- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Nick Dadgostar lined up on the track.

Warmed up and loose after a two-lap jog, he began drills focused on strengthening his hip flexor, keeping his knees high as he sprinted 20 meters down the track. Pumping his arms in sync with his knees, Dadgostar methodically worked to find consistency in his strides.

“Make every step count,” Delaware State University track and field coach Kevin Braunskill yelled to him. “If you get your hips right, you’ll kill them.”

The hour-long practice Oct. 17 pushed Dadgostar to the point where his hamstring began to strain. After the workout, Dadgostar retreated to a spot near the fence at Alumni Stadium. The 32-year-old sat down and unhinged the prosthetic blade attached to his right leg, putting it in his bag. He put on another prosthetic, grabbed his gear and left the track.

The pool of blood was the first thing Dadgostar noticed as he broke through the surface of the Caribbean Sea.

It was supposed to be a relaxing day of snorkeling for Dadgostar and four of his fellow Air Force comrades during a trip to St. Croix of the Virgin Islands. Instead, April 19, 2009, turned into a nightmare.

A loud humming noise disrupted Dadgoster’s serenity under the clear, blue ocean water. A commercial fishing boat was bearing down on him. The boat’s hull and propellers clipped Dadgostar, who initially thought he had escaped without injury. However, Dadgostar, the only one in his party to get hit by the boat, quickly discovered the seriousness of the situation after he reached the ocean surface.

The impact had broken three ribs and his sternum. The humerus bone in his left arm, caught in the propeller, was completely broken. His left wrist was lacerated with torn tendons barely keeping his pinky finger attached to his hand. Lacerations on his lower right leg near his kneecap and a deep laceration on his left ankle compromised his ability to swim or tread water.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this was it,’” Dadgostar recalled. “It’s quick.”

Sinking deeper into the ocean, no longer able to keep himself afloat, Dadgostar was almost fully submerged when he felt one of the men in his group, Corey Henwood, grab him.

“It was like getting a hug from my mother,” Dadgostar said.

The situation remained dire, though the commercial fishing boat’s decision to turn around likely helped save his life. Dadgostar was lifted into the boat where he remained even after it reached shore. It took two hours for an ambulance to arrive.

The staff sergeant stationed at Dover Air Force Base had lost more than half of his blood. He struggled to breathe because of a punctured left lung. Despite an overwhelming desire to close his eyes and sleep, Dadgostar stayed conscious through the whole ordeal, aided by his Air Force buddies, who sometimes slapped his face to keep him awake.

Dadgostar was taken a hospital in the Virgin Islands but the facility couldn’t handle the severity of his injuries and even struggled treating his collapsed lung. A medevac was called to transfer Dadgostar to a hospital in Miami where he would end up spending two weeks in the intensive care unit. Dr. Jess Kirby, a limb salvage expert with the Army, stepped in when he saw Dadgostar was in the military and prevented the Miami doctors from amputating his left ankle and right leg, a decision Dadgostar greatly appreciated.

Nick’s wife Stephanie Dadgostar was folding laundry and getting settled after returning to their Felton home from a mini-vacation to visit her family in Nebraska when the phone rang. Lance Duckworth, an airman who worked with Nick, was living in the Dadgostars’ spare bedroom at the time and received a call, learning of the accident. He wouldn’t tell Stephanie what the call was about as he paced around the house, so she figured it was private work information.

It was 6 p.m. that Sunday when Stephanie heard a knock on the door. Nick’s first sergeant and his chief commander were waiting at the door, and at first, Stephanie thought they were with the cable company since they weren’t in uniform.

“They didn’t even know a whole lot, and they didn’t have much to tell me,” Stephanie Dadgostar said. “All they could tell me is he got ran over by a boat. That was very surreal. It didn’t hit me for a long time. It was almost like a dream. Sometimes it still is like a dream, you know?”

