On April 13, 2004, a roadside bomb in Iraq injured Melissa Stockwell so badly she had to have her leg amputated. It’s a date that is etched into her consciousness – not as an ending, but as a beginning.
Still in love with the uniform, Stockwell, 29, is no longer active in the military. Instead, she fills her days training for athletic competitions. She swam on the U.S. Paralympic team in Beijing last year, swiftly developing from a long-shot competitor in her class to being internationally ranked at No. 4 in the 400-meter freestyle. Stockwell, a Forest Park resident, is now molding herself into a runner and completed the Bucktown 5K in Chicago last month. On Oct. 25 she’s headed to San Diego for a triathlon hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
And all the while she’s taken on a new career as a prosthetist, finishing up her year of residency with Scheck and Siress, a firm in Chicago.
“I love my life,” Stockwell said over a cup of coffee on Madison Street. “I wouldn’t be here if April 13 hadn’t happened.”
Originally from Minnesota, Stockwell and her husband moved to Forest Park about eight months ago so that he could finish medical school at nearby Loyola. While training for the Paralympic Games, Stockwell lived in Colorado Springs.
Stockwell has what seems to be a boundless amount of energy, and David Rotter, the lab manager at Scheck and Siress who oversees the residency program there, said there is something remarkable about her. For 12 years, Rotter has worked in prosthetics with the company and said that not everyone who loses a limb is as willing to accept the challenge.
“It’s very much up to the individual,” Rotter said.
As a clinician and as an amputee, Stockwell is demonstrating a number of strengths that should only guarantee further success, he said.
“She’s doing wonderfully. The most important thing to being a health care provider is she’s kind, she’s empathetic and she’s got good hand skills,” Rotter said of Stockwell’s work.
In a very matter-of-fact way, Stockwell said the process of recovering from her injury has been about proving herself. For her entire life she has been a competitive person and was an avid gymnast growing up. She wasn’t much into running or swimming before her left leg was taken from her, but she quickly realized how important it became to prove (to herself, mostly) that she could do all the things she used to.
Stockwell spent a year getting treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., three months of which were spent on an inpatient basis. It was during that time, she said, that it dawned on her how lucky she was. She survived the explosion, for starters, and had lost only a leg. Others in the hospital had much more severe injuries.
“Being in Walter Reed kind of put things into perspective,” Stockwell said. “I lost a leg, but I have my other leg.”
While at the hospital, Stockwell sat in on a presentation about the Paralympics. She had never heard of the competition before.
“It was immediate,” she said of the decision to try and compete. She made the U.S. team on April 6, 2008, almost four years to the day after the explosion in Iraq.