Running Over Barriers: Ultrarunner PA Competes After Amputation

PA Dave Mackey, ‘Tough as Nails,’ Pushes through Adversity

February 21, 2019

By Hillel Kuttler

PA Dave Mackey running
Photo: Matt Trappe

On the morning of November 1, 2016, a grim-faced Dave Mackey gazed upward, pondering the impending loss of what he considered “something pretty important.” Lying on a hospital bed in Boulder, Colorado, Mackey wiped tears from his eyes with both hands. A bouffant cap was placed atop his head, and someone wheeled him toward an operating room.

The momentousness of Mackey’s elective surgery had struck him just hours earlier: His left leg would be amputated from the knee down.

Still, Mackey, a PA and a champion runner, hoped at that moment to compete again, particularly in the annual Leadman Race Series of five grueling events held over a two-month period in the abandoned mining town of Leadville.

In summer 2018, Mackey, wearing a prosthetic leg, completed the competition to the amazement of exactly no one who knows him.

‘Tough as nails’
“It didn’t surprise me. He’s tough as nails,” said Bob Africa, Mackey’s friend and a fellow competitor in Leadman and other “ultra” running and bicycling events, which are held on mountainous terrain and whose 50- and 100-mile lengths are nearly double and quadruple those of marathons.

Pre-injury, Mackey was among the sport’s best, having been selected three times as Ultrarunner of the Year, winning dozens of races and setting numerous course records. Last year, he earned induction to the Colorado Running Hall of Fame.

[Join Mackey, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, at AAPA 2019 in Denver, May 18-22.]

Elite athletes returning from amputations to compete against able-bodied athletes are exceedingly rare. Minor league pitcher Bert Shepard had his right leg amputated after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II, then pitched in one game with the major league Washington Senators in 1945. Pete Gray, who’d lost part of his right arm in a childhood accident, also reached the majors that year, as an outfielder with the St. Louis Browns.

Competing again in Leadman capped Mackey’s unexpected journey that began on a routine training run on May 23, 2015, at Bear Peak, near his home. There, on a trail Mackey knew well, a boulder he stepped on gave way, sending him tumbling down 60 feet. The nearly 300-pound boulder followed Mackey and rolled onto his leg, crushing it to the point that running mates who pried off the weight were aghast at the damage done.

Thirteen operations led to amputation
Thirteen operations couldn’t relieve the pain or eliminate the infections and left Mackey still unable to walk. He opted for amputation.

“It was [a matter of] quality of life. We ski a lot. I coach soccer. If I didn’t have my leg amputated, I wouldn’t have been as mobile. I had persistent infection, and would be dealing with these issues the rest of my life,” Mackey, 49, explained.

Mackey is thankful that an accident that could have killed him instead spared his head and torso. Said his wife Ellen: “We have far more gratitude: being together as a family, being outdoors together. He’s lucky. Someone heard him and got to him quickly. There’s a bit of a message: that you can get up and go and do things with what you have. Even if you have a challenge, you can do it.”

Working in Denver for a company that provides urgent care to patients in their homes and assisted living facilities, Mackey said, instills a “perspective” that some people, including paraplegics and those with multiple sclerosis whom he treats, have it worse.

Ordeal helps relate to patients
“I’d say that I have a disability, but I don’t feel that way in the least. I can relate to their situations and am sympathetic more toward them. I had something happen to me. Other people have chronic diseases out of their control,” he said.

Mackey’s ordeal, by necessity, increased his medical knowledge in orthopaedics, infectious diseases and rehabilitation, he said.

David Braun, a PA in emergency medicine in Denver and also an ultra runner, has never met Mackey, but notified AAPA about him. Both men plan to attend AAPA 2019 in Denver in May.

Mackey has “been a model for me in finding a way to move beyond unexpected challenges with grace and humanity,” Braun said. “It’s something I can draw from if I’m on a run and am coping with physical challenges, and realize that maybe [they] aren’t that significant.”

The comment makes Mackey happy.

Learning to overcome barriers in PA school
“I do hope that I inspire others to push through whatever challenges they are seeking to achieve. I want others to try things they never thought they could do or even dared to try. One thing I learned from PA school is that people tend to put perceived barriers up, and these are what keep some from attempting a goal or a change. I want folks to realize that barriers are meant to be overcome, not stopped at.

“I lost a leg, but so what? There’s no reason to stop trying to be who I was before my accident. I feel honored that other runners or anyone, for that matter, sees me as a role model for change.”

Another Coloradan and competitive runner, Matt Trappe, recently completed production of a 24-minute film, Leadman: The Dave Mackey Story, in the course of which he said he learned that “the level of Dave’s determination was made even more apparent to me.”

Mackey featured in short film
The film, which premiered in Boulder on February 1, is “an opportunity for people to watch someone be vulnerable and open up,” said Trappe. Proceeds from the showing went to Range of Motion Project, a nonprofit organization providing prosthetics for people unable to afford them.

Leadman shows Mackey at his most vulnerable, screaming “My leg!” while being secured to a stretcher to be lowered down the mountain to an ambulance following the accident. Other scenes include him discussing the upcoming amputation and reflecting on it afterward. An uplifting moment occurs when he walked alone to Bear Peak two months post-amputation.

“I’m a little sad, but I thought it would be harder than this,” Mackey, gazing side to side at the wondrous scenery, stated in a selfie video he made there.

“Maybe subconsciously, I went there for part of the healing process. I needed to face it at some point,” he told AAPA of the visit.

His return was “an emotional experience,” he said, but subsequent visits have been less so.

“I don’t dwell on things too long. Living in the past doesn’t help me in meeting my next goal. I like to move on, for better or worse.”

Just before the interview, Mackey had gone for a 6½-mile run before starting his 10½-hour workday.

The sport, he said without a tinge of irony, “gives back more than it takes.”

Read more
Skis Not Scrubs: PAs Serve Patients on the Slopes
PA Trains as a Ninja Warrior
Olympic Skiers and Snowboarders Benefit from PA Care

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