Inspiration on the Run

By Rene Agredano

We all want a healthcare provider who understand our needs and hopes. But if our medical team isn’t giving us the support we need, it’s time to practice the adage, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

When the Illinois runner who’s now known as Juan Leg wasn’t getting what he wanted from his prosthetic limb, he asked around for someone who could help. In return, he got a new life.

Asking for the Impossible?

Twenty years ago, 34-year-old Tim Novak was supporting his wife and three children in a physically demanding construction job while living in Tampa, Florida, when a workplace accident resulted in the loss of his right leg. Novak did his best to stay positive and adapt but grew weary from reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) syndrome pain and the lifelong toll that spina bifida had taken on his body. He found it hard to do anything physical and could no longer work.

Meanwhile, the prosthetic limbs prescribed to Novak never restored him to the level of mobility he wanted. “I was on crutches all the time,” he says. Doctors told him that the device was as good as it gets, and he would always walk with a limp and crutches. For many years, he surrendered to this hopeless prognosis. Then, 14 years after losing his leg, his wife of 30 years filed for divorce.

Broken-hearted and dejected, Novak faced an uncertain future on his own. But everything changed the first time he watched his youngest son compete in a high school cross-country race. Novak was astonished by the determination splashed across his youngest boy’s face. “I thought it was going to be as exciting as watching bowling, but when I watched him give it everything he’s got, I just broke down into tears. It was so exciting!” Competitive running shook Novak to the core and ignited his dream to race alongside his sons.

Advocating With Heart and Determination

The 48-year-old aspiring athlete called numerous prosthetists to inquire about the possibilities of a running leg. But the underwhelming response was deflating. He says he couldn’t find one provider who looked past his age, his fitness level, or his lack of funds for the prosthesis that can cost upwards of $18,000. “They just don’t take into consideration your heart, your determination, your willpower or anything like that, which upset me,” he says.

Novak persevered and searched for referrals. His path led to David Rotter Prosthetics in Chicago. Rotter is a renowned prosthetist regarded for his technical aptitude and charitable work with children and athletes. The man Novak now calls a saint didn’t hesitate when his new client said, “I want something that can help me throw the crutches away.” The ability to make the kind of running device Novak wanted was entirely possible all along, explains Rotter.

The new prosthesis was profoundly life-changing for Novak. “The first time I put on the running blade, I let go of the crutches,” he recalls.

His hip was weak from disuse, but Novak embarked on a training program and joined a gym where one year later he met his fiancée, Jeanette Samek. A fitness enthusiast who asked him out on their first date, she describes him as “the most patient, sensitive, kind, positive, and loving man I’ve ever met.”

Novak with his fiancée, Jeanette Samek. Images courtesy of Tim Novak/Juan Leg. 

Encouragement on the Run

Four months after learning to use his blade, Novak entered his first race, the 2014 Run For Glory 5K. His goal was to finish in under 40 minutes, but he surprised himself with a 28:50 ending time, ranking him 58th overall. “I crossed that finish line and fell to the ground and started bawling,” he says in a voice cracking with emotion. “Thoughts ran through my mind of wanting to scream at the doctors, ‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’”

The race was one of his life’s greatest accomplishments. He never played sports as a youth and says he missed out on the encouragement given by peers and coaches. “I had people come up to me and pat me on the back and tell me, ‘Good job!’ I’ve never had that before.” The unexpected accolades were the catalyst that inspired his transformation into “Juan Leg,” the happiest, most positive man on the move in his hometown of Streator, Illinois.

As of summer 2019, Juan Leg has completed 400 races, including several half marathons. But the finish line is never the end of the road for him. Once he’s done running, he swaps his running blade for his walking leg, then returns to cheer on competitors until the last one finishes. His goal is to give back to all those who have encouraged him. “Kindness is contagious, and I’ve got it bad,” he explains.

Novak’s tenacity combined with Rotter’s ingenuity was transformative for the now 54-year-old runner. It happened because he refused to take no for an answer, which Rotter says is imperative for anyone who wants more out of his or her prosthesis. “It’s up to the consumer to challenge the status quo,” he says. “If someone feels they’re not getting the level of rehabilitation of their life that they’d like, then the first thing to do is challenge the provider. If that doesn’t work, there are other ones out there.” He and Juan Leg are living proof that when you find the strength to ask for what you want, odds are good that you just might get it.

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