By PAT SCHNEIDER | The Capital Times | madison.com | April 18, 2013
B.J. Ganem of Reedsburg, seen here last September, is heading to Boston to help those who lost limbs in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings.
The first response to the amputation of a limb in an explosion — from the devices that have injured hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to the bombs that took limbs from a reported 13 people at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday — may be euphoria, B.J. Ganem of Reedsburg says.
When people who survive such catastrophic injury first come to their senses and begin taking stock, often they are euphoric at being alive, says Ganem, a former U.S. Marine sergeant whose leg was amputated below the knee after injuries from an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004.
After the euphoria comes physical pain — and many challenges to the spirit — through rehab and beyond, but also a chance to build a life that is “what you make of it,” says Ganem, a former Dane County Veterans Services officer.
Ganem was scheduled to leave for Boston late this week with several other staff members from the Semper Fi Fund to offer their support to victims of the Boston bombings. The nonprofit organization provides immediate financial and other support for members of the military and their families who are injured or critically ill.
“We’ll offer whatever we can. Mostly we’ll be listening to fears and concerns and answering some questions,” Ganem said.
As news of the explosions in Boston spread Monday, Ganem quickly figured injuries would include limb amputations. “I’ve seen firsthand what shrapnel can do to a body,” he said.
He recalled that as he stepped from the vehicle he was driving Thanksgiving night 2004 in Iraq, it was his right leg that hurt the most. It was only when he looked down that he saw how badly his left foot was injured, Ganem said. The foot was amputated in surgery as doctors tried to save as much of his leg as possible; about four years later, Ganem had the leg amputated below the knee to accommodate a prosthetic that allows him to be much more active.
Ganem, 36, recalled being angry and withdrawn after his initial surgery, and the visit from a Vietnam-era vet who sat quietly in his hospital room, his own prosthetic peeking out from the under his pants as he read the newspaper.
“That was profound,” Ganem recalled. “I softened, and opened up and started asking questions. He told me I would be able to do many things I want to do and that my recovery would be what I made of it.”
Ganem has made life after amputation a time to challenge himself through participating in a variety of adaptive sports, from skiing to ice climbing to running. Meeting the challenge, and the support adaptive athletes get from the public, is empowering and elating.
“I tell people the only thing I can’t do on my prosthetic leg is grow toe nails,” he said.
The people who lost limbs in Boston will be wondering what the rest of their lives will be like: “Will I ever be able to play golf, play with my kids, swim in the ocean,” Ganem says. “I can’t say it will be smooth sailing after something so traumatic and unexpected. But plenty of us go on to do great things.”