Kenny Jackson

Hands-on Approach

A carpenter and surgical technician, family man Kenny Jackson makes time to participate in UNC research, qualify for a national racquetball tournament and embrace his “life’s work” in mentoring fellow amputees
By Dan England, Photography by Barry Gutierrez

By the time doctors delivered the news to Rollie Higgins, his foot had turned black.

He’d been in and out of the hospital for a year after an artery clotted in his leg. Doctors put in a cadaver vein, which worked for a week, and they tried stints, which didn’t work at all. Higgins was 76. The news that he would lose his leg was hardly a surprise.

And yet, Kenny Jackson made it much easier to hear.

Jackson was by Higgins’ bedside, within a halfhour after Higgins got the news. It’s no big whoop, Jackson said, and he flipped off his left leg, like he was kicking off a shoe, to make the point. Higgins, the longtime owner of a hardware store in Greeley, had his family in the room. But Jackson, who works part time as a surgical technician for North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, talked to him about what life would be like without a leg minutes before doctors prepared to take it. He even walked him into the operating room.

“I didn’t have any drastic thoughts, and that was because of Kenny,” Higgins says. “If the doctors had said I was going to lose my leg, and I had no idea where to turn to, that would have made a difference. But Kenny was there.”

It wasn’t just the talk. Higgins had known Jackson for about 30 years. He stopped in the store often for his jobs as a carpenter at UNC, or for his third job maintaining a handful of buildings. It was the way Jackson lived his life.

Higgins could see he was telling the truth, rather than feeding him a few attaboys. Living without a leg really did seem to be no big whoop for him. Jackson, just before Higgins went under, told him to call if he needed anything.

Jackson considers it his life’s work to counsel those who are facing what he first went through in 1990, when he was an oil rig worker and a drilling rack rolled over and crushed his legs.

The right leg was damaged. Even today, there isn’t much feeling in his foot. As just one example, he discovered he had to stop wearing steel-toed boots because they rubbed the skin off the tops of his toes. He didn’t realize it until his wife pointed out his raw feet when he stepped out of the shower.

Doctors did what they could with the right leg, and that’s why he still has it. They knew, however, his left was probably gone the moment he was wheeled in. They tried to save it. He tells strangers today that he’s glad they didn’t. He believes losing the leg saved his life.

• • •

Jackson was 27 when he lost his leg. He was a hard drinker. Losing the leg, even from the start, didn’t depress him. It was a sign.

“I was really having fun,” he says. “Too much fun. I was sitting in the hospital there with my mom and sister, and I said this was God’s way of telling me to slow down.”

Four months later, he met his wife, Dawn, at the former Smiling Moose near campus. He can still remember seeing her for the first time at the bar. She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world, he says, after 23 years of marriage and two kids, Keenan, 19, and Kylee, 18. He also has a son, Jeremy, 30, who lives in Arizona.

He’s not sure, if he hadn’t lost his leg, if he would have been ready for her. He’s pretty sure, at the very least, he wouldn’t have been able to keep her.

Once they got together, Dawn began to guide his life, as she does even to this day, despite Jackson’s gruff independence. She was going through nursing school, and she told Jackson to forget the oil fields. Using the money he got as compensation for his injuries, she signed him up for surgical tech school. He’s worked at the hospital for 22 years, now on Mondays and on days doctors need him for extra surgeries in addition to his job as a staff member in construction at UNC.

“It’s funny how life can change,” Jackson says.

Because of his gig at the hospital, and the fact that Dawn works there full-time as a nurse, he makes regular visits to amputees. He’s done that for at least 15 years. Dawn suggested he visit a patient once, and a doctor agreed, admitting that even he didn’t really understand the way Kenny would. Now when a patient comes in, the word gets sent to Jackson, usually before or after a shift on his feet assisting with a surgery.

Jackson prefers to listen, despite his love for conversation, but he does have a few tips for them. When showering, remember they don’t have a leg, he advises, recalling his own days of nearly pulling the shower curtain off the rings. He encourages them to use their crutches at night when they get up to go to the bathroom — repeated hopping can grind down their ankles, and he will talk about his own ankle as proof. He tells them not to get addicted to pain pills.

He’s even made suggestions to doctors on their patients’ treatment plans based on his own experiences. He looks at what’s worked for him.

“I mostly just tell the docs that you’ve got to get them up and going,” Jackson says. “You need to get them out of the bed as soon as possible. Or else they just watch the clock and it’s like, ‘Tick tick tick tick tick tick.’ That doesn’t do any good.”