Stephanie immediately shifted into survival mode, calling family and booking the first flight out of Delaware, arriving at the Miami hospital just in time before Nick went into what would be his first of approximately 15 total surgeries.

Dadgostar spent eight weeks in the Miami hospital before being discharged to his home in Delaware. For the first two years following the accident, nothing came easy for Dadgostar. Essentially on bed rest, he couldn’t walk or use his arms and left hand. He could not play with his children, Kameron and Laurel. At the time, they were 7 years old and 5 months, respectively.

Stephanie Dadgostar watched her husband suffer.

“The years of isolation in itself would be enough to go crazy,” she said. “He literally for years sat on the couch and did absolutely nothing except to watch TV. He did little things, but no going outside. No playing. Our house wasn’t equipped for his wheelchair. We had to go and make a lot of different arrangements here and there.”

Soon, a fishing pole and a nearby beach became two of Dadgostar’s best companions when he needed to get out of the house in the years after his accident. He adopted the mentality that his disability was his new life and wasn’t going to change, so he might as well just fish all day.

“I was kind of seeing my family moving on and I couldn’t do anything,” Dadgostar said. “That was the hardest part.”

To try and save his right leg, doctors broke his tibia and removed 12 centimeters of bone to help it regrow. Four times a day for one year Dadgostar had to turn the screws in his tibia to stretch the bone and cultivate its growth.

But in the summer of 2011, Dadgostar had it amputated, his third and most drastic amputation after also having his left big toe and the first phalange on his second toe amputated right after the accident. Dadgostar has seen the surgery video of his amputation, though it took him a few times to get through it without turning it off.

“It doesn’t bother me anymore,” Dadgostar said of watching his amputation. “It desensitizes you to it, I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.”

The next January, Dadgostar retired from the Air Force. He also was introduced to his first prosthetic leg.

Still, Dadgostar struggled to function. His wake-up call came when one day he found himself day dreaming outside with the lawnmower running, failing to notice that his daughter was tugging on his leg to get his attention.

Dadgostar started seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist. He was diagnosed as having symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder with signs that include panic attacks and struggles with exposure to large crowds. Even going to Walmart could set off a panic attack.

And water had become a phobia, too.

“Since the accident I couldn’t get in the water, I even would start to freak out just taking a bath where I could taste salt water in my mouth,” Dadgostar said. “I’d start having a panic attack. Now, I’m able to get in water and swim with my son and daughter.”

“We got through some of the darkest times people can go through,” Stephanie Dadgostar said. “Our whole world was shaken up. We did a lot of things right. We did a lot of things we could have done better. It’s all trial and error, a learning experience.”

Dadgostar grew up around Washington, D.C., and Maryland. He had his military career all planned out. He would serve 20 years in the Air Force. At the time of his accident, he was a crew chief on a C-17 cargo plane. As a flying crew chief, Dadgostar was a jack-of-all-trades whose missions would include delivering cargo to combat zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar.

“I loved my job in the military - I had seen some awesome things, been in danger, been in great places,” Dadgostar said. “Just like that,” he said with a snap of his fingers, “everything changes.”

His growth as an athlete has been similarly startling, but in a far better way.

Dadgostar was not playing sports when he received an unexpected invitation from the Air Force Wounded Warriors in January. The group asked if he wanted to get paid to play tennis at a camp in San Diego. Dadgostar ended up going to an adaptive camp in Las Vegas instead because it offered more sports, including running, sitting volleyball and swimming. When he returned home after the camp, he started searching online for coaches in Delaware to help him when he came across Braunskill’s information.

Only two months later, Dadgostar became one of only 10 Americans to qualify for both the Invictus Games in London and the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Invictus and Warrior Games are sporting competitions for wounded, ill and injured service members.

Not bad for somebody who began running with his prosthetic in February.

“It must be hard because he picked this up after the injury, and for him to do the things he does on the track, the work ethic … ” Braunskill said. “Before his injuries, he wasn’t a track and field person, so for him to do the things that he does and basically be a newbie to it, it’s impressive.”

