Adaptive Golfing in New Hampshire

“Returning to normal” is the typical goal after a long vacation or a hospital stay, but what do you do when something happens that makes “normal” a thing of the past? How about a round of golf?



Jason Lalla puts his “feet” up at home with his family as he shows off some of his sporting medals.
Photo by john hession

Jason Lalla is a certified prosthetist with Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics in Manchester, who, while active in other sports, is relatively indifferent about golf. So how did he get into the opening paragraph of a golf story? Simple. He skied his way in — on one leg.

In fact, the man from Next Step took the Gospel admonition, “Physician, heal thyself” one step further. Lalla is himself an above-the-knee amputee who is his own client/customer as well as the provider of prosthetic services to others. Having lost a leg in a motorcycle accident at age 21, Lalla, once fitted with an artificial limb, returned to his favored pastime of downhill skiing and excelled to the point of winning a gold medal in Paralympics downhill skiing and a gold medal in World Cup skiing. And that is why, believe it or else, he was found on a golf course in Loudon last October for the first of what is to be the annual Veterans Amputee Golf Tournament at the Loudon Country Club. The sun beamed down its brightness and warmth, the grass was still a lush, uncovered green and the trees were ablaze with autumn colors, with not a hint of snow in the forecast. So Jason Lalla, armed with a golf club instead of ski poles, took to the greens, instead of the slopes.     

“I think any time you’re an active person who’s had a passion for something you’ve participated in, being able to resume that activity as an amputee is certainly an achievement,” Lalla says. “It’s a stepping stone, a return to a degree of normalcy, if you will. We protheticists say we do more than fitting artificial limbs. We help people get their lives back. And that’s a big part of it, to participate in those kind of game activities.”

Though not a dedicated golfer, Lalla knows not every sports-minded amputee is apt to make it to the mountaintops for recreational activities. Golf, which appeals to “duffers” of all ages, seems the ideal activity for flatlanders who want to get back in the game.

Sports prosthetics come in many forms. This one is specifically made for downhill mountain biking.
Photo by john hession

“Obviously there are a couple different options,” he says. “You can walk or ride a cart. There are even golf carts designed for paraplegics that allow them to stand upright and take shots.” While the October event, organized by Josh Dixon of the Veterans Administration in Manchester, was the first of what is planned to be many years of equal and larger tournaments, the idea of a fundraising day on the links to benefit area amputees is not new. (Information and registration for the 2014 tournament can be found here.)

“There are a fair amount of amputee golf tournaments of that sort, so oftentimes if you have a friend who’s a golfer or you work at a country club where they’re having a tournament, you give it a try,” Lalla says.

The tournament at Loudon last October was the brainchild of Dixon, chief of Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service at the Manchester Veterans Administration Medical Center. Dixon organized the Veterans Amputee Golf Association as an outgrowth of his services to amputees at the VA. During the spring and summer months, he organized practice sessions at the Loudon Country Club, where club owner Bill Leombruno and Bill Leombruno Jr. have made golf carts and tee times available to the organization free of charge.

“We can’t say there aren’t any other” country clubs in the state making the same accommodations, says Bill, Jr., “but in this area I’m not aware of any others. We just thought it would be the right thing to do.” As Dixon sees it, it has been true and righteous altogether.

“Prior to the formation of this organization, none of the members knew one another,” Dixon wrote in a press release last fall announcing the tournament. “Since [its] inception, many swings have been taken and new relationships been formed. This opportunity has also provided me with a new understanding and appreciation of the VA’s mission, “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”

Lalla, a prosthetist, takes his work home with him — literally.
Photo by john hession

Some took to the outings like grasshoppers to a summer day, including old pro Bob Wilson of Amherst, a double amputee who lost his lower limbs in an accident aboard an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean in 1974.

“I was in the wrong place at the right time,” he says with the wry humor of a man familiar with hard knocks but a stranger to self-pity. “I was directing an airplane onto the No. 3 elevator. You have to maintain eye contact with the aviator and instead of shuffling sideways, I took three steps back. That put me in position to get my legs whacked.”

His legs were “whacked” by the connecting cable that snaps out to anchor the landing plane aboard the ship. When he came to, Wilson recalls, he was in a military hospital in the Philippines and was yanking the intravenous feeding tubes and catheters from his body.

“A nurse said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘It’s hot in here, I’m going swimming. ... ’ I was in la-la land,” he recalls.

A lieutenant commander at the time with 10 years of service in the US Navy, Wilson had endured what he calls an obvious “career-shortening experience.” His life and career took a strange, yet strangely logical turn after that. The accident occurred in June. By November, he was out on a golf course, pursuing the pastime he had taken up after school and on weekends as a teenager. But golf became more than a leisure time recreational activity for Wilson. As he likes to say, with a sense of irony, he “jumped into it with both feet.” The result was, he spent a few years working for the Veterans Administration in San Diego, then was for 33 years the executive director of the national Veterans Amputee Golfer Association.

One of the best things that happened to him, he says, was that “I got involved with international golf associations.” He was totally immersed in golf as administrator of the organization, editor of its magazine, Amputee Golfer, and the developer of a therapeutic program called First Swing, to “teach golf pros and therapists how to utilize golf for rehabilitation.” It was to “challenge physically disabled people to play golf, which was touted by many to be the best form of rehabilitative exercise, bar none.”  The reason, he says, is obvious to anyone who has ever tried the game.

