By Elizabeth Bokfi
For 37-year-old Joshua Clark, from Berlin, Ohio, his travel in the fast lane came to a halt after a series of interconnected events left him with the challenge of adapting to prison life, and the challenges of physically and emotionally adapting to amputation.
Clark’s journey began over 20 years ago when, as a teenager, his experimental drug use became a way of life. Dabbling in more than just marijuana, he took advantage of the experimentation stage “with a mixture of everything available.” By the time he graduated from high school, he knew he had a problem. Things went from bad to worse when a workplace back injury compounded by injuries sustained in a car accident necessitated prescribed pain management. Although Clark was initially prescribed Vicodin, it wasn’t long before pain management became pills management as his need for stronger and more effective pain relief led him to more potent prescription drugs.
Eventually Clark became immersed in a prescription drug addiction that began to affect his family life. One day his perception of being a burden to his family prompted him to cry out for help through a handwritten will and testament addressed to his wife.
“There were multiple times I came close to overdosing while I was using alone,” says Clark. “It was common to be alone while doing it, so I wanted everyone to know if anything happened to me. I knew I’d come close to death [many] times.” He then sought help from a physician.
“I was losing my memory quite frequently. I knew I was at the end and needed help. They sent me home and told me I had a pill problem. Obviously.”
In a final and desperate cry for help, Clark walked into a pharmacy and committed robbery. “I was 32 [years old]. At that point, I was forgetting multiple days at a time,” recalls Clark. “I knew this was killing me. After reaching out for help and being turned away, it was a last-ditch effort to either save my life or take it…. I was by myself and had no idea what to do anymore, the pills had me so far gone. I was looking for someone to blame, and it was either myself or the people who gave me the medication…. If I got away with it, the plan was to take my own life; and if I got caught, then I’d have no choice but to get help.”
Unfortunately, a short stint in jail followed by a few weeks’ stay at a state psychiatric ward did not immediately solve Clark’s problem. After posting bail, he was still receiving prescribed medication, and the stress of court appearances only reinforced his addiction.
It wasn’t until he experienced a tragic series of events following a pill-induced blackout that Clark would eventually undergo treatment for his addiction. Complications from restricted blood flow to his right hand during the blackout resulted in a surgical amputation. Adapting to his new life was overwhelming.
“At the time I lost my hand, I had not undergone treatment yet,” he says. “I was prescribed even more narcotics right after the surgery. I would never admit to the hospitals what had happened, and even close family were unaware of the truth. [But] my little victories [accomplishing activities of daily living] meant a lot with everything I was going through—the addiction, amputation, and the stress of being in prison. I was sent to prison just a couple months after my amputation. There is no sympathy in a place like that. I guess you could say it helped harden me up a little. I just did things and figured it out as I went—I had no choice. As time went on, I got better at them, especially when I got out and was able to get a prosthesis.”
Incarcerated and undergoing addiction treatment, Clark began personal training. “Every part of my training is a personal victory; exercise, fitness, and running were such a huge part of my recovery, from both the amputation and addiction,” says Clark. “It all kind of fell into place. Last year I was fourth at UCLA nationals in the 100m dash and won gold at Endeavor Games in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in long jump and 100m.”
Spurred on by feelings of progress, Clark now has his sights set on the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo and has chronicled his life’s lessons in a book titled Pills, Prison, and the Paralympics.
“We only get one life,” he says. “What we do with it, regardless of our circumstances, is totally up to us…. Take control of your life now, before it’s too late.”
Kevin Johnson, from San Diego, was also living in the fast lane until he hit a huge pothole in 2009. While guiding a tour for a zipline manufacturing company in Las Vegas, Johnson—a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie—fell from his zipline 80 feet to the canyon below.
Because his injuries were so severe and included broken legs, a crushed pelvis, head and optic nerve injury, and internal organ damage, doctors did not believe he would survive transport to the hospital. As he slipped into a coma, they gave him a one in one thousandth chance of surviving. However, after spending three months in a state of unconsciousness, he woke up.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night in a hospital bed, with all these wires and tubes connected to me, thinking I was in a dream,” says Johnson. “[Feeling like] I had to get out of there, I went to get out of bed, pulled the covers off, noticed my left leg was amputated, and remember thinking, ‘[This] dream is clearly becoming a nightmare.’”
After a two-year hospital stay and recovery, Johnson flew to Denver to meet with a team of doctors at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center to discuss limb salvage surgery for his right leg.
“I had surgery on my leg to save it,” explains Johnson. “It was a success. Unfortunately, the surgery set loose an infection, and not just any infection—a bone infection. I’d never felt sicker.” Surgery and a course of intravenous antibiotics weren’t enough to save Johnson’s leg. After making the difficult decision to have his right leg amputated, Johnson returned to Denver for the operation.
In recovery and not crazy about the idea of lifelong narcotics dependency as a pain management system, Johnson began exploring plant-based medicine. “Medicine naturally produced on this earth felt like the safest way to preserve my own neurochemistry. I had a lot of time and spent it researching and understanding herbs and natural remedies. It just made sense,” says Johnson. “My trauma team had the reaction I was expecting— some of them believed in my choice, and some of them have been taught that Western medicine is the only and best way.”
Life as a double amputee also affected Johnson’s view of others living with amputation. “It really hit me when I was finally out of the hospital,” Johnson says. “At the time, I was doing well and my health was on the climb back to the top when Hanger [Clinic] asked if I could join their peer program called AMPOWER…. To see people going through the first stages and struggles of amputation gave me a level of compassion I never had before.” Johnson now travels as a motivational speaker and continues to help other amputees through peer support.
As for the adrenaline junkie inside him? Says Johnson: “I really excelled at snowboarding, and after being noticed on the mountain, I received sponsorship—with Volcom being one of the more notable sports companies. Last October I participated in the Tour de Cove triathlon by Challenged Athletes Foundation.”
One of the biggest lessons Johnson has learned after his remarkable comeback is perseverance. “I found that I have more optimism and will than I knew I was capable of,” he says. “I believed in myself first and was my own strongest advocate. To build that kind of relationship with myself and to find that kind of confidence after all I’ve been through is something I am not only proud to have learned, but proud to have kept along the way.”