When Captain Simon Mailloux, age 33, steps on the track this September to compete against other wounded and injured soldiers at the Invictus Games, it will be almost ten years since he learned how to walk again.
In November 2007, while serving his first tour of Afghanistan, a roadside improvised explosive device blew up Mailloux’s vehicle, killing three of his men and sending Mailloux flying, severely damaging his left leg. With his vitals failing at a military hospital in Germany, doctors amputated the leg above the knee.
Suffering from shock, short-term memory loss and survivor’s guilt, Mailloux vowed to return to Afghanistan. But first he had to become a soldier again, which started with learning how to walk.
“Very few people picture themselves as amputees,” says Captain Mailloux. “Rehab was immediate and very intense.”
There are two phases in the rehabilitation of an amputee, says Dr. Shane Journeay, a physiatrist at Medcan who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. He works with individuals to make best use of their physical function. (Dr. Journeay is not involved in Captain Mailloux’s care or treatment.)
“First, there is the pre-prosthetic phase where you focus on healing of the residual limb and getting in top form to be fit with a prosthetic device,” says Dr. Journeay. “Then the client learns to walk again with the prosthetic device. Everything from donning the prosthetic, taking steps, to learning how the knee bends and even standing up and sitting down. Maintaining balance and later navigating uneven terrain and stairs—all of that needs to be relearned.”
Captain Mailloux says it took him around six months before he was functional again. But that was still the beginning of his recovery.
“When you get injured it doesn’t only shatter your limbs. Your identity is also shattered. You were a soldier on the line, and then suddenly you aren’t. I go from leading 38 wonderful soldiers in battle to needing two people to help me go and pee in the toilet,” he told The Toronto Star. “Identity-wise, it’s a shock. You’re no longer the super soldier. You’re a patient. It took me a long time to get through that. I did everything I possibly could to become a soldier again.”
Dr. Journeay says patients cope with unexpected limb loss as well as the trauma of the situation in different ways.
“Clearly this gentleman had a lot of resilience, motivation and keen desire to return to previous level of function,” says Dr. Journeay. “At the same time, from a neuroscience perspective, the brain also has to adapt to missing a limb and how to react with the prosthetic. Captain Mailloux has mentioned that he had to learn not to fight the leg. That is something patients will tell us because the devices are so advanced.”
Mailloux was initially fitted with the C-Leg prosthetic, a standard issue leg for military because it has a microprocessor in the knee, which can adapt to difficult terrain. With this advanced prosthetic, Mailloux was redeployed to Afghanistan in 2009. It is believed he is the first Canadian amputee to be deployed to a war zone as a combatant.
“It closed the loop for me, to go back there and finish my tour. To pay tribute to my fallen men,” says Mailloux, who is now based at CFB Valcartier, north of his native Quebec City, with his wife and their young daughter.
Mailloux says he was never a very athletic person, which makes it kind of funny that he’s competing in his second Invictus Games and he’s the co-captain. Attendees can see him compete in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 1500m track and field events and sitting volleyball – a fast and entertaining adaptive sport. Keeping him agile is his new Ottobock X3 knee, which is known as the “Porsche” of prosthetics.
The X3 has a hydraulic mechanism that controls flexion and extension and collects data to improve performance. Mailloux can swim, cycle, golf, climb, and sprint with it – leading him to embrace the RoboCop comparisons.
The new technology makes moving that much smoother. Terry Fox, one of Mailloux’s heroes, was equipped with a prosthetic that didn’t adapt to his movement – leading to the well-known limp and painful blisters during his Marathon of Hope. Today’s challenges are different for amputees.
“The challenges include making sure the amputee doesn’t override the technology or the technology doesn’t override the amputee,” says Dr. Journeay.
For Mailloux, the greatest challenge has been to accept his limitations and possibilities, and to encourage others.
“You can’t just be a patient and give up on everything else,” said Mailloux. “The hard thing to keep in mind is that you’re still a soldier. You can accomplish things. That’s what helped me coming back; it’s the mentality that you have to keep going.”
Mailloux encourages other soldiers, active and veteran, to reach out when going through dark times, to join a team or organization and to know that you are never alone.
He says he’ll be listening to Top 40 and Metallica ahead of his competitions. One of his favourites songs is Foo Fighters’ My Hero – an appropriate title to a man who is sure to inspire many this Invictus Games.
Medcan is honoured to be a proud supporter of the Invictus Games Toronto 2017 and we look forward to supporting the participants, their families and members of the Games committee. The Invictus Games Toronto 2017 take place September 23 to 30. More info and tickets available here.