I received this email last week, from Angela Madsen, due to row across the Atlantic later on this year…

Vita mutatur, non tollitur: Latin translated: Life is changed, not taken away

In September of 1993, I underwent back surgery for an injury I sustained while on duty in the military. My goal was to be walking and surfing within one year. The Surgery went very badly and many mistakes were made. I was to have a spinal fusion of two levels of the lumbar spine. They were to be installing bone graft (from my hip) replacements of the discs and Herrington rods with pedicle screws. The hardware was ordered for the two levels and was ready. The doctors mistakenly started at the wrong level making it necessary to fuse an additional level. They had to go to the bone bank for more bone graft for the additional level. This also changed the hardware. The procedure that was to take 4 hours took 10 and � hours. When they were installing the hardware, they reportedly installed the rods and crossbars out of numeric sequence and had to take it all apart and start over. The bone grafts were installed improperly and all three are left side wedged with the upper one protruding outward, impinging on the descending aorta. Sometime during the procedure, they also compromised my spinal cord by either drilling or placing one of the screws through the dural sac and into the spinal cord. None of these conditions were repaired and I was just left to suffer. I am in extreme amounts of pain constantly. One of the physicians at the hospital at one time said, “My physical condition was a waste of human life” I received very little if any physical therapy or rehab. I had to do it on my own. I had to revise my goals. I did not give up!

I am a Spinal Cord Injury L1 incomplete. I have had a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer and have had to undergo surgery for carpal tunnel and ulnar nerve. I have been diagnosed with myasthenia Gravis but seem to have it under control with medication. No matter what seems to come my way in the way of challenges, God gives me the strength to overcome. I have managed to be successful and I have increased my competition times in rowing and have made many improvements in my surfing in spite of everything that presents obstacles and physical barriers. I have grown and continue to grow stronger physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

I have used my athletic abilities and gifts to become a strong advocate for human rights and rights of people with disabilities. I do allot of public speaking at large human rights events as well as small local schools and events. I was in the mechanical engineering field designing high-speed pneumatic labeling machines before my surgery. During my hospitalization, I lost everything. Since my failed back surgery, I have the most fantastic life!

I have continued on my journey utilizing my gifts. I have excelled at wheelchair and adaptive sports. Through wheelchair Basketball and Casa Colina Rehab Center in Pomona, I was introduced to the sport of rowing. I excelled adaptive rowing with equal passion and as much natural ability as in my PWC life ( pre-wheelchair).

I became a rowing coach and started an adaptive rowing program. I began teaching other differently abled people to row. I work with all abilities and ages. I discovered that they learn much more than how to row. As I did, they learn how to live through sport, how to set and accomplish goals, on and off the water in their every day lives, how to be more outgoing and social, more confident, How to be winners, how to accept losses, they grow and move on with a more positive and enthusiastic outlook for the future. How to live to accept and take on the challenges of life and not be challenged by living. I get to be a part of the good that transpires in lives of the people I work with. I love this life. If I could go back in time and change it, I would not.

I used my mechanical engineering background and problem solving skills to properly rig boats and position adaptive fixed seat rowers in boats so they could safely participate in the sport. I determined how to rig the boats not only for regular adaptive rowers but also for elite fixed seat rowers. I developed rigging methods to make the boats go faster.

My first trip to the World Championships of Rowing was Seville, Spain in 2002. There were few women in the sport then and none in fixed seats at the event so we canceled the double rowing event and went on to do the event in singles. I competed against the men in the event. My double rowing partner Scott Brown won the Gold, I won a silver medal, and Australian won the bronze medal. I have been to five World Championships of rowing and am a four time gold medalist. 2003 was Milan Italy, 2004 Banyoles Spain, 2005 Gifu Japan, and 2006 Eton England. Adaptive rowing had submitted the application for full inclusion in the Paralympics and has since been approved. My long forgotten aspirations of becoming an elite athlete and dreaming of one day competing in the Olympics are once again realized with Adaptive Rowing Inclusion into the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008.

I know what it is to suffer. I know what it is to feel hopeless. I know what it feels like to give up on dreams and goals. I also know what a mistake it is to give up on dreams and goals.
I know what it is to be as that doctor described my physical condition “a Waste of human life.” At that particular time in my life, his description fit. I was truly a waste of human life. I was not doing anything to improve my situation and I definitely was not doing anything for anyone else either.

I was only being angry, questioning why me, being pathetic and hopeless. It was so easy to give up and give in to despair. The only thing I could count was my losses and not my blessings. At the time, the losses were so much greater and I never could see how what had happened to me could actually be a blessing until I began moving on with my new and different life. It is not easy to move on into such an uncertain future. I was not seeing hope for anything positive and meaningful, just anticipating a life of pain and suffering. When I began participating in sports again, it was familiar. It was different, yet the same. A vehicle to restore me, to restore hope, Arise the competitive spirit. I have never looked back or ever felt as completely hopeless as I did back then. I cannot imagine ever feeling like that again. I have many more blessings now to count than I will ever suffer losses. I have had the most fantastic life.

There is still great pain and suffering and through aging and degeneration, my physical condition is sure to deteriorate. Sooner than I would like, I am sure to require another surgery. The thought of another back surgery absolutely terrifies me. The thought of going back to that place physically, being dependent on others and being at the mercy of others, not being as mobile or independent, being less able to participate in sports as I do now or not being able to participate at all. I am sure to come full circle and blessed to have not had to stay in one place.

The difference

You cannot follow my footsteps
To see how I got here
As I have left not one footprint
In many a year

In the boat that I row
I am fast, I am strong
From a distance, there is no difference
My stroke, just as long

The distance I row
In the time that it takes
Will be evidence to show
There is no difference between us, even up close.

If you wish to follow
Just stay on the path
Left by two wheels, side by side
And the sound of my laugh!

Angela Madsen

See this link for more details.

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