Paula Free has her sights set high when it comes to empowering any individual challenged with a life-limiting disability.
But she’s especially passionate toward helping those living with limb loss.
On a beautiful spring day in 2004, Free was in a motorcycle accident that broke her arm and back, and crushed her foot. At the time, doctors were encouraged they could save her foot.
“In my healing process, I was able to keep my leg and my foot for seven years,” says Free, who had to endure six surgeries in the process.
However, increasing complications, including bone softening and arthritis, brought on severe pain and she was significantly limited.
“Long story short, I chose to amputate,” Free says. “So, it was an elective choice, which was very strange.”
Meaning it’s rare that amputees have a say in such a life-changing matter. In October 2011, Free underwent a trans-tibial amputation to remove her left leg below the knee.
Shortly following a revision surgery two years later, Free met Michelle Torkelson, and they discovered they had a lot in common.
They both worked as hair stylists, they both shared a wedding anniversary date of July 4, and they both lost a leg due to a motorcycle accident. Soon after becoming acquainted, Torkelson told Free she planned to run a 5K.
“And it really blew my mind,” Free says. “So, I decided that if she can do it, I’m going to try this. Little by little I trained myself, with the help of my prosthetist, who went to the track with me.”
Eugene’s 2014 Dirty Dash became Free’s first race, which she completed with the support of her husband, Rod Free, and her prosthetist, John Robert of Hanger Clinic in Springfield.
Since then, she has participated in a 5K seven times; three Dirty Dashes and a 5K portion of a Pole, Peddle, Paddle (events in Bend); and two 10Ks (including Eugene’s July 4 Butte to Butte). She also ran the 5K portion of the CAF Triathlon in California.
Even more remarkable is that she didn’t even start participating until she was in her 60s. Now, at age 63, Free doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Robert wrote a letter of recommendation this past November to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) as part of Free’s application for a grant that would provide her with a running blade. Robert made note of her impressive physical accomplishments, as well as her character.
Free has made supporting and motivating others a big part of her life.
“I thought, ‘This is fun. I need to get other amputees out to do this — make a party out of it,’” Free says of her early running experiences. “So, I posted an ad and went on the radio and talked to some people and I got a couple of amputees that said they’d like to try it. And so, we did. We made a party out of it. We laughed and giggled and had a great time.”
From there, Free began organizing teams for the other races she planned to run.
Additionally, in 2015 she attended a retreat for female amputees in South Carolina, and volunteered for Camp No Limits in Idaho, a camp for children with disabilities and their families. Last year, she attended the Amputee Coalition Conference in North Carolina.
She has even become doubly certified so she can be a peer visitor, and an even greater help to others.
“I’ve talked with several people after amputating, and there’s so many little questions, that I don’t care how many years you’ve been in practice, (there are several questions that) a doctor, a prosthetist, a physical therapist is not going to be able to answer,” Free says. “And so, that’s why I double-certified (through) Am-Power and Amputee Coalition.”
Free willingly speaks with individuals experiencing the challenges of limb loss. She runs a support group for amputees, their family and friends, on the fourth Wednesday of the month at 2951 Coburg Road, Eugene.
Because of the guidance, discovery, encouragement and camaraderie Free obtained while attending the conferences on the East Coast, she decided to bring those same benefits to individuals back home. So, she asked these large organizations to bring their conferences out west to her community.
“They can’t come here,” Free says. “Well, I’ll do it myself. And I approached Willamalane and told them my idea and they jumped all over it, said they’d partner with me. And so now we’re planning a conference that will be here at the Willamalane Sports Center.” The center is located at 250 S. 32nd St., Springfield.
The conference, “Discover Your Potential with Limb Loss and Physical Challenges,” is scheduled for April 8, and includes an impressive list of speakers and activities.
“So, that incorporates other people who aren’t amputees,” says Free, noting the phrase “and physical challenges” in the conference’s title. She wants anyone feeling challenged by any physical or psychological disability to feel welcome.
Free has started a nonprofit titled Power On with Limb Loss, a way to accomplish more than she can do on her own. Realizing how costly her own prosthetics have been, she knows that many families face financial hardships when it comes to outfitting their children with prosthetics as they grow. She hopes that conferences hosted through her nonprofit will raise funds to help offset those costs.
“A lot of people don’t realize they need to reach out,” Free says. “They think they can do it alone. But that’s not as much fun.”