Hector Picard: Amputee triathlete has no hands and no limits on life

By Hector Picard

It’s 10 p.m., and as I am running down the George Washington Bridge in New York City, I noticed my wife Wendy. She asked me how I was feeling, and I told her that I was tired, in pain and that I did not think I would ever do this again. This was my first Ironman triathlon, an athletic event that pushes the mind and body to its limits and encompasses a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle race and 26.2-mile run within a time limit of 17 hours.

I had 10 miles to go and just two hours to complete it. During this time all I did was think about all the ups and downs I had gone through in the last 20 years that led up to this moment––raising my two daughters, several career changes, a tumultuous divorce, fighting depression, tackling the dating scene, meeting and marrying a wonderful woman with two kids and becoming a grandfather. I never saw myself competing in an Ironman triathlon, especially after the accident that occurred on March 31, 1992.

As a motivational speaker, my accident is an important part of my presentation and story. I discuss how the 13,000 volts that hit me twice from the substation transformer took my entire right arm and half of my left arm and that it burned 40% of my body and put me in a coma for 30 days. I also talk about how it did not take my life and my will to live it to the fullest.

Yes, it has made my life extremely difficult, but also a lot more interesting. Every day is full of obstacles, but the highs that I get from overcoming them, whether small or large, keep me going. In the beginning, the obstacles were simple things such as eating, dressing or using the bathroom. I say simple, but for me it was the complete opposite. I had a great deal of help from a team of professionals at HealthSouth Sunrise Rehabilitation Hospital in Florida, which included occupational and physical therapists, doctors, nurses, psychologists and peer counselors, all of whom helped me heal and regain independence. In the first month of my three-month inpatient program, I learned to complete many tasks without hands, but I was most excited about the possibility of being fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic limb. I envisioned something like the one Steve Austin had in the television show The Six Million Dollar Man or what Luke Skywalker had in Return of the Jedi, but reality hit me in the face when meeting a veteran prosthetist for an evaluation who told me that because of the level of my amputations that I should not expect to do much. I was so upset! I must admit that I temporarily was discouraged, but I was not going to let the opinion of one man keep my spirits down for long. With it being 1992, I was not able to pick up my iPhone or iPad and research the Internet for the latest prosthetic technology, so I relied on the professionals from the rehabilitation hospital to point me in the right direction.

I was paired with a young prosthetist named Kevin Garrison who was also an amputee, and I felt that he was sympathetic to what I was going through. He fitted me with a body-powered prosthesis, referred to as a hook. This was not exactly what I envisioned that my first replacement hand would look like, but I was told that it was part of the process before being fitted with the more expensive electric hands. Walking around with the hook in public got me lots of stares, especially from children, which took some getting used to. The hook is a functional device that has been around for decades. Unfortunately, it is not the prettiest hand to look at. In fact, it is pretty scary looking, but I have been able to accomplish a lot with it, from pressure washing my roof to painting my home to building a man cave in my garage.

After using the hook for a month, I was fitted with my first myoelectric prosthesis that was powered by a rechargeable battery. Again, not what I envisioned, but I was willing to give it a chance. It took me about a month to learn how to operate it if it was working properly or I was using my muscles the correct way. Frustration is the word that I would use to describe that first month, and patience is the word that entered my vocabulary at this time and will remain with me for the rest of my life.

It was not long after that when I realized that I would never get my hands back, and there was no technology available that would replace them. The prosthetic limb was intended to be a tool that I would use to make my life somewhat easier. I can now say that it has given me the ability to be fully independent. I travel throughout the country for speaking engagements and races by myself, and you should see the looks that I get when walking through the airport dragging my 50-pound bicycle box, carry-on luggage and backpack with a smile on my face. It makes my day knowing that those people go home and tell their friends, parents or children what they saw a man without arms doing.

The darkest days of my life that prevented me from having a smile on my face were during my divorce. Again, this was a temporary obstacle that when conquered has led to some of the best and brightest days and, eventually, to the sport of triathlon.

At first I approached it as a challenge that would serve as a form of therapy to get me through the tough times; however, I was not a swimmer or a cyclist and I hated running, but I was determined to compete. I developed my own style of swimming on my back using my legs, and I made modifications to a cheap bicycle and stuck it out on the run to finish my first sprint triathlon on July 4, 2009. Finishing that race got my competitive juices flowing and sparked an addiction to the sport.

For me, competing and finishing triathlons is about more than just getting a medal––it is about the impact that I have on others. I have been told on many occasions that I inspire others to finish and overcome their obstacles during a race. Thinking about those people encouraged me during the final stretch in New York City and allowed me to cross the finish line of my first Ironman triathlon to hear the words “Hector Picard, you are an Ironman.” I finished that first race in a slow 16 hours and 42 minutes; but I finished nonetheless, becoming the first person to complete the challenge without hands.

The next morning, I signed up for my next big race and since then have completed four Ironman races, more than 135 triathlons, three marathons, three marathon swims and two solo-cycling trips across the United States––all while having a smile on my face and living life to the fullest.

Hector Picard is available for speaking engagements throughout the year. You can learn more about him by visiting his website www.dontstopliving.org.