WALLINGFORD — With dozens of eyes on him, Cameron Clapp grabbed a water bottle with the hook at the end of his right prosthetic arm and opened it with his left hand. He held the opened bottle in the air and smiled.
“Cheers to everyone here at Gaylord — I love you guys,” he told the crowd gathered in the Brooker Lecture Hall at Gaylord Hospital Monday evening. “This is a toast to you all.”
Clapp is a 28-year-old triple amputee who has prosthetic legs and a prosthetic right arm. He was a part of Gaylord’s first adaptive running clinic, which was organized through a partnership with North Haven-based Hanger Clinic. Hanger Clinic is an organization with locations across the country that specializes in orthotic and prosthetic services.
Clapp led a presentation, where he described having an athletic lifestyle, despite having to face “physical adversities.” The California native told the crowd of his upbringing, of growing up with his twin brother, Jesse, and competing and excelling in sports.
After 9/11, Clapp’s family created a memorial in front of their house to honor the victims of the attacks. The attack on the Twin Towers, Clapp said, was symbolic in that it “coincides with the biggest change in my own life ... and the downfall of our life because of our intentions and motives.”
Four days after 9/11, Clapp’s life changed. At 15 years old, he described himself as a “party animal” and “reckless.”
“I went out to some parties and I came home late. Right across the street from my house with the memorial, we have these train tracks,” he said. “I went over there to get a view of the memorial. I was heavily intoxicated and I didn’t hear the train coming.”
Clapp woke up three days later in the hospital. He looked down, he said, and didn’t see his feet. He looked over to his side and didn’t see his right arm.
He visited a doctor, who told his family that Clapp wouldn’t be able to walk again — that he’d be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Determined not to let that happen, Clapp said he went to a different doctor, looking for a “better option” than never walking.
He takes pride in being able to overcome his physical adversities. Although a doctor told him he’d never walk again, Clapp is not only walking, but running, skiing, surfing and swimming.
“For the (physical therapists) and (occupational therapists), don’t judge someone before you know what they’re capable of,” Clapp said. “And for the amputees, don’t put up walls around you.”
Throughout his presentation, Clapp acknowledged that he was grateful to be alive and emphasized his life motto.
“It’s not what happens to you that matters most,” he said, “it’s what you do about it.”
He played various videos of his therapy through the years and showed photographs documenting his journey to walk again. He used a variety of prosthetic limbs — what he calls “tools” — to help him walk.
His first pair of prosthetic legs didn’t allow him to walk up and down stairs and ramps, he said. If he came across a ramp, Clapp said he would have to walk backwards so his knees wouldn’t buckle, which would cause him to fall.
He eventually upgraded to computerized prosthetic legs, which allowed him to walk up and down inclines, as well as use different modes for different activities, such as driving.
“It’s cutting edge and state of the art,” he said of the prosthetic legs. “It’s been rewarding knowing this technology is going to make an impact on people’s lives.”
Able to walk again, he was also fitted for a swim fin, which allowed him to strengthen his upper body.
Reflecting back on his therapy and the time it took to get to where Clapp is today, he acknowledged how difficult it was physically, mentally and emotionally.
“It takes a lot of hard work and effort to keep a positive attitude,” he said. “... Failure doesn’t mean defeat, it just means another opportunity for success.”
After his lecture, Lexi Alicea, a physical therapist at Gaylord, described different exercises amputees can do to begin running. The quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles are needed for stability and to have a consistent running gait, Alicea said.
Alicea had the amputees in the audience stand to try the different exercises.
Clapp’s presentation focused on staying positive, making goals and working hard to achieve them. One audience member determined to succeed was LeeAnn Vertefeuille, a Groton resident, who lost her left leg in 2008.
Vertefeuille stood up and practiced heel striking with her prosthetic leg, which Alicea found impressive since it was the first time using her prosthetic leg designed specifically for running. Vertefeuille admitted that she received the prosthetic a half hour before the clinic started.
After heel striking, Vertefeuille tried “bounding,” where she used her right left to leap into the air and landing on her prosthetic. A few minutes later, she asked Alicea if she could try to run down the length of the room.
With Alicea and Peter Grevelding, Gaylord’s manager of therapy services, by her side, Vertefeuille ran down the length of the Brooker Lecture Hall. After running up and down the aisle a number of times, she smiled and the crowd applauded and cheered.
“I was a Division I athlete in college. I was a softball player,” she said. “I used to run to stay fit. But this was six years in the making.”