Give and Take: How One Man Lost His Leg To Ride Again


Category: Interviews

If you had to amputate a limb in order to keep riding motorcycles, would you do it? That's what happened to Charles Rutherford who, seven months after losing his left foot, is back riding. We talk to him about that monumental decision in this interview.

RideApart: Tell us about your accident. How did it happen and what was the immediate aftermath?

Charles Rutherford: June 26th was a gorgeous summer day and I was a couple blocks from my downtown Minneapolis condo. As I took a left turn onto a side street, a large SUV swung a U-turn into my lane, trying to grab the last parking spot on the corner. I had a couple tenths of a second to avoid hitting him head-on and I almost missed him, but instead, skipped off the front of the car with my left leg caught between the bumper and my bike. I nearly rode it out, but I hit the curb and ended up on the sidewalk with the bike still running in the gutter.

RA: How could you have better protected yourself from injury?

Charles Rutherford: 2012 was a tough year to be my body. Although I've always been an ATGATT (all the gear, all the time) guy, I broke my shoulder blade in May on the street (locked the front under braking) and both feet on the track (locked the front on some fluid) in September — both on my 2008 Ducati Hypermotard. To protect my still-healing feet, I bought some serious boots (Icon Elsinore) for 2013. Unfortunately, no boot is SUV-rated. If I'm being extra critical of myself, it's that an illegal U-turner was nowhere on my radar of possibilities. I play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game on occasion, but when I catch myself doing it, I remind myself that the only place I need to look is where I want to go.

Give and Take: How One Man Lost His Leg To Ride Again

RA: You had some serious injuries as a result.

Charles Rutherford: Yes, I had a fragmented compound fracture of the tibia and fibula which means that whatever wasn't sticking through the leftover skin had been turned into calcium dust. I'd smacked my head enough that without a helmet, it would have been messy. Had I caught the SUV half a twist grip further back, I'd have walked away - angry, but on my feet. The funniest part was, this is the slowest crash I'd ever had. That may sound strange, but as a former road racer with an AMA license, I know that it's not the speed that hurts, it's the oncoming or stationary objects.

RA: How did you arrive at the decision to amputate?

Charles Rutherford: Although I was praying shock would turn out the lights until a happier part of the film, I was alert the entire time, right up until they had to take the boot off in the Emergency Room. Thanks Ketamine. When I came to, my family called in the doctor who told me I had options. ‘Options? Yeah, the option is stitch me up and get me on my way, doc!’ He said it wasn't that simple. They had attached an external fixator, which was holding the foot to my leg via a hole they drilled about 5 inches below my knee. Thankfully, there was still blood flow and feeling in my foot, so they didn't automatically whack it off while I was out. I was following along with the doctor as he told me the process of keeping the foot. They could install a titanium rod in place of the three inches of missing bones and they'd have to re-create the bone and flesh by harvesting bone, muscle and tissue from other parts of my body. Meaning six to eight operations with a 20 percent chance of infection each time, over the course of about 18 months. At the end of all that they'd know how well it worked. ‘Ok doc, I'm with you. What will that look like long-term?’ Probably a fused ankle, never ski, mountain bike, chase kids or ride motorcycles safely. Lots of rehab and pain would likely be a constant companion. ‘What about amputation?’ About 8 weeks and you'll be walking. You'll do all the things you're used to doing now.

Give and Take: How One Man Lost His Leg To Ride Again

Although I didn't have to make the decision at that moment, it hit me that just five hours before, my biggest decision was where I was going to take my then-girlfriend to dinner after mountain biking. Now I have to decide whether I'm going to keep my foot?

I cried myself off to a narcotic nap and woke up in the morning with an unshakable peace and the phrase, ‘It's just a foot,’ rolling through my head. Wait, but it's a foot! Yeah, it's just a foot.

I told my family and girlfriend that I was thinking of amputating. They agreed. When the doctor came back that day, I asked three questions: Which option will heal the fastest? What will give me the best quality of life? What has the fewest chance of future complications? Answer: Amputation. My answer: ‘Then after 36 years of faithful service, we're gonna take that puppy off.’ I was able to find the best orthopedic surgeon in town to do the Ertl Method of amputation, which was a high performance/activity method that removed my leg 6.5 inches below my knee, creating a bone bridge between my tib/fib with bone from what they'd removed.

RA: What physical therapy or other methods did you undertake to start riding again?

Charles Rutherford: Although my prosthesis is state of the art, the reality is that there's no way for me to articulate the toe when I'm not taking a step. It only flexes when I put weight on the heel or toe. 69 days after amputation, when I'd begun to groove to the feeling of my carbon foot, I decided to get on my dad's Monster S2R to take it up and down the block. There was no way I could hook the shift lever with my toe, so I had to reach down and pull to shift up. I had to downshift with my heel.

Give and Take: How One Man Lost His Leg To Ride Again

Continue Reading More of Charles' Story >>

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