Thursday, May 24, 2007

Amputee embraces adventure of life

By STEVE BROWNLEE, Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — The worst day of Jon Tapio’s life could’ve been his last — but instead it simply set him on a different course for the last 23 years.

Hit by nearly 14,000 volts of electricity when he fell into a transformer in Alaska in 1984 at age 19, Tapio lost both his lower legs, but none of his spirit.

Though he took several years to get his life back on track, the Republic resident has maintained a normal life for someone in his early 40s.

Tapio, 41, has been married more than a decade, and he and wife Kimberly have two pre-teen children. He is in his second stint working at the Marquette location of Wright & Filippis, a company with about 30 locations in Michigan that serves all types of needs for the disabled.

Tapio is physically very active — he’s an avid hunter and fisherman, snowshoer and trapper, bowler and golfer. And that’s just a few of the things that he doesn’t let a disability get in the way of.

“I’ll try just about anything,” he said. “I’ve tried cross-country skiing, but I didn’t particularly like it.

“I want to try rock climbing. It’s something I did as a teenager.”

He’s a big proponent of U.P. AIR, which stands for Upper Peninsula Achieving Independent Recreation.

He rattled off its activities scheduled for this summer, including hand cycling, bocce ball, golf, water skiing, kayaking and several general-interest events.

While involved with the group, he credits several of his Wright & Filippis co-workers for its success.

“Lynn Vanwelsenaers and Stephanie Jones — they’re the ones that started U.P. AIR and keep everything organized,” Tapio said. “I just like to come out and take part.

“Its main mission is to get people active again.”

He explained that the loss of a limb or of past abilities can be like a death in the family.

“It’s really easy to get depressed — I mean, you grieve for what you’ve lost,” he said. “Everybody has to deal with it on their own, in their own way.”

That includes people who’ve suffered strokes and heart attacks, not just those who lost limbs, been paralyzed or were born with some sort of physical challenge.

At Wright & Filippis, Tapio is a registered orthotic technician, and he’s working on his orthotist certification. That’s interesting, because orthotics works with “limbs that are there,” as Tapio put it, rather than what he uses — prosthetics, or artificial limbs.

“I’m their resident guinea pig,” Tapio said about Wright & Filippis prosthetists Vanwelsenaers and Jones.

Specialized boots that help people of all ages walk more easily are among the most common devices Tapio works with.

“I feel like I’m uniquely gifted to help people,” he said. “Not because I feel bad for them, but I feel empathy for what they’re going through.”

Despite “dying” eight times in the first hours after his 1984 accident — that’s how many times he was told his heart had to be restarted — being burned over 80 percent of his body and having to go through months of rehabilitation in Seattle, he felt lucky.

“They were waiting for me to die,” he said. “And they wanted to take my right arm, but I wouldn’t sign off on that. Now that arm is stronger than my left.”

Tapio said he also felt fortunate that he had a good motivation for working hard toward his recovery during several months of rehabilitation in the summer of 1984.

“Four days after I got out of the hospital, I went out pheasant hunting. It’s something I really like to do, so it really motivated me to keep going,” he said.

After working at Wright & Filippis from 1988 to 1995, he took time off for 11 years to raise his children at home, deciding to come back last September.

“I love working here,” he said. “It’s giving back — it’s what Wright & Filippis gave to me. They’re counselors and they’re mentors.”

He said he’s a changed person, not because of what he’s missing, but because of what the near-death experience added to his life.

“Everyone has challenges — this just happens to be mine.”

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