Video: Losing a limb, gaining friends

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Josh Mankiewicz Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 2/8/2009 8:17:28 PM ET 2009-02-09T01:17:28

This report aired on Dateline NBC on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009.

Tom White: There's an internal feeling that I get when I run... and it's something that's hard to explain. Maybe it's the same feeling that a musician feels when they play or something.  But when I run, I feel a rhythm. 

Tom White discovered running in the third grade, and it became his life. He was also racing towards an event that would change the course of his life.

In his junior year of college, Tom was running a four-minute mile.  But he was also speeding towards a decision that would change his life: one that would raise a series of medical, ethical and deeply personal questions: What would you give up for your family?  Or for your health? And what would you risk to continue doing something you loved? How far would you go?

It started on a summer night, on a dark country road.

Tom White: I was riding home on my motorcycle about 10:00 p.m. at night. I came up behind a truck.  A pick-up truck. And it was going slow.

What Tom didn't know was that he was sharing the road with a drunk driver.

Tom White: The truck veered left off the road. And so what I had to do to try to avoid the truck, was I veered back right to get back on the right side of the road on my motorcycle and I did clear the rear end of the truck, except for my left foot.  And as I was sliding on my back, my legs were in the air and could feel my left foot just flopping back and forth. 

His left foot had been all but ripped from his body.

Josh Mankiewicz: So you go to the hospital and you say to the doctors...?

Tom White:  Save my foot. I'm a runner.  Save my foot.  That's what I told 'em.  And they said, "You know, you might be better off with an amputation."

Josh Mankiewicz: And you were having none of that-- Video: Helping kids understand prosthetics

Tom White:  I was having none of that.

Josh Mankiewicz: what did you think of amputation? What'd you think of amputees back then?

Tom White: I really-- I had never been around an amputee. I'd never been, never been exposed to anything like that. And so, the--that thought was horrifying.

Tom was Med-Evac'd to a hospital.  He had done everything in his power to stop the bleeding. Dr. Richard Janson got the call.

Dr. Richard Janson: Tom was very awake and alert and realized what a desperate situation this was for his foot. And I took one look at it and realized the same thing. And I talked to him and said, "You know, the chance of this working is really, really low. And Tom said, "Try it. Please. I want it."

For Dr. Janson and the rest of the team at St. Mary's hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., it was an enormous challenge.

Dr. Richard Janson: I keep turning this over in my head, while this is going, is this something that I can do?  This is a big deal. 

The question loomed: Could they do it?  And if they did succeed, would Tom be able to walk again? Vein by vein, artery by artery, nerve by nerve, Tom White's foot was re-attached to his leg. But even before doctors knew if the 21-year-old would be able to walk normally, his mind skipped ahead to the thing he most cared about.

Tom White: Most of my life at that time was running.  And at the time, initially, I thought that I might be able to run again. But as time went on, that became apparent that that wouldn't happen.

Still more surgeries and skin grafts followed. And after hundreds of hours of physical therapy and two full years on crutches, Tom white was able to walk again. In 1990, he was accepted to medical school at the University of California at Davis.

While there, Tom met - and married - his wife, Tammy, who was studying physical therapy, a field he had come to know better than he wanted to. And ironically... Tom's new love shared his old love.

Tom White: Tammy was running and she was running lots of really neat trail runs and stuff in northern California. And I was thinking, "Boy, that looks like fun." And she'd come back and tell me how awesome they were.

It was almost a decade since his accident.  Tom had stayed in shape by biking, but that didn't get his competitive juices flowing the same way. It never provided the same thrill as running.

Tom White: One day we were in Sacramento.  And she ran, Tammy ran a half marathon.  And she ran, like, a really good run.  And it was really exciting watching her run and she finished the race and she was all exhausted, and I was like, Tammy, let's run to the car!  (laughs) And so yeah, she's like--

Tammy White: You wanna what?!

Tom White: --What?  And so we ran to the car. And my running at that time was--I would best describe it as Quasimodo-like. But I did it. I ran to the car and I was like I'm gonna do this. And so I started off by running around the block.

Tammy White: We did it every day.

Tom White: it was ugly. And you know, it didn't, it wasn't fun. But, but, I was just determined to do it.

Now as suddenly as Tom lost his ability to run, he was overwhelmed by the desire to get it back.

He ran half a mile... Then one mile... Then five... Then fifty.

Tammy White:  Watching him was fun, you know, every accomplishment.  In fact, before he did a marathon, he did an ultra marathon.  We were at the 26-mile mark of this trail run that was just a killer trail run, called the Cool King and Crawl.  And he goes, "Well, honey, I'm doing my first marathon now."  'Cause he had I think just hit the marathon mark. 

Thanks to his amazing willpower and running shoes reconfigured to give extra support to his surgically re-attached left foot, Tom White found himself literally running around the world.

Tom White:  I wasn't competitive and they were just for scenics and for exercise and to just get out there and see things.  I did four 50-mile races.  And then, I ran this, the farthest I've ever run on this leg in one day was 72 miles.  I was trying to run 100, so I didn't finish. Video: Checking in on a patient

Was he in pain?  Sure... But so is every long-distance runner.  Tom White was winning that battle - or so he thought. In fact, the pounding on his foot was taking a toll. Eventually he couldn't run or walk without excruciating pain. And he has two active young daughters, nine-year-old Whitney and six-year-old Jasmine.

Tom White:   what really got me was, was I-- I realized at that moment that in another year at the rate I was going, in another year I wouldn't be able to walk my girls to school.  I have two little girls and I wouldn't be able to walk them to school. And we do that every morning.

Tom had to make an almost impossible choice - and in the process, face his worst fear. As incredible as it sounds, in order to run again, Tom would ask a surgeon to remove the foot he'd fought so hard to keep.

In 2006, Tom, Tammy and the girls traveled to Italy to run a marathon: Tom's seventeenth.

Tammy White: I was actually running with him in the middle of this last marathon we did, and, and he--and I turned to him and I said, "You are not having fun."  And he said, "Nope."  At the end of that marathon he said, "You know, marathoning is over for me."  And that's when it started, I think--

Tom White: Yeah, that's probably when things started to--

Tammy White: --started going downhill.

That's when fate intervened, in the form of Tom's subscription to Runner's World magazine.

Inside there was a feature story on Amy Palmiero-Winters, a runner whose left foot was crushed in a motorcycle accident, just like Tom. A runner who was told she would never run again, just like Tom.

A runner who stunned everyone by completing marathon after marathon on her maimed foot, just like Tom.

The difference was that amy was still running, because after two years of coping with the pain, she chose to amputate her foot and get a prosthetic leg.

For Tom White, it was the proverbial Eureka moment. He read that article and inside of him, something changed.  That night, he told Tammy.

Tammy White: We always chat a few minutes before we go to bed, and this is the thing he tells me right before we go to bed.  He's like, "Well, honey, I think I've decided I'm going to-- take my foot off and get a prosthesis so I can do more things.” My jaw dropped for like ten seconds.

Once Tammy's astonishment faded, she was on board.

Tammy White: The next morning, we woke up and I'm like, "Okay, let's find a doctor!"

Tom White: If I recall right, you had your date book!

Tammy White: I did.  I did.  I had my date book out.

It had taken almost 30 years, but Tom's view of amputation had evolved. Now, he saw it as an opportunity, not a setback.

Tom White: Usually when you hear about an amputation, it's some poor soldier that was whole and there's a big explosion and they wake up and they look down and they don't have a leg.  Or it's some poor person that got into an accident.  And they wake up and they look down and they don't have a leg.  And I did that 26 years ago.  I've been through that before. But this was totally different because I had no doubt in my heart that I was gonna be better off after I did this.

Josh Mankiewicz: Your old left foot wasn't gangrenous?

Tom White: No.

Josh Mankiewicz: Didn't have cancer in it?

Tom White: No.

Josh Mankiewicz: Wasn't threatening your life?

Tom White:  No, but it was going to fail on me sooner or later.  And I think I was heading towards sooner--

Josh Mankiewicz:  But why not try to prolong that process as long as you could?  You know, why not keep your foot, do rehab?

Tom White: You know, things got to the point where I couldn't do what I wanted to do.