He then tells them to call him, at whatever hour, and he means it. He took one call at midnight from a guy feeling phantom pain. Jackson still feels it. He told the guy how to stretch through it rather than pop a pill.

“I just tell them, ‘Life isn’t over,’” Jackson says. “‘You can do the same things you did before. You just may have to do some of them differently.’”

• • •

UNC’s biomechanics department knew who to call on for a study that could affect the future of exactly how doctors perform the amputations. He’d have to take a full afternoon — a difficult task for a guy with three jobs, two kids and a wife — to walk stairs as fast as he could and walk across campus as more than a dozen sensors attached to his skin tracked his movements.

Sure, he told them. No big whoop.

Ten remote cameras glowed like a stovetop set to boiling as Jackson cracked jokes between strolling from one corner to another on commands from an apologetic Abbie Ferris. Ferris, after all, had already shaved his skin raw and stuck him full of biomarkers, which would hurt even more to pull off. Those biomarkers, however, were important. They’re the same kind video games use to capture the movements of characters. Jackson could watch himself walk as a series of colored dots on a widescreen TV.

“See those muscles pop out?” Ferris says with a grin as she stuck another marker on Jackson.

“Not bad for a crippled old geezer, huh?” Jackson responds.

Ferris, a graduate student, wasn’t there (just) for laughs. Her study measures functional performance in different below-the-knee amputation techniques. There are essentially two different kinds, Ferris says.

The more traditional method removes the limb where it needs it, and the tibia and fibula are left independent of each other. The second, called the Ertl Procedure, named after the pioneer, creates a bone bridge between the two. The Ertl Procedure is more difficult, Ferris says, and therefore less common, but she also believes it may be a better approach.

The reason for that is there’s no real stability with the traditional technique, so amputees tend to have more arthritis and lower back pain.
The Ertl, because of that bone bridge, possibly absorbs the impact of everyday life more to prevent those aliments.

That’s what she’s studying. Jackson’s amputation is more traditional, she says.

Jackson looked at the UNC study as another way to help others. He works on home-improvement projects to make some of the amputees’ lives easier, and he only charges them for the parts. His counseling doesn’t end in the hospital room, either, giving his phone number out freely.

The advancements made in prosthetics have made his life much better, even from one year to the next. Jackson, 53, plays golf, rides a wakeboard and plays enough racquetball twice a week to qualify for the national Senior Games. The games are for those 50 and over, but that’s the only concession he makes: He competes with able-bodied players.

• • •

Kenny may counsel amputees, but he knows he’s not going to get the same understanding at home. At least not from Keenan. Keenan can bench press 350 pounds and likes to throw his father around the racquetball court.

“He has no mercy,” Kenny says, recalling struggling on a day the two went surfing. “… he just kept yelling at me that I wasn’t trying hard enough. My son doesn’t care if I have one leg. I mean, that’s what you want, right?”

That is, in fact, what Jackson wants. Just weeks after the accident, his sister was pushing him around a video store in Greeley, and they came across a movie, The Man With One Red Shoe.

“Hey look,” she said. “They made a movie about you.”

“She never let me dwell on it,” Jackson says. “No one in my family did.”

He had his fun, even after the accident, but when the kids were born, he and Dawn had a talk. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and they decided they didn’t want their children to grow up in anything remotely close to that. The drinking dwindled. Now it’s been eight years since he had a drink.

He’d rather play racquetball twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a time when everyone’s been trained to know he’s not on call. He’s really looking forward to playing in the national Senior Games.

“My kids are giving me grief over that,” he says, “but I don’t care.”

He cherishes moments with his family. Time is limited now. Kylee is attending UNC and Keenan will transfer there in the fall. In between jobs, they will spend time on the porch watching the sunset and playing cribbage until midnight. It’s nothing special. It’s no big whoop. It’s his life.

Life gets better all the time, too: After he participated in the study, the students in UNC’s Biomechanics Lab made a couple adjustments to his leg. It feels better than ever.

He would also like to get involved with Wounded Warrior Project to provide support for injured military veterans. He doesn’t lecture new amputees when he meets with them in their beds, while they wonder what life will be like without their limb. He listens to them and then tells them about his own life, the one with a tight family and three jobs.

It’s a blessed life, he says, and all he has to do to keep it is stay busy in it. NV


Kenny Jackson

Left: Jackson wears biomarkers that are strategically placed to track his movements. They’re the same type of sensors as those used to create character movement in video games.

Above: UNC graduate student Abbie Ferris studies functional performance of different amputation techniques and has helped with adjustments that improve the fit of Jackson’s prosthesis.

Watch a clip of Kenny on the court.