February 25, 2004
Clarion-Ledger | 3,130 miles to go: Miss. man pedaling message of hope
By Gary Pettus
Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
Read this story on The Clarion-Ledger Web site
Starting Saturday, Brad Kennedy will make a journey of 360 miles from Edenton, N.C., to Washington, D.C., then take a seven-week break before trekking another 2,770 miles across Europe, on the strength of his bike and own two legs — only one of which he was born with.
Asked which of those legs could give out first, he points to his right one. The one made of flesh and bone.
It's his left leg, a sturdy combination of carbon graphite, aluminum, titanium and a microprocessor, that might have to pull him through, he says. "I'm not worried about that one.
"Unless I wreck and run off into a pond. Then I might short-circuit and kill a few fish."
More than a decade ago, Kennedy's left leg was mashed between a speeding car and a pickup truck.
At age 17, along with his leg, he lost his dream of joining the Marines.
His sense of humor, and his nerve, remained intact. And, if anything, grew stronger.
"Once on Ripley's Believe It Or Not," Kennedy says, "I saw this guy, a double-leg amputee, finish a marathon by sliding himself across the ground on his hands and arms, which were padded.
"What have I got to complain about?"
That will be the message, more or less, he'll carry with him to Washington next week, and on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where, on March 3, he'll deliver it to soldiers who lost their limbs in the Iraqi War.
Kennedy can tell them nothing about war, but everything about life.
"I just want them to know it isn't over," he says.
It's called a C-Leg.
Kennedy, 28, a resident of the Martinville community between Mendenhall and Magee, was only the 26th person in this country to get one. He now serves as a kind of spokesman for its wonders.
The artificial limb, which replaced his hydraulic model, increased his activity level "200 percent."
It's manufactured by Otto Bock HealthCare of Germany, the company sponsoring the two-pronged bike marathon that includes two other riders: Dan Sheret of Wilmington, N.C., and Mitch Reinitz of Seattle.
Both are amputees as well.
Of the three, Kennedy is the only prosthetist. He makes and fits artificial limbs for Methodist Rehabilitation Center, at the Methodist Orthotics and Prosthetics division in Flowood, a factory of flesh-colored arms and legs, hands and feet.
On an October day in 1993, Kennedy's career course was laid out in the split second it took for a car to crush his leg beyond repair, just above his knee.
He'd been trying to shove his friend's broken-down truck off the highway; apparently, the driver of the car that came up behind him was watching her radio, not the road.
"I tried to jump in the back of the truck," Kennedy says. "I didn't quite make it."
A Mendenhall High senior at the time, he had already signed up for the Marines. "I had no back-up plan."
In a way, his prosthetists did. They inspired him to adopt their career — helping others who, like him, had to re-fit their dreams.
"It's doing something mechanical," Kennedy says. "And I like talking to people. Why not give it a shot?"
As as certified prosthetist, he's up on the latest advances, to his patients' benefit and his own. Four years ago, he was fitted with a C-Leg: "C" for the type of computer program that masterminds the leg's design and function.
At $50,000 or so — most of it paid for by insurance — the C-Leg analyzes a person's gait 50 times a second, adding or subtracting resistance as needed. One of its two modes even accommodates biking.
"I have to remember to switch modes before I get off the bike," Kennedy says, "or I could fall over."
Last autumn, he was asked to join the Otto Bock team for the two trips, to Washington and through more than 40 cities in Europe.
"We chose Brad because of his unique combination of compassion, dedication, and personal experience," says Karen Lindquist, Otto Bock spokeswoman.
"Brad's commitment to helping others is inspiring."
But how inspired is his bike riding?
"When they called me, I probably hadn't ridden a real bike in 10 years," Kennedy says. "But I said, 'yes.' I figured, 'It's only a bicycle.'
"On my first day of training, I rode 2 1/2 miles, and I was completely wore out.
"That's when I became scared."
By January, the fear was fading. Kennedy is now enduring 40 miles per day.
In Europe, the biking team will cover at least 75-80 miles daily, from Glasgow, Scotland, to Athens, Greece, April 25 to around June 10, following a send-off in New York, with a hoped-for appearance on Good Morning America. The team's progress will be posted daily on Otto Bock's Web site, www.ottobockus.com.
But first, Washington. Kennedy flies out Thursday. The biking trio will then set out Saturday from North Carolina, winding up Tuesday at Washington's Lincoln Memorial. The next day, they'll see the soldiers at Walter Reed.
"I don't know what I'll say to them," Kennedy says. "Maybe: 'A lot of work and good components, a lot of praying, and you'll be just fine.' I definitely look up to them. I just hope I can help."
Otto Bock is paying all the riders' expenses.
Kennedy's employer is giving him time off for the trips: They'll be good for Kennedy and good "for our patients," says Chris Wallace, director of Methodist Orthotics and Prosthetics.
"When he returns, he'll have an even more intimate knowledge of the C-Leg's capabilities."
Kennedy's wife Connie is giving him time off, too.
"He'll be fine. The only thing I'm worried about is how I'm going to do without him, not how he's going to do without me," she says.
"But this is a chance of a lifetime for Brad, and I'm glad he has the opportunity.
"I did say to him, though: 'You realize that on May 9, you will be in Europe?' "
May 9: Their sixth wedding anniversary.
She met him about seven years ago: orientation at Methodist Rehab, where she works, too, in the medical records department.
"In the beginning, I didn't know about his leg," says Connie Kennedy.
"Then, I think he picked me up for a date one day wearing shorts. But it wasn't a shock to me. It wasn't about that for me. It's about us.
"Now, I think more of him and love him more because it doesn't get him down. He's determined to live life."
He lives it by playing racquetball, by leg pressing up to 540 pounds. He lives it by working on his roof.
And by taking a trip that will put thousands of miles between himself and his past.
"I went through a kind of depression at first," he says. "But I remember something my dad did that helped. Harland Kennedy. If I can be half the man he is, I'll be all right.
"One day, not long after the accident, I was supposed to be helping him at work, and I didn't get there on time.
"Finally, I drove up in the pickup truck and we got into an argument. He said I was lazy. I got mad and drove off.
"Then I thought about it. And he was right. I was lazy. I hate being called lazy.
"I want to make sure I'm never called that again."
What is a C-Leg?
A C-Leg is a knee/shin prosthesis controlled by a microprocessor. Introduced by Otto Bock Health Care to the United States in 1999, it is designed to provide a lower-limb amputee with a more natural gait, even at varying walking speeds and on uneven terrain.
A C-Leg is fitted by a prosthetist, who uses PC-based software to program and customize settings to fit the wearer's natural "gait pattern."
During use, electronic sensors monitor how the wearer is walking, allowing the hydraulic pneumatic controls to make constant adjustments in resistance.
The resulting movement is designed to be similar to that of a "sound" knee, so that wearers "don't have to think about walking any more."
Source: Otto Bock Health Care (established in 1958, Minneapolis-based Otto Bock HealthCare LP is the North and South American corporate headquarters of Otto Bock Healthcare, GmbH, based in Duderstadt, Germany.)
Starting this weekend, Simpson County resident Brad Kennedy, 28, a prosthetist at Methodist Orthotics and Prosthetics in Flowood, will set out on a 360-mile, tune-up ride from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., with other amputees before tackling a 2,770 mile ride across Europe in April. Photo: Vickie D. King | The Clarion-Ledger