Limbs lost, confidence gained

January 26, 2019 | 3:01 am

Updated January 25, 2019 | 11:39 pm

Mayor Tom Watson, Jason Koger and Clay Taylor | Photo by Jamie Alexander

Clay Taylor doesn’t remember the 2005 helicopter crash in Iraq that resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. But Jason Koger does remember the ATV accident that resulted in the amputation of both his arms below the elbows. And Tom Watson still remembers every detail of the work accident that resulted in the amputation of his right leg in 1970 and can tell you the story like it was yesterday.

Tom Watson

On September 17, 1970, Watson was loading a bulldozer on a lowboy trailer that he didn’t realize had not been counterweighted correctly.

“As soon as I drove the dozer up on the trailer, I dropped the bucket and heard the other guys yell ‘JUMP!’” Watson said. “So, I jumped out, but when I hit the ground, the dozer came back down too and landed on top of me.”

The 10,000 pound bulldozer crushed Watson’s right leg along with several other injuries, including a broken pelvis, 12 cracked ribs and a broken bone in his shoulder. Once Watson arrived at the hospital, the doctor decided to remove the leg.

During his long and very painful recovery, Watson was fitted with his first prosthetic at a clinic in Nashville several months later. There were painful complications with that first prosthetic.

“It killed at first, but the doctor just told me I’d get used to it,” Watson said. “A few months later I asked for a new one but in those days, worker’s comp just covered the cost of your first prosthetic and you were on your own after that. Well, I didn’t have insurance and had no way of paying that expense myself, so I asked the doctor how a guy could get into this business and he just said ‘Well come on down (to Nashville).’”

That invitation was the entry point into a 40-year career in prosthetics that has become the mission of Watson’s life, starting with sweeping floors and cutting leather in the Nashville lab where he received his first ill-fitting prosthetic leg.  

While working in Nashville, Watson met Ronald “Ted” Snell and started working for Snell Prosthetics and Orthotics while attending college. Watson later returned to Owensboro when Snell opened an Owensboro location. When Snell decided to sell the Owensboro location in 1980, Watson and his wife Barbara decided to buy the business, which is now Tom Watson’s Prosthetics and Orthotics Lab.

“I’ve been here ever since, and all of this is by the grace of God,” Watson said. “I think that’s why I’ve lived such a service-oriented life — as a coach, as a board member, and now as mayor. It’s my way of giving back to this community who has been so good to me and Barbara and our boys.”   

Clay Taylor

Clay Taylor is one of the many people who has been helped by Watson’s lab over the years. On August 12, 2005, a helicopter Taylor was piloting during a mission in Iraq went down. While unconscious, Taylor was transferred from Iraq to Germany and back to the United States. Taylor woke in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as a below-the-knee amputee.

“This was early in the conflict,” Taylor said. “There were only around 40 or 50 amputees [from Iraq/Afghanistan] at that point. The Wounded Warrior Project was just in its infancy, but they were there for me right away letting me know I was not alone.”

Beyond the care and rehab he received at Walter Reed, the environment was also encouraging.

“Being a part of a support group and having family there with me made me realize how fortunate I really was,” Taylor said. “Seeing more traumatic and severe injuries put it into perspective, but we all leaned on each other. They taught me to persevere and keep going.”

Taylor said the care and concern that so many people from Owensboro expressed to him was a major reason he decided to return to home for his second career. To that point, he had built a career in the military as a pilot and Owensboro didn’t have many opportunities along that career path.

“But after I saw the outpouring of love and support from this community, I wanted to take that love and do something with it,” he said. “That’s what made me want to come back home and enjoy this community. But it also helped that Tom Watson’s lab had a great reputation at Walter Reed, which helped my transition back to Owensboro tremendously because my prosthetic care didn’t change much at all.”    

Taylor worked at Texas Gas for a few months upon his return until a position opened at Kurtz Auction and Realty where his mother-in-law worked. Clay has been an auctioneer and realtor since 2006 and said he loves helping people “turn assets into cash” using his military background and organizational skills to run, set up and manage auctions.

Today, he sees the incident as just another setback.

“Everybody goes through challenges in life. Being an amputee didn’t change me, it just changed the way I do certain things,” Taylor said. “Before [the crash] I was a sports fanatic. Playing soccer is still feasible, I just have to change the way I do it.”

The incident also provides a chance to help others who go through similar situations.

“I don’t speak publicly like Jason Koger does, but I have talked with some other veterans, and people have reached out to me,” Taylor said. “I always tell them I’m not trained or anything, but I can give them an honest assessment of how I made it through and how it has and hasn’t affected me. And how they can get through it too.”  

Jason Koger

As Taylor alluded to, Jason Koger is regularly invited to share his inspirational story. As a bilateral amputee with two bionic arms, Koger gets quite a bit of attention anywhere he goes. With his unwaveringly positive attitude and optimistic outlook, Koger has found a niche as a motivational speaker at schools, churches and other community gatherings.

As Koger’s story has spread across the country in different circles, unexpected opportunities have arisen and Koger and his bionic arms have appeared in commercials, a “Hawaii 5-0” episode and movies.

I want to share my story because I want people to know you don’t have to give up. Everybody has their struggles,” Koger said. “If I had given up and stayed at home, none of these opportunities would have happened to me. It all goes back to being positive and believing in God.

Koger’s twist of fate happened on March 1, 2008, in a field at his family’s property when the ATV he was driving came in contact with a downed power line that sent 7,200 volts across his forearms.  

Koger’s injuries were so severe that he was transferred by medical helicopter to the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. After three days in a medically-induced coma, Koger woke to his family by his bedside and to learn that his doctors had to amputate both of his arms below the elbow to save his life.  

Since then, he has been fitted with bionic arms by Arm Dynamics and is an ambassador for Ossur, the company that builds the bionic hands. He currently uses the i-limb Quantum, an upper-limb prosthetic that allows the user to have control over pressure and dexterity.

Koger had to retrain his brain to control his new hands. So the brain signal that used to mean “raise my right hand” is now “close my bionic hand,” or, “make a fist.” And the brain signal that used to be “point my right hand down” is now “open my bionic grip.”  

That’s how Koger controls the pressure of the grip force in his bionic hands, which is how he can shake hands with the same grip as anyone else. Or hold his child’s hand as they cross a street.  

The challenge for a bilateral amputee is that bionics are incredibly expensive and insurance is not easily persuaded to cover them. And since they’re electronic, bionics can’t be worn when there’s even a chance of exposure to water, sweat or dust.

For those instances, Jason resorts to his old-fashioned body-powered arms, which are manipulated using shoulder muscles to open the hook and close the hook. Since shoulders weren’t designed for that constant range of motion, bilateral amputees using only body-powered prosthetics generally need corrective surgery as they age.

But despite those little challenges, Koger grew accustomed to his new way of life quickly and was back in the woods hunting within a month of his accident. He still tinkers in his shop, does yard work, coaches his kids’ ball teams and carries on with most “normal” activities. Just at a slower rate sometimes.     

And like Watson and Taylor, he relishes any and every opportunity to help and encourage others. One of Koger’s passion projects is a fundraising event called Handing Back that he organizes to fund community grants.

“Handing Back is my way to give back to this community that rallied around me and my family so much during my accident; financially, bringing us meals, every aspect you can imagine,” Koger said. “When you go through an accident like I did, you wonder how you’re going to get through it, but knowing you have so much support behind you lights a fire under you and keeps you going.”

January 26, 2019 | 3:01 am

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