Stories of Survival
Matt Bulow: In His Own Words
June 27, 2013 | Matt Bulow
I am an amputee, a diabetic and a cancer survivor. These challenges have changed how I live my life, but they do not define my life. They are merely obstacles that every day I must overcome so I can concentrate on what does define me and what really matters; my roles as a father, a husband and a prosthetist in my own company, Bulow Biotech.
Fighting cancer and living with an amputation is hard and some days darn near impossible. In an odd way, I consider myself lucky. I survived cancer while many do not, and I had the energy and the blissful naivete of youth to help me deal with the amputation.
My road in life has not been easy, but it has led me to amazing places. On a different course, I may not have met my wife who has given me three wonderful children. A different direction could have led to athletic mediocrity rather than collegiate honors, a national tennis title and a world record in the Paralympic Games. Without the challenges I faced, I would not have pursued a career path that has led me to help thousands of people live a more comfortable and active lifestyle—what amazing rewards!
In the winter of 1983 I had three passions. They were, in this order: playing sports, practicing sports, and thinking about sports. I was a fanatic, especially for basketball, and I was pretty good. My team was a few games into the season and I was the second leading scorer in the league, determined to become first. However, I had a nagging pain in my ankle that just would not go away. I ignored it for as long as possible, even after a knot formed and started to grow.
A quick look was all my doctor needed to realize I should see a specialist at Vanderbilt as soon as possible. After a biopsy and an excruciatingly long wait for test results, the diagnosis was cancer.
I was 14.
The doctors recommended amputating my right leg below the knee followed by chemotherapy treatments. My parents were obviously concerned about the lifelong impact of this decision. However in this snapshot in time, they were immediately worried how their 14-year-old sports fanatic son would react to losing a limb. What they didn’t understand is that I was comfortable with the recommendation to amputate. In fact, the decision actually made me feel better. It was the cancer that had me scared out of my wits. I was much more concerned about losing my life than my leg. Finally, my fear of the unknown was gone. I had a plan of action. It was a tough plan that required sacrifice and a long road to recovery, but it was a plan with a goal and I could deal with that.
The six months of chemotherapy that followed is actually my worst memory of the entire ordeal. As an athlete, the prolonged feeling of physical illness was the most challenging struggle to overcome. When the treatments were finally over I remember thinking that if I can get through this, I can get through anything—a feeling I would encounter many more times on the road to getting my life back to where I wanted it to be.
The reality of what my amputation meant did not hit me until much later that year. In 1983, the medical community waited a long time to fit a prosthesis. I went back to school on crutches and about three to four months later I was fit with a clunky hard socket device held on by a belt. I put it on and went straight to basketball camp.
In my mind, I not only believed that I could pick up where I had left off as a basketball player, but I thought I would actually be better! I had been working on my shot and could not wait to regain my mobility. Needless to say, camp did not go the way I had hoped. When I got out of the car after that first day, the weight of what had happened finally hit me. I stopped in the middle of the driveway and broke down. I could not believe that so much of my hard-earned talent was gone. Though I practiced and got better, I could not get up and down the court. My leg was throbbing from the repeated impact in the hard socket and the skin around the belt and strap was raw and bleeding. Alone in the driveway, standing under the basketball hoop, I hit my low point.
In the driveway that night, I faced a crossroads. In that moment, I wanted to feel sorry for myself, to lower my expectations for life, to take the easy road. The other choice was to keep fighting to get back to where I wanted to be, to acknowledge this obstacle in front of me and start climbing over it, to accept that I would have to work twice as hard and twice as long as I used to just to come close to my former level of mobility.
It was an easy decision.
The next morning my alarm went off, I put on my basketball shorts, strapped on my leg and headed back to basketball camp. In the days that followed, I got better. I even got pretty good again. At the end of camp I actually won the dunk contest! Yes, the goal was lowered to dunk-range, but I won and was on top of the world. In the short span of a summer basketball camp I hit my low point, rebounded, and got my life back on track.
Then at 16 I was pale, losing weight and had no energy. My blood sugar was through the roof and a trip to the doctor confirmed diabetes. I was still struggling to regain my mobility and then I lost my spontaneity. Now, my life had to be planned in advance. I dealt with this by simply adding it to the list. I treated my diabetes as another inconvenience that slowed me down, but would never stop me from accomplishing my goals.
Getting back to where I wanted to be
For me, becoming “normal” again meant being very active. I think it helped that I had a passion, which was sports, to help me stay focused on physically rehabilitating myself. I rarely doubted that I could still be an athlete.
I continued to play basketball in city leagues until later in high school when I discovered my new love—tennis. A couple friends of mine and I frequently went over to Tennessee Tech to play racquetball but the courts were often full, so we started bringing tennis racquets and hitting the ball around on the TTU courts across the street. In a matter of days, I was hooked and became 100 percent focused on walking-on at TTU and making the varsity tennis team. My best friend at the time had a scholarship to play there and we practiced for hours every day until I got good enough.
I lettered all four years on the Golden Eagle tennis team, captured the 1988 U.S. National Amputee tennis championship and won two bronze medals in track and field at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea for the U.S. Paralympics team. I continued training and competed in the 1992 games in Barcelona and the 1996 games in Atlanta, capturing two more bronze medals. I held the world record for long jump from 1993 to 1996.
Competing in Olympic stadiums around the world against international-level competition was a dream come true, and frankly, one I would never have had the opportunity to experience had I not gone through the challenges I was forced to face.
Becoming a Prosthetist
Late in high school, I realized I wanted to be a certified prosthetist. I knew that my experiences and my understanding of what an amputee goes through would be a great asset to patients who, like me, just want to return to their normal, happy lives.
As an active kid and an athlete, I burned through many prosthetic devices and pushed them beyond their limitations. These actions took a toll out on the prostheses and my body, but it gave me a deep understanding of what “the right fit” means. An amputee understands that mobility and comfort are lifelong issues that change over time. The stump changes shape, the body gains or loses strength, hobbies come and go, medical conditions add complications and prosthetic technology evolves.
I completed my degree in Anatomy and Physiology at Tennessee Tech University and then my certificate degree at Northwestern University Medical School, and I eventually opened my own practice in 2006.
I am an amputee, a diabetic, cancer survivor and, above all, a very lucky man. The challenges I’ve faced have led me to countless blessings and given me experience and insight to help thousands of people live more enjoyable lives.
In a lot of ways, I didn’t just get back to where I wanted to be after my amputation, I got to a place I never dreamed I could be.
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