After Dennis Oehler lost his leg in a 1984 car accident, and Todd Schaffhauser lost his to bone cancer in 1985, they learned to use their prosthetic legs well enough to become sprinters. After meeting at a competition in Nashville in 1986, they pushed themselves and each other well enough to earn spots in the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul Korea. There, they became the world’s fastest leg amputee sprinters.
Except, out of the entire world's population, there were only five runners in one of the races.
Figuring other amputees would love the opportunity to compete, Oehler and Schaffhauser started a business to teach others to run. But they quickly came to understand that amputees with new prosthetic limbs really needed help learning how to walk. Because of insurance coverage limitations, the people weren’t getting enough time in physical therapy.
Today, 24 years after they started, Oehler and Schaffhauser teach at quarterly amputee walking schools at 10 locations around this country and one in Helsinki, Finland. They have worked with more than 13,000 amputees. Besides traveling more than 130 days a year, they also run their own prosthetic company in New York.
They work locally with SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics, the next time 6:30-8:30 p.m. Jan. 23 at Turnstone. The program is free.
``This program is not about teaching everybody to run,'' Oehler said. ``The majority of people we work with are over the age of 45, 50 years old who lost a leg to diabetes or vascular disease. We've been able to touch a lot of lives.''
So for a couple of hours every three months, Oehler and Schaffhauser work hands-on with anyone who is willing to trust them and learn. There are resistance exercises, range-of-motion drills and sometimes even dancing lessons. Sometimes the patients are fathers who want to walk their daughters down the aisle at their weddings or dance with them at the reception. Oehler and Schaffhauser once had 450 show up to a clinic in Mexico City when only 50 were scheduled to attend.
``They wanted to learn to jog,'' Oehler said. ``They just wanted to be able to play with their kids or chase their grandkids in the back yard.''
The biggest key? Patience.
``You have to give yourself at least 2-to-3 years before you get everything back and it's all second nature,'' Oehler said. ``That sounds like a long time, but by the time you are done it goes by fast.''