Fort McCoy News Nov. 13, 2015

Disability speaker: 'Appreciate what you have'

STORY & PHOTOS BY SCOTT T. STURKOL
