One by one, they made their way into the Community Room at Kenmore Mercy Hospital on Monday afternoon – some on crutches, others using canes or wheelchairs.
They’re all amputees, mostly single and double amputees, and they came to hear the California “surfer dude” who has become a key role model and advocate for the amputee community.
His name is Cameron Clapp, and he came to the event with a clear message culled from his 26 years on earth:
“I think the No. 1 point is to not let any physical adversity be an obstacle or a barrier that stops you from achieving your goals, your dreams – the things that are important to you, that you’re passionate about,” he explained before the second of two hourlong sessions.
Clapp isn’t just talking a good game. He also walks it, with his two high-technology prosthetic legs.
“I compete in running and swimming,” he said. “I love to surf and ski and kayak. I just try to show it’s possible and prove to myself that there’s nothing I can’t try.”
Clapp came to town to tell his story, both to clinicians and fellow amputees. His visit to Buffalo was sponsored by the Hanger Clinic, which provides the latest in orthotic and prosthetic devices across the nation.
His story started at age 15 on Sept. 15, 2001, four days after 9/11. Clapp – who sprinkles his low-key talk with references to his being a surfer dude – admitted that he was a troublemaker, living on the edge, making a lot of self-destructive choices.
That night, he was on the train tracks near his California home, drinking pretty heavily and looking at a memorial to 9/11, when he apparently passed out, or at least didn’t see the train rumbling down the tracks.
“That thing took me out, sliced my legs off, and somehow my body flipped around, and it cut my [right] arm off, too,” he told the group of amputees.
He knew he was lucky to survive. After three weeks, he left the hospital, with doctors telling him that he would never walk again, that he needed to get a good wheelchair.
Clapp knew otherwise.
“That was a pretty grim prognosis for a young 15-year-old kid,” he said. “Yes, it was a challenge. It was difficult, but as crazy as it sounds, it was an opportunity to overcome that challenge.”
Clapp’s video slideshow demonstrated his early, sometimes futile attempts to walk, run, swim and race. But he used a metaphor about falling, both literally and figuratively.
“It doesn’t matter how many times I fell,” he said. “What matters is that I got up again. You just can’t lay there in self-pity and shame. You dust yourself off and get back up.”
That has become his philosophy on life: “It’s not what happens to you that matters the most. It’s what you do with it. … It’s your response and reaction that determine the outcome.”
Clapp also spent some time talking about all the mentoring he does, working with the Wounded Warrior Project and other organizations.
His fellow amputees Monday were hanging on his every word. Most of them have lost one or both legs. Here was a young man who has lost three limbs, and he’s talking about surfing and doing triathlons.
One of the most interested attendees was Kenmore resident Kevin M. Degnan, who helps lead a monthly support group at Kenmore Mercy called Moving Forward: Amputee Support Group of WNY.
Clapp had the afternoon audience of about 40 sing “Happy Birthday to You” to the 44-year-old Degnan, an accomplished runner who has competed in eight races since losing a leg in September 2010, 24 years after he was struck by a car while running.
“This is a great birthday gift,” Degnan said later. “It makes me want to be more of a mentor than I already am. I try to live my life and move forward. The biggest message was that all of us have a disability. It’s what we do with it that matters.”
Joseph R. Baumgarden, manager of Catholic Health’s AthletiCare at Kenmore Mercy, was thrilled that the people in his local support group could hear and see Clapp’s story.
“For me to talk to an amputee, it doesn’t carry the weight that he does, with the loss of three limbs,” Baumgarden said.
Clapp isn’t talking to just a tiny group. More than 2 million Americans currently live with some type of limb loss, whether from vascular complications, trauma or cancer.
And his audience members weren’t the only ones inspired.
“To be totally honest, I feel the inspiration goes both ways,” Clapp said before meeting the local amputees. “When they give off their positive energy, I feel that, too.
“It definitely drives me.”