His lack of inexperience didn’t seem to hinder him, either. Dadgostar won the silver medal in the 200-meter ambulant IT1 race (27.74 seconds), finished fourth in the 100-meter ambulant IT1 race (.06 seconds behind third place) and earned another silver medal with the sitting volleyball team during the Invictus Games in September.

At the Warrior Games, which concluded Oct. 4, Dadgostar took home gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter races as well as a silver medal with the 400-meter relay team.

Dadgostar has shaved two seconds off his times since he began. Currently in the mid-12s, his goal is to cut it down to mid- to high-11s. Further training to build lower body muscle and continuing to lose the 45 pounds he gained after the accident should help him reach that mark.

“He started running in February and he comes out there and looks like he’s been running for years,” Braunskill said. “Anybody can do anything if you’re motivated enough to do it.”

In addition to typically working out five times a week for up to two hours on the track, Dadgostar also routinely spends 30 to 40 minutes each weekday at Dover Air Force Base working on his sitting volleyball skills. Dadgostar is part of the U.S. national development team for sitting volleyball and has spent time training with them at the University of Central Oklahoma. Sitting volleyball requires more movement than volleyball and forces players to use their hands both to move on the court and make plays, which can be especially challenging for liberos such as Dadgostar, who must cover a lot of space.

Braunskill has more in common with Dadgostar than just their love of running.

The DSU track and field coach retired from the Army last year as a captain. As an Army officer, Braunskill worked in Afghanistan and understands how traumatic injuries affect a person’s psychology.

“I don’t have the injuries you can see, but I have injuries you can’t see,” Braunskill said. “He doesn’t know it, but he motivates me on an everyday basis because sometimes I don’t want to be there.”

But both men know the power of athletics.

“Sports help a lot because when I run, all I concentrate on is the finish line,” Dadgostar said. “Stress, everything, it’s gone.”

Braunskill said he “knows for a fact” Dadgostar is capable of qualifying for the 2016 Paralympics Games in Rio. This offseason will help him build muscle strength that will in turn improve endurance. Dadgostar hopes the Paralympics are an attainable goal.

“When he puts his heart into something, I don’t doubt he will go,” said Stephanie Dadgostar, who her husband called his backbone. “I really don’t. I have a lot of faith in him. If he wants it enough, he’ll get it.”

Vickie George, one of the founders of Yes U Can, a Paralympic sport club in Delaware, is helping Dadgostar meet the guidelines for the Paralympic Committee. It’s an organization he hopes to become more involved with in the future.

“The thing about Yes U Can is to provide the opportunities for the people in the disability community to do the things most of us take for granted,” George said.

Dadgostar must have a certain amount of times at the international level to be worthy of Paralympic consideration. Dadgostar will be participating in Gateway to the Gold in Charlotte, North Carolina, next month in the 100- and 200-meter events, which will help him become qualified internationally once doctors determine his classification.

“For Nick, I see him as Delaware’s Paralympian for 2016,” George said. “I really think he has that ability.”

Sitting in a Dover Dunkin’ Donuts, Dadgostar offers to show cellphone photos of his gruesome injuries.

While it may seem odd that Dadgostar has the photos readily available to look at, he and other Wounded Warriors often share their pictures in a unique way to bond with service people who have similar experiences. Dadgostar doesn’t spend much time wondering about what-ifs or thinking back and reliving the accident. He knows there is no point dwelling on an unchangeable past when the doors continue to open as part of a bright future.

Sports and his quest to make the U.S. Paralympic Team have invigorated Dadgostar, the excitement easy to hear in his voice.

“There are so many people out there who have an injury and accept that that’s it, but it’s not,” Dadgostar said. “As long as you’re breathing and your heart is beating, your life isn’t over. That’s what I’m really passionate about.”

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide