SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
December 25, 1989
Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives
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December 25, 1989

They Never Gave Up

Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives

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The doctors were wrong—isn't this an old story?—at least to some degree. In 1970 a surgeon in Toronto performed a dangerous operation to remove bone chips from Hurt's spinal column. Three months later a fly landed on his right hand and he casually shucked it off. What! He had gotten back some movement in his shoulder and arm.

Hurt, who is supported by earnings from his racing days and by contributions from the U.S. Auto Club, set out to investigate the treatment of spinal-cord injuries. He subscribed to medical journals and made contacts throughout the world. In fact, the pursuit of treatment became his life's work. Hurt traveled to Leningrad for enzyme treatments and also spent time in a decompression chamber there. He consulted with doctors at clinics in France, England and Colombia, but they declined to operate on him because his condition was worse than that of other candidates for treatment. Recently he visited Stockholm to look into a procedure in which surgeons remove scar tissue from the spinal cord and implant brain tissue from human embryos.

You wonder at his determination. Well, Hurt explains, wouldn't it be nice to be able to feed oneself, to bathe oneself? "This is a very humiliating injury," he says, his smile freezing. At the end of the day he asks his visitor to help him into his car's passenger seat. "Just grab me under the arms," he says, laughing, "and swing me like a bale of hay." Dignity in such circumstances is hard to maintain.

Otherwise, Hurt remains hell on wheels. "We've rearranged a few stores," Veerkamp says. "There was that Charmin display," Hurt says of an incident in a supermarket. It was just too tempting. "I remember the store manager coming over and saying, 'I had a feeling you'd be trouble.' " One year when he returned to Indianapolis for the 500—"I live for the opportunity to go to the races"—he was being wheeled down Gasoline Alley when he saw one of those early, pessimistic doctors. "Let's catch him," he said, and as his wheelchair drew abreast of the doctor, Hurt reached out and goosed him. The doctor pretended to be pleased.

It has been relatively quiet on the Daytona track. But then the two cars roar out of the pits once more. The straightaway is behind Hurt, and he can't see the cars as they approach the first turn to the infield portion of the circuit. But he correctly anticipates the gear changes and shoots his right hand out as if to shift. He and Veerkamp laugh like teenagers. After an accident in a women's bicycle race in Malibu in 1982, Barbara Buchan was delivered to doctors as a badly skinned bag of parts. Except for the left temporal lobe of her brain, the parts were in wonderful shape, as you would expect in an Olympic-level cyclist. Think of her heart—just 25 years old, conditioned by hill climbs and 80-kilometer races. The persons who would get her organs were about to move up in class.

In fact, Buchan's father, Gil, heard that a doctor said he wouldn't operate on Barbara for fear of damaging those organs. The violence of the pileup, a 20-bike spill that occurred after one rider's tire ticked another on a descent of the Mulholland Highway, had thrown Buchan across the pavement and left her severely brain damaged. The doctor was thinking of her only as a potential organ donor. Gil Buchan got other doctors and saved his daughter's life.

For a long time there wasn't much reason to think he had done the sensible thing. After nine hours of surgery, Buchan's new doctors said she would be a vegetable. "You don't know Barbara," replied her father. She was on full life support for three weeks and in a coma for eight, and when she finally regained consciousness she was so brain damaged that it was hard for her family to be encouraged. Two weeks later, Buchan still couldn't recognize her father.

She also couldn't speak and couldn't walk. She had to be taught to brush her teeth, but she lost the ability when her body rejected the plate the surgeons had placed in her skull, causing an infection that damaged the nerves connecting her brain to her limbs. The joints in her arms became calcified, locking her elbows at 90-degree angles and leaving each arm a useless, crooked bone. Worse yet: Because of the brain trauma, she had acquired cerebral palsy and was subject to grand-mal seizures—severe convulsions that were sometimes accompanied by loss of consciousness.

At the time of the accident, which happened in a qualifier for the 1982 world championships, Buchan was one of about 10 women vying for a spot on the U.S. national cycling team. Once a 5,000- and 10,000-meter runner at Boise State, she had recently switched to competitive cycling, and her progress had been astonishing. There had been no doubt in her mind that she would make the Olympic trials. But that chance was gone now, wasn't it? As her condition improved, therapists began teaching her to walk again, to read and write, to do the things that would allow her a life of independence. Only a life of independence? They didn't know Barbara. She laughs now at their limited agenda. "I was training for the 1984 trials," she says.

When she returned to her home, near Boise, Idaho, she developed her own rehabilitation program. The doctors and therapists had not accounted for the fire and discipline of a competitive athlete. For example, nobody had made allowances for Buchan's need to run. Imagine this scene: Buchan finally explodes from her house—"I've gotta run, I've gotta run"—and tears off around the block, knees knocking, with her terrified mother in hot pursuit.

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