Janesville man training to walk with artificial legs in heart event

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, August 2, 2014

JANESVILLE--Tom McCool sometimes stirs in the morning with the feeling someone is staring at him.

When he opens his eyes, his 3-year-old grandson Trevor hovers inches from his nose.

“Cockle-doodle-doo!” the child coos.

Tom smiles.

He uses his arms to push himself into a sitting position. From bed, he slides into his wheelchair and prepares for the day.

First, Tom inserts new batteries into the power packs that keep the mechanical pump in his chest working.  The left ventricular-assist device keeps Tom alive by helping his weak heart pump blood throughout his body.

Next, Tom reaches for special silicone socks. He pulls them onto his legs, amputated just below the knees. Then he snaps on his artificial legs.

“I'll eventually get permanent ones,” Tom said.

He lost both legs to amputation in February.

After breakfast, Tom rolls out the door in his power wheelchair and down the street several blocks to Mercy Cardiac Fitness Center on North Washington Street. On most days, he works out for about an hour.

“I'm learning to walk again,” Tom said. “I could easily sit in a wheelchair and rot, but there's so much you can do, even if you are disabled.”

Tom has an ambitious goal: To walk a mile at the Bert Blain Memorial Heart Walk on Aug. 24 in Janesville.

So far, he has gone 800 feet.

“I can't guarantee that I'll walk the whole mile,” he said.

His daughter Lyndsey will be there with a wheelchair if he gets tired.

Exercise specialist Kathy Grabowski has known Tom since he took part in the cardiac rehabilitation program at Mercy's fitness center two years ago.

“He has a fantastic attitude,” she said. “He is always positive and ready to do the work and more. Even after he lost his legs, there was no stopping him.”

Learning to walk on artificial legs is hard enough, but adding the heart-pump machine to the mix makes it more challenging, Grabowski said.

“But you would never hear that from Tom,” she added. “He wants to show other people how you can persevere.”

Tom shows his grit in many ways.

He faced serious health challenges 15 years ago when he had a triple bypass.

Since then, he has been diagnosed with diabetes, congestive heart failure and a blocked artery in his leg.

Three years ago, he lost his house and everything in it because he could not work during a long hospital stay.

In 2012, he was not expected to live because of his heart condition. But University Hospital doctors in Madison fitted him with the heart pump while he waits for a transplant.

“I immediately started feeling better,” Tom said. “It has given me a new lease on life.”

Three weeks ago, he was admitted for heart-transplant surgery at University Hospital, but the heart he was supposed to receive didn't work out.

Lyndsey said her father is an inspiration.

“He will overcome any obstacle in his path,” she said. “I've been with him for every surgery. He always has a good sense of humor.”

Lyndsey sometimes feels down.

“But how dare I complain about anything when my dad goes through all this and doesn't give up,” she said.

Tom works almost full time at Taco Bell in Janesville, where he is a shift manager. He travels three hours on the bus to get there and back.

He is a student in Blackhawk Technical College's culinary arts program. Tom missed his last final exam during the winter semester because of intense pain in his legs.

“I had to drop out because I had infections in both legs from blisters on my feet,” he explained.

Tom is a member of Janesville's New Life Assembly of God Church. Pastor Michael Jackson of the church was with him when doctors told Tom they had to amputate his legs.

“Right afterward, Tom told me he is going to complete his education,” Jackson recalled. “He said he is going to continue working. He said: 'I'm going to lose my legs but not my life.'”

Then Tom asked Jackson if they could pray for another church member who was having a hard time.

“Tom is an extraordinary person,” Jackson said. “He is in a league of his own. He takes inspiration to a whole different level. I told my congregation, 'If you were to look up the definition of courage in the dictionary, Tom's picture would be next to it.'”

Tom has the option of being depressed.

“But what good would that do me?” he asked. “I don't have many bad days. When I do, I pray. I have a pretty good one-on-one relationship with God. My spirituality is huge.”

His advice to others who struggle is simple:

“No matter how dark things are, you will get by,” Tom said. “If you decide to give up, you will fall to pieces. You have to keep pushing.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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