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THOMPSON: An amazing story of recovery and resilience

December 09, 2019 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


A current television commercial shows a man golfing with friends. He selects a wedge from his golf bag, sets up…and then we see a close-up of the ball. He swings…taking a tremendous divot that barely moves the ball forward.

The next full shot reveals the golfer holding the club in one hand….and a Coors Light beer in the other. He then hits the ball squarely and with the foursome all smiles they stroll down the fairway…with the 1964 Chad & Jeremy hit…“Summer Song” playing. The words “The Official Beer of Going Golfing Just to Drink Beer” appear on the screen.

Recently, I golfed with folks who always swing with one arm…and not because they love beer. I was playing in a North American One-Arm Golfer Association (NAOAGA) scramble tournament in Florida…alongside golfers who through accident or birth have just one arm.

For you non-golfers, in a scramble, your team’s four players hit from the tee, then select the best shot and hit from there…and so on…until your team holes out. Now, to give us an appreciation for what playing with one arm might be like…the tourney required everyone to play one hole…a 170-yard Par 3…with just one arm. One-arm golfers are used to the different mechanics required to hit a golf ball…the rest of us…not so much.

But if you asked all of the two-armed golfers playing that day…drinking a beer or two might have been a good strategy. Our team did make par on the hole…but only because our one-arm guy, Vinny, hit a good tee shot….the rest of us sucked.

I improved with one-arm swings when I played two weeks later in another NAOAGA tournament. Yes, incredible luck was involved…and I do mean luck...but I rolled my tee shot just off the far side of the green…30 feet from the pin. If golf had referees like NCAA football, my two-arm players and I would have been flagged for “excessive celebration.”

By the way, NAOAGA is a non-profit and you can play golf with these amazing folks here in Canada and the U.S.

Make no mistake, hitting a golf ball squarely and for any distance swinging a club with one arm isn’t easy….and that is an understatement. Several good two-arm golfers in the two tourneys I played whiffed two or three times before finally hitting an often pathetic shot. Thankfully, teams could card no worse than a triple-bogey…and some did. It was a lesson for those of us with two arms...to be sure.

My teammates that first tourney were strangers…soon to become new friends. Vinny Jones, 66 years old, lost his left arm and shoulder in a paper mill accident four decades earlier. A retired correctional officer, Vinny is an excellent golfer…capable of hitting 280-yard drives…and delicate wedge shots to the green. He is one of America’s top one-arm golfers…usually shooting in the mid-70s.

A father and son rounded out our foursome. Steve Arbuthnot - the dad - in his mid-50s was a 30-year law enforcement officer who recently moved to Florida with his family from Puyallup, WA, is a good two-armed golfer.

Tanner - his handsome 26-year-old son - has two arms…but is missing his left leg from just above the knee…and his right leg below the knee is the size of my wrist. He is technically…a paraplegic…struggling with crutches to maintain his balance much less walk.

On January 30, 2016, Tanner went out for a late-afternoon ride on his motorcycle. His life changed forever in a flash about 5:30 p.m. when a pickup truck suddenly pulled out from a side road onto 66th Avenue East. Moments later, Tanner was in the middle of the road…his neck broken in two places…several spine vertebrae shattered.

He was paralyzed from the waist down…but that was not his most life-threatening injury. The femoral artery of his left leg had a two-inch tear…he was literally bleeding to death. In and out of consciousness, he had trouble breathing…his motorcycle’s turn signal impaled his chest and his lungs were collapsing.

A passing motorist borrowed his passenger’s belt and applied a tourniquet to Tanner’s leg until first-responders arrived. His father, Steve, out for a bicycle ride, came upon the accident scene and held his son in his arms. It might have been, he said, the last time.

They put Tanner in a medically induced coma and he entered the operating room at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Tacoma…needing 14 units of blood in his first seven-hour surgery. Later, Tanner would learn from doctors that he would have bled to death in another minute had that Good Samaritan not applied the tourniquet.

The next day he would undergo another surgery…this one six hours…to remove vertebrae and insert two medical rods to support his spine. The pain was, Tanner said, “excruciating.”  There would be more surgeries and the medical team placed him on Dilaudid, Ketamine and morphine for months…just to make the pain bearable.

Tanner transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Feb. 2, and a week later, after deliberations with family and doctors, he decided to let them amputate his left leg…a life-saving decision. Less than four years later…he is playing golf.

On our first hole, Tanner dropped his crutches and showing the balance of a tightrope walker…hit the ball a good 200 yards. His dad told me a few holes later that before his accident, Tanner at 21 years old, was a scratch golfer…and could stripe 300-plus-yard drives down the middle of a fairway.

I realized just how special this young man is when my one-armed friend Vinny slid back into the golf cart and in a low voice said, “Well, I’m impressed!” Indeed…if Tanner impressed the one-arm guy…I was humbled.

As I talked with Tanner throughout the day…he was always positive…upbeat. Never once feeling sorry for himself...he showed a good sense of humour. He made fun of his balance, and on occasion after swinging a club would fall, announcing, “I’m going down.” I told him I was in the U.S. Air Force and asked if he would kindly say something else…as that wasn’t what airmen ever wanted to hear. Tanner laughed long and hard.

Tanner Arbuthnot with wife, Myra, and dog, Luna.
Tanner Arbuthnot with wife, Myra, and dog, Luna.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED

Doctors were cautious after Tanner’s accident…he might never walk again…even with crutches, they said. But they underestimated Tanner’s determination…his will…and his faith. He borrowed a prosthetic and secretly practiced standing…balancing.

He promised he would walk down the aisle at his sister Ashton’s wedding in June. It was rainy and cool the day of the wedding…weather that increased his pain. Nevertheless, he did walk down the aisle. Steve would move everyone to Florida two and a half years later…knowing the warm weather would be easier for his son.

Steve’s mother, Debra, and his wife - Myra - who married him after the accident - rode along in another golf cart…taking photos and video throughout our round. After nine holes, Tanner smiled, and said, “I’m going for 18!”  This was his first nine holes of golf since the accident…and you could see he would not be denied.

Near the end of our round as we rode in the golf cart, I told Vinny, “You gotta love this kid.”

“Yeah,” he said, his eyes welling.

Tanner would finish all 18 holes. And while our team didn’t win the tourney…at 13 under…we were respectable. Besides, we weren’t there to win…we were there to have fun…and celebrate life. We were new friends…and would play golf in another tourney in two weeks…and have planned yet another round.

Tanner told me that there were times during his recovery when he was discouraged…but those times didn’t last long. Tanner, his wife and parents all consider his living as an incredible blessing…a miracle. You can see a real-time video of Tanner’s recovery here.

Tanner is an amazing young man…and though not his original plan…he now sells life insurance. He certainly knows how precious life is…and how life can change in an instant.

Also, Tanner has a video blog - Second-Chance Racing - that motivates others who suffer crippling injuries to not only race…but live large. He has raced a 750-H.P. Nissan GT-R…turning a quarter-mile time of 9.59 seconds at 140 M.P.H….with no special devices.

Tanner has an eye on becoming a motivational speaker…and the smart money wouldn’t bet against him.

“It’s all in God’s hands,” he says, flashing a bright smile. And how can you doubt a guy who’s a walking miracle?

Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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