As a doctor, Tom White knew first hand that there were substantial risks involved. 

He could get a serious infection, or he could not be able to master the prosthetic and end up less mobile than before.  And there was no guarantee he would be able to run, or even walk, pain-free after this costly and irreversible operation. Then there were the ethical questions.

Josh Mankiewicz: Back in 1981, your injury occurred where? Right here?

Tom White: Right on my ankle joint.

Josh Mankiewicz: Right. But the prosthetic doesn't work well if you start down there, does it?

Tom White:  That's right.

Josh Mankiewicz: The prosthetic needs to start around here, doesn't it?

Tom White: That's right.

Josh Mankiewicz: So you're taking off more than you lost originally?

Tom White:  Uh huh.  That's true. Sometimes people were shocked by that.

Josh Mankiewicz: That sounds like a lot to give up to run again.

Tom White: It's so little to give up. 

On the morning of Nov. 27, 2007, the Whites traveled to Presbyterian St. Luke's Hospital in Denver for the surgery.

Tom White: I'm sorry I won't see you tonight. Video: Helping kids understand prosthetics

Whitney White:  I love you, Daddy!

There was still time to wait. And reflect.

Tom White: There's the subject. This guy's done 26 marathons and ultra marathons, climbed 18 or 19 fourteeners, hiked the John Muir trail, has done 72 miles in one day... It's kind of like hi ho, Silver!  Man, he's served me well, you know he rode across the west and back, but he's gotten old and he's saved me a million times and now it's like, well, Silver, you served me well... Kablam-o!  I need a new horse.  So that's what i'm gonna do.

I talked to my brother earlier and he said, "Dude, this time, when they amputate your foot, don't let them put it back on!"

Tammy caught a more somber moment.

Tammy White: I walked in and he was looking at it and I said, "Are you saying goodbye?" and he said, "Yeah, I am."  I thought that was interesting.

Tom White: I don't know if I can forgive you for divulging my secrets!

Tammy White: Sorry about that.

Tom White: No. I kind of am attached to my feet, no pun intended, but you know what? I'm just really ready to get started.  That's where I am mostly. It's a good time for a change.

Then it was time. It only took about twenty minutes for Dr. David Hahn and the surgical team to cut through the skin and the muscles. They used a saw to make a quick and precise cut through Tom's bone. Then they began cauterizing the delicate nerves that would allow Tom to maintain sensation in his stump. After 40 minutes, the foot that had taken Tom White on such a miraculous journey was completely separated from his body. Tom was now officially a B.K.A.: A "below-the-knee amputee."

Less than 18 hours after a surgeon removed nearly half his left leg, there was no way to know if Tom White's bold gamble would pay off. But he was already up and smiling. 

Tom White:  I feel good.  I saw it right away in recovery.  I whipped the blanket right off and took a look.

So far for Tom, the strangest part wasn't physical, but mental.

Tom White:  Right now, for all the world, it feels like my heel, my left heel is on the bed and it's uncomfortably hard on it like I would want to move it somehow.  And my foot is kind of squeezing a little bit and I can feel exactly a little bit of pain in my arch.  That was interesting.  I talked to my nurse, her father's an amputee and she's like, "Wait 'til your toes start itching!" (laughs)

His surgeon, Dr. Hahn, reassured Tom that 100 percent of patients experience phantom sensation.  But Tom wasn't as worried about that as he was about seeing his two young daughters.

Tom White:  I've read that it is a missing limb, the visual sight of a missing limb for a kid is probably the most traumatic medical thing a kid can see, because a kid can't see diabetes or they can't see a heart attack, but not being whole can be pretty traumatic.  It is a jarring sight.

An hour later, Whitney and Jasmine arrived.

Tammy White: are you girls ready to see Daddy? 

Whitney and Jasmine White: Yeah!

Tammy White: He's gonna look a little different, are you guys gonna be ok with that?

Whitney and Jasmine White: Yes.

Tom White: Come on over here! Awww! 

Tom White: My operation went really well and I don't hurt at all.  You guys remember what I came here for... I was going to get my bad leg off.  It's going to take a while for everything to heal and before I get my new leg. But then we get my new leg so we can jump on the trampoline and run and all that kind of stuff. You guys want to see?  Drum roll.  There it is. You can touch it. Don't bang on it...

Whitney White: What do they do with the other part?  (Tom and Tammy laugh

Tom White: That is a good question! They told me I could have pickled it or something like that!

Whitney and Jasmine White: Ewwwwww!

Tom White:  But I didn't do that.  I told them to get rid of it. 

WhitneyWhite: Good!  I don't want it!

The next day, Tom was ready to start the long rehab process.

Tom White: I can stand, but I don't think I can walk.

Simply walking was going to be a challenge.  And as for running?  That seemed like a fantasy. With his family watching nervously, he made it down the hallway and back.

WhitneyWhite: Good job, Daddy! Video: Checking in on a patient

Tom White: thanks, Whit. I'll walk you to school, soon, Whit!

Eight weeks after the surgery, he was ready for phase two: the temporary prosthetic leg.

Josh Mankiewicz: What's the difference between this and the foot you left behind?

Tom White: This feels straight. The foot I left behind, I could always feel stress and strain in my knee, in my hip, in my back.  there was discomfort that I knew was never gonna go away. I can just tell in my heart that that's gonna go away, and it's gonna feel good.

He pushed himself hard. After all, the sooner he could walk, the sooner he could run. Tom already had his eye on his first "post-amputation" event: the New York City marathon.

Josh Mankiewicz: So, like, you get the amputation and then what, a year later you're running a marathon?!

Tom White: That's my goal. I mean, I've got the fitness. I just gotta get the leg.

Josh Mankiewicz: How hard can that be?  (laughs)

Tom White: Today, today, it's kind of hard.  But tomorrow it's gonna be easier!  (laughs)

By early fall 2008,eight months after getting his first prosthetic leg, Tom's collection is expanding. 

Now in addition to the leg he used for walking and everyday activities, he also has a "cheetah"--a high-end prosthesis used by world-class amputee athletes.

Tom White: When I put it on and started running for the first time, all of a sudden, I felt like a runner.  And I felt like I felt before I had the accident, you know, 27 years ago.  I was kind of reborn in a lot of ways.  I felt like a 48-year old version of my 21-year old self!  (laughs)

And remember how Tom talked about running a marathon?  It turns out that wasn't just talk.

Josh Mankiewicz: You sure you're ready for this?  You sure this a good idea?

Tom White: I'm positive it's a good idea.  I didn't say I was gonna run fast.  I just said that I was gonna run it.

Tom White is convinced that with his new “cheetah” prosthetic leg, he'll be able to run the 26.2 mile course...and finish.

Josh Mankiewicz: You've only been running for about six weeks.

Tom White: That's right.

Josh Mankiewicz: Why not next year's New York Marathon?

Tom White: Ah, 'cause I was just ready to get goin'. 

On race day, Tom gets an extra shot of confidence from another amputee: Amy Palmiero Winters --the woman from the story in Runner's World magazine-- whose athletic prowess inspired Tom to change his body, and his life.

Tom White: so... here we are... running New York together.

Amy Palmiero Winters: Running New York.

Tom White: Yep, yep, she's a superstar and she's kinda my idol and she teaches me all sorts of things about how to do this and how to live the life.

Alongside 38,000 other runners of all shapes and sizes, Tom and Tammy White take off.

Fourteen miles in, just past the halfway point, Tom says he isn't in much pain. The “cheetah” is biting him a little, but there's no thought of giving up.

Tom White: I stop every five miles and adjust things. And I've just been running and having fun and trying to catch up to her! It feels good. 

Tammy White: He looks great.

Tom White: Feels good. I'm just cruising along.

At 21 miles, Tom can smell the finish line.

Tom White: it feels good to only have six miles to go. 

Tammy White: we're having a blast, remembering what it feels like to run together again!

And finally, four hours and forty minutes later  -about an hour slower than his previous time-  but ahead of a lot of other people, smooth, powerful strides carry Tom White across the finish line.

Josh Mankiewicz: What does this prove to you?

Tom White: That I made the right decision. That I can do it again, and it was fun. And no looking back.

Ladies and gentlemen, the face - and the feet - of victory.

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