Written by Don Ratzlaff Wednesday, 16 May 2007 05:02
With prosthesis leg in tow, Pete Richert displays the balance he’s developed during his physical therapy sessions at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Click image to enlarge.
Pete Richert isn't letting an amputated leg keep him from running after his dreams
Pete Richert may have lost a leg, but he hasn’t lost heart.
The Hillsboro native, whose left leg was amputated above the knee after a roadside-bomb incident Feb. 22 while serving in Iraq with fellow National Guardsmen, continues his rehabilitation at Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas.
The former standout distance runner at Hillsboro High School and Tabor College is not only accepting the prospect of a future with a prosthetic leg, he’s making plans to return to running.
Members of Pete Richert’s therapy team make an adjustment on his prosthetic leg. Richert said numerous adjustments have been required to make the new leg as comfortable as possible. Click image to enlarge.
“I think the blast, and what I want to do with what happened to my leg....” He paused. “I just want to push though everything and get it done. I really want to get back to running again.”
“Everything” includes rigorous two-a-day physical-therapy sessions at the rehabilitation center.
“Since I have my leg now, I’m working on balance and strength,” Richert said of his routine. “Throughout the whole day, it’s a total-body workout every day.
“I’ll do my legs in the morning and do some balancing in the afternoon. Usually, I try to get in some upper-body, and I’ll still work on balance and walking. That’s the most important thing right now.”
His progress has been so continuous that earlier this month Richert was making plans to enter his first 5-kilometer race.
“In a sense it’s a race, but not really for me because I’m not able to run yet,” Richert said. “Me and a few other guys are just going out there and walk the thing and see how we do.”
“Everything” also includes recovery from the emotional and spiritual wounds that occurred in the explosion that killed one of his comrades.
“It’s still there in my mind,” Richert said of the incident. “I think I’m the only one who remembers the entire event—from the initial blast, to getting jarred around inside that Humvee, to being pulled out and watching my comrade get taken care of, and paying attention to the guy who’s trying to keep me awake.
“I remember everything.”
Having those clear memories isn’t a curse, Richert said.
“I think it’s a blessing, in a sense. I haven’t figured out yet what God has told me through that yet, but I’m able to share my story a little bit better with the other amputees. There’s a bunch.”
Richert said he makes a point of striking up a conversation with the newcomers.
“Whenever new guys come in, I try to get to know their name, I give them a little bit of my story and try to give them a little encouragement.”
Richert said he wants to give to others the kind of personal support he could have used when he first arrived.
“It wasn’t until I was here for about 20 days that I met a guy,” he said. “He actually left yesterday—he’s done with physical therapy. That guy bikes every day and runs every day. He told me his story. The 14 or 15 days that I knew him really encouraged me—even more than I was before.”
Richert said he feels for his comrades at the center who struggle to make the mental adjustment.
“I go through the therapy room—sometimes you have 25 guys working through there,” he said. “It hurts me to see some guy who is moaning and groaning—‘Poor me, I lost a foot’—and right next to him is a guy who has lost two legs and half his body is burned.”
Perspective makes all the difference.
“I look at it like there’s somebody in there who’s worse off than me,” Richert said. “I can can somewhat hide my scars. When I get completely done with walking, some people won’t even be able to tell that I have a prosthetic on.”
Pain and relief
Richert said the most common pain he deals with these days is phantom pain.
“It will feel like I still have my leg, and actually that (pain) has really decreased,” he said. “In a few weeks we should be starting to decrease my nerve pills—the pills that deal with that.”
His other source of pain is a small piece of shrapnel still imbedded in his left leg.
“What it looks like in the X-ray is that there’s a piece of shrapnel probably about the size of a dime that’s still in there.”
But Richert said the best pain reliever has been the presence of his wife, Krista, and 11-month-old daughter Lindsey, who joined him at Fort Sam Houston March 24.
It’s the first time he has been able to spend time with his daughter; she was born after he left to prepare for Iraq.
“She loves me in the morning, but when afternoon comes, it’s all mom,” Richert said with a short chuckle. “I thank God every day that I’m here to see my daughter.”
The Richerts live in a motel-like facility called Fisher House with about 13 to 14 other families. The families have separate bedrooms but share living space and laundry facilities.
His meals are paid for by the military, but not the meals for Krista and Lindsay.
“Usually, we use the kitchen area, but oftentimes people come in, like the Girl Scouts, and provide support,” he said. “It’s pretty neat. The hospitality we get here is really awesome.”
Longing for home
Richert said in those rare times he gets discouraged, it usually stem from his desire to be back in Kansas.
“Hillsboro is a blessing, and so is Tabor College,” he said. “I miss the college atmosphere.”
Richert said he is planning to return to Hillsboro and Tabor when he completes his physical therapy. He wants to finish his college degree.
And he wants to run.
Competitive cross-country running is out of the question because of the uneven terrain he’d have to navigate, but track is a possibility.
“Sometimes, they say, people end up running faster after they get their prosthesis,” Richert said. “If I end up running faster after I get my prosthesis, that’s pretty blazing.”
Richert said he may be allowed to make a short trip to Hillsboro sometime in July. His physical therapist wants him to take a break from his routine.
As for a permanent return?
“My occupational therapist said I could be home, with the attitude he sees in me every day, as early as September or as late as December.
“It’s something to look forward to—but some days it’s rough,” Richert added. “It’s like so long away, but it’s something to strive for.”
In addition to the presence and support of his wife and child, and the frequent connections with extended family, Richert said he takes courage from contacts he receives from his hometown.
“I’ve been given a lot of good cards—that’s really encouraging” he added. “I’ve gotten letters from the sixth-grade class at the (middle) school, I got a letter from the cross-country team at the high school, and from other people, too.
“Sometimes it’s hard read to the letters because it touches me,” he added. “Sometimes I have to have Krista finish reading it for me.
“It’s been a trying time, and it will continue to be. But God is going to bring me through it. I’m sure that when I come to Hillsboro for a little break (this summer), their support will be refreshing so I can finish it out.”
A hopeful outlook
Richert said he isn’t sure what all God is trying to teach him through this experience, but he has reached a few conclusions already.
“God isn’t going to give you anything you can’t handle,” he said. “This has made me realize that. He’s going to bring me through it. I need to work through it with my therapist and the support through my family and friends. It’s going to be awesome.
“In a weird way, losing the leg has been an awesome experience.”