QL+ Challenger and Army veteran, Tammy Landeen was the keynote speaker for the 2021 George Hacks Medical Solutions Hackathon. Below, Tammy talks about her life-changing injury and thriving after her world turned upside down. Tammy's opening remarks reminded us that our work can make an impact on a veteran's life
Hello. My name is Tammy Landeen. I am coming to you from my hotel room in Lake Placid, New York.
I am a US Army Veteran. I joined the Army with my high school sweetheart, Shawn, right after graduation. I have always been a hard charger. Always headstrong and stubborn. The only reason I even joined the Army originally was that my Stepfather, a Vietnam Vet, and police officer of 30 years, told me I would never make it. Boy, was he wrong. But he knew that. That was his way of making sure that I would get out of our small town and get a skill. Find a purpose. So, off to basic training and schooling. Shawn and I married and headed off to tackle the Army together.
We Served together for almost ten years and had two daughters. It was a wonderful life. Then tragedy.
In 2005, I was in a horseback riding accident.
I was riding my horse, Lucy, when she was spooked and bolted through a tree line. She weaved to the right of a tree, and I did not. I smacked a Georgia pine tree at approx. 30 MPH. I hit the tree, then the ground. I felt the pop. I felt enormous pain. I remember everything about those moments that day. The ambulance, the er, the call for a medivac. Then nothing. Forty-five days later, I woke to find I broke my back in five places and had 28 fractures throughout my body. The accident left me paralyzed from the waist down.
After the medically induced coma, another month in the hospital, and a lot of inpatient rehab, it was finally time for me to go home. I will never forget how excited I was when they first told me. There was, of course, some minor apprehension. The idea of leaving the hospital and not having that "safety net" was slightly intimidating, but again, I've always been headstrong and stubborn, so I was ready.
Then I had my first encounter with a Durable Medical Equipment Vendor. At this point, there were very few, if any, online stores to go to. Some licensed vendors traveled, usually up to 300 miles, to hospitals to sell you the equipment they tell you that you will need. About an hour and a half into the first meeting, Shawn and I questioned him because we genuinely did not understand this new world we were thrown into. This man stopped us short and said, "You need me; I don't need you." And that popped my high so fast. Although we were new to this, we also knew he was right. I could not go to Walmart and get a shower chair in 2005. Walgreens does not carry catheters on the shelf or in their pharmacy, for that matter. Specialized Wheelchairs were not just at the local CVS. Not the amazing kind he was showing me in all his spectacular brochures. And almost just as important to me as catheters, wheelchairs and grab bars--how do I get my independence back? How do I drive? How do we even find someone to put hand controls in my car? Are hand controls listed in the phone book???
It was in that very moment that I went from "I can do this" to "how am I going to do this" and "I don't know if I can." At that moment, I looked at my daughters, who were only eight and five, and I was scared.
That lack of medical innovation was a catalyst for my depression.
And I stayed depressed for a few years.
Everything just seemed to be so hard.
Nothing was easy or simple, and everything else was ridiculously expensive.
I slowly started coming around, and with gentle guidance from Shawn, I got back on a horse six years after my accident. It was terrifying! But I was taken out to an adaptive horseback riding ranch, and together with a great mare and a wonderful instructor, I rode two to three times a week for nine months and overcame my fear. I learned to ride independently again: from grooming to saddling and mounting to walking, trotting, and cantering. I taught an old mare some new tricks, and she probably taught me some too.
This pulled me out of my funk, but only so far.
Photo Credit: Mark Collier, Norwich University
I took up handcycling in an attempt to reconnect with my girls. Wow, I could ride a bike with my arms! This was exciting! My hate and anger were re-focused on training. I competed in over 50 marathons and cycling races over the next few years. I was even blessed with a qualifying time and an entrance to the 2015 Boston Marathon. I rode from Atlanta to New Orleans, and some 600 miles across Texas, some days doing 100 miles a day. All because someone figured out how to make a bicycle for someone without the use of legs and a wheelchair that was so streamlined that it could take adaptive sports to a whole new level.
When Shawn retired, we moved back home to northern Maine. It is snowy or muddy six to eight months out of the year. There are many great things to do in Maine, but with my wheelchair, I was continually dragging mud or snow into my house. At the same time, I'm a woman, a mother, and I am yelling at my kids, my husband to take their shoes off and stop tracking stuff in my house. Then I am mopping up behind myself. The kids might just have ridden their bikes through my home for the mess I was making.
While having lunch one winter day with my good friend Barb Springer, she says to me, "Tammy, I am part of a nonprofit called QL+. We have partnered with multiple university engineer programs and are designing adaptive equipment to make disabled Veterans' lives easier. Is there anything not on the market that you would create if you could that would make your life easier?" Think about it and get back to me, she said. Well, Barb, I don't have to think about it. I am so tired of tracking mud and snow into my house. So, I explained that although you all can take your shoes off at the door, it's not so easy for me. Taking my shoes off is not going to solve anything!! At that point in time, I would change my wheels, but I still had to wheel in the house, grab the spare wheels, take them to the kitchen, get out of my wheelchair, take it apart, get back into my chair and take the nasty wheels back to the mudroom. Not easy, nor is it much cleaner. I would love a jack that could lift me so I can take these wheels off at the door without getting out of my chair. And now there is.
The students at Virginia Tech designed a device that I back onto. Then, with the remote in hand, it lifts, cupping the rear axle and lifting me slightly to keep my casters on the floor. Then I press the quick disconnect on my dirty wheels, pop them off, snap the clean and dry ones on and lower myself back down. It is fabulous. I use this device daily, sometimes multiple times a day, and it is like a lifeline!
Summer or winter, my husband and I ride motorcycles and snowmobiles. I get on the back of the motorcycle with him, but I ride my own snowmobile. It is a great pastime. But we were always faced with a problem. If I go, my chair has to go. How do you carry a wheelchair on a motorcycle?? Well, you don't. But you can haul a trailer! So that is what we did. We modified a hitch and mounted it to his bike. We bought a small trailer. Even if we are just riding to town for ice cream, we are hauling a trailer with us.
We have also found a way, through trial and error, to carry my chair on Shawn's Snowmobile. And the looks we get! It's not every day you see a wheelchair strapped to the back of a snowmobile.
When there is no snow here, I love to work in my yard and garage. I built a beautiful flower bed for my grandmother. I was proud of my work. But it was definitely work. I got out of my chair and quite literally dragged myself around the lawn, placing landscaping stones, mixing mortar, shoveling dirt. It was beautiful, but I paid a hefty price. I had sores and slivers and wounds ground into my legs, feet, and backside. But it was done, and I did it all myself. I was really proud of my work. So proud that I did it again. I did the same thing for my mother. The joy I got out of designing, creating overpowered the pain for me. But in the end, medically, I knew I could not do it again this way. I had compromised my skin's integrity. Something that brought me great joy was going to make me choose between my physical health or mental health. My physical health had to win.
I called Barb, and again, I said, hey, do you think I could have some sort of adaptive creeper? Something that would keep me low to the ground to work, yet off the ground to protect my skin. She again said, Get me a video!! So, I did. Covid, unfortunately, has slowed the progress of my creeper, but I know it is in the hands of some students that are eager to understand and make it happen for me.
Today, I am sitting in a hotel room in quarantine. I am waiting for my Covid test to come back so I can go to the Lake Placid Bobsled track and compete for my slot on the 2020/21 National Para Bobsled Team for the second year in a row. The fact that we even have a team is due to an invention. A device that gives us a mechanical push for our start because we can't run. If you ever get the chance to watch, it is sure worth it!
In 2005 the salesman, frankly, told me I needed him. He was right then. But today, 15 years later, he is very, very wrong. I don't need him anymore because of programs like QL+ and many others, and many of you, who are willing to create something that will change a life. Maybe just one life, or perhaps you will change an entire population's lifestyle. But you are here. And you are putting in the effort to make life better for everyone. You are opening a new realm of possibility in the way that most people think.
This program of innovation and entrepreneurship for health care is the beginning of the change. As we grow and expand programs like this and adapt the population's mindsets to understand adversity, as we develop solutions for it, the world will be a better place. Just look at the difference between 2005 and now. What are the possibilities for, say, 2035, another 15 years from now? You can make a difference. The innovations you come up with can seem like nothing to you, seem trivial or silly. They may not even make practical sense to you. Without someone willing to teach a horse how to react to wheelchairs and learn how to adapt to a saddle, would I still be depressed?
Without the engineer that designed and redesigned handcycles over the years, I would not have competed. Without QL+ and students willing to look outside the box and find innovative ways to understand me, my problem, and compassionately find solutions, I would not be able to do what I love doing every day; what would MY quality of life be?