekend in 2009. The friends spent four hours on Lake Amistad, near Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, where they were training to be pilots.

On their trip back to shore, a tube they had been unable to secure to the boat flew into the water, its rope wrapping around McGuire’s right leg. The force of the tightening rope slammed McGuire into the side of the boat, fracturing his pelvis and dislocating his left hip. McGuire was pulled into the water and his ankle was shattered.

“I remember every second of it, and I remember thinking ‘This is bad,’ ” McGuire said.

McGuire was taken to a hospital in Del Rio, the city closest to Laughlin, but doctors soon realized he needed an arterial specialist to care for his leg. He was airlifted to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he would receive treatment and later rehabilitate at the Center for the Intrepid.

Doctors at Brooke stabilized McGuire and four days later operated on his pelvis and rebuilt his shattered ankle.

But his toes began to turn purple.

Doctors tried everything, including leech therapy, to stimulate circulation in his foot, but nothing worked, McGuire said. His toes were dying. About four weeks after the accident, doctors amputated McGuire’s foot. A week later, more of McGuire’s leg began to die.

On Oct. 9, 2009, doctors amputated McGuire’s right leg below the knee. The 6-foot-1-inch officer had lost 40 pounds in the six weeks since his accident.

“That was my lowest point,” McGuire said. “I worked so hard in high school, I worked so hard at the academy, I worked so hard in pilot training and something out of my control changed my life. I thought, ‘Was I too injured to be a pilot?’ ‘Was I too injured to even be in the Air Force?’ I was really scared.”

At the Center for the Intrepid, where wounded warriors recover from amputations, burns or functional limb loss, McGuire started to believe things were getting better, he said.

He graduated from using a wheelchair to walking on crutches. He got his first prosthetic last December.

“The day I got my leg was really cool,” he said. “My family came in and watched me take my first steps. It was awesome.”

McGuire set small goals for himself. He wanted to be able to do all the things he had done before his accident, he said.

In March, six months after his accident, McGuire completed the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico in 10 hours, 57 minutes. Two months later, he competed in the inaugural Warrior Games, taking gold in the 50-meter backstroke, bronze in the 100-meter freestyle, bronze in sitting volleyball and fourth place in the 1,500-meter run.

By Aug. 17, a medical evaluation board had declared McGuire fit for active duty, paving the way for his flight surgeon to submit a medical waiver to get him back into pilot training. The Air Force granted the request Oct. 29. By Nov. 1, McGuire, assigned to the 47th Operations Support Squadron, was training again at Laughlin.

McGuire said he is happy to be back on track, but the past year has changed him.

“I appreciate life more,” he said. “I don’t get down by little things. I’m so thankful for even a normal day at work.”

To top off his incredible year, McGuire ran the Air Force Marathon, finishing in 4 hours, 59 minutes, and was named the Air Education and Training Command Athlete of the Year.

He credits the staff at the Center for the Intrepid for his recovery.

“The fact that I’m healthier now than I was before the accident is a testament to them,” he said.