Josh Dixon, VAGA (left) and Robert C. Wilson, former executive director of National Amputee Golf Association
Photo by john hession

“’Cause you use every muscle in your body in gripping, swinging, working your torso, working your legs and also that big muscle in between your ears that gets in the way every now and then.” That’s the muscle that governs more than a golf swing.

“It’s self-esteem,” says Wilson, who has dealt with golfers who have had arms as well as legs amputated. He obviously prefers a tough-minded approach to the power of positive swinging. “So I’m losing an arm,” he says, paraphrasing the attitude of a one-armed golfer. “I can still hit the ball 300 yards, so stick that in your pocket.”

As a retiree, he still plays when he can, though he walks less than he used to.

“At my age now, I take a cart,” he says. “If it fits right and the components work, it’s a breeze.” He swings and drives hard, but wagers light and advises others to do the same.

“Play for drinks or lunch or something like that,” he says. Otherwise, “It’s very stressful. You want to go out and play, have a good time. You don’t want to worry about losing a thousand bucks or something like that if you haven’t got it.”

There are several country clubs in New Hampshire between Manchester and Loudon, so how did the Loudon Country Club become the home of the Veteran Amputee Golf Association and its tournament? Well, aside from the generosity and hospitality of the Leombrunos, it might have something to do with the fact that Bob Bean, an amputee and a former golf pro, plays at the club. Bean, like Lalla, lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. Obviously, that hasn’t kept him from continued participation in a game that, while demanding in its own ways, does not require the physical attributes of, say, a field goal kicker.

Bob Bean, an amputee and former golf pro, tees off at the Loudon Country Club tournament.
Photo by john hession

Bean, 74, has a vivid memory of what happened when a car struck his motorcycle on old Rte. 28 in Epsom in 2008. “I never lost consciousness, but I remember I wound up sitting on the side of the road with my leg about three yards away from me. I was sitting there thinking I was going to die.” Fortunately, the first motorist to stop and render aid was the Epsom fire chief, an EMT. Another factor working to Bean’s advantage was the result of a decision he had made long before. He had married a nurse.

“It was horrifying,” his wife Donna recalls. “I didn’t believe it when I got the phone call. He got home and I took care of him 24/7.” When his own grit and determination got him back on a golf course in a couple of weeks, Mrs. Bean was relieved.“It’s a good thing, a healthy thing,” she says.

“She wanted to get rid of me,” her husband laughs. While Bean speaks freely, and without a hint of regret, about his own misfortune, he would rather talk about another member of the association, Jim Zogopoulos.

“When we started the program, Jim showed up with a bad attitude,” Bean says. “It was, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here; I’m not going to get better.’ We wheeled him up to the driving range and showed him how to hit the ball.” Some golfers hope to change — as in improve — their game. For Jim Zogopoulos, the game changed his attitude and his life.

Sean Kiernan warms up for the Veteran Amputee Golf Association tournament in Loudon.
Photo by john hession

“Jim said, ‘I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when,’” Bean recalls. As he is speaking, Zogopoulos is cheerfully registering players for the tournament as the day brightens and the thermometer creeps up toward 60 degrees on a Saturday morning in the second half of October. Clearly enjoying the camaraderie, he does not play in the tournament, but when the others are farther down the course, he goes over to the first tee and demonstrates his swing. Placing the remnant of his left leg on his wheelchair to balance himself, he stands firm on his good right leg and with a strong right-handed swing drives the ball toward the distant green. Once despairing of playing again at all, Zogopoulos now sees golf as an opportunity to renew and strengthen family ties. “I think I can play golf with my son again,” he says hopefully.

“Jim has made it all worthwhile,” Bean says. “If you save one guy, it’s all worthwhile.” As for himself, the old golf pro will keep on keeping on.

 “I’ll continue teaching for as long as I can,” says Bean, who is full of praise for Dixon’s work in organizing the program and the Leombrunos for opening their golf course to it. “Hopefully, we’ll carry on for years to come.”


Adaptive Alternatives

While the Veteran Amputee Golf Tournament in Loudon featured in the story is the first of its kind in the Granite State, adaptive golf is growing in other places. The VA has worked with Northeast Passage, an organization on the UNH campus in Durham. Northeast Passage bases an adaptive program at the Windham Country Club, which offers beginner sessions every Wednesday night starting in early June.

Cathy Thompson, a community and home-based program coordinator with Northeast Passage, says, “There will be adaptive golf carts provided to anyone interested in participating. They are hand-controlled and work like grounds mowers. There is a spinning seat feature that can move sideways from a seating position.” These special golf carts are for single riders, allowing for a more free maneuver across the golf course.

All of the equipment can be rented at the Windham Country Club after signing up. The Wednesday night sessions run through the end of August. “We’ve been doing it for more than a dozen years,” says club manager Joanne Flynn.

With amputee golfers only a small piece of the picture, Northeast Passage attempts to create a better environment for all individuals with disabilities across a wide array of sports. Waterskiing, archery, cycling and even bocce are other sports with adaptive programs across New Hampshire. —Matt Ingersoll


Giving an Assist

Adaptive devices allow disabled golfers to play the game more comfortably or, for some, at all. The most significant innovation is the single-rider golf cart. It makes it possible to swing the club from a seated position; a few even have power-assist seats to bring the golfer to a standing position. The carts are designed to travel on any part of a golf course.

Other adaptive devices are available for:

  • Placing a tee
  • Retrieving a ball
  • Stabilizing balance
  • Securing a hand to the club
  • Swinging a club while seated

For more information:

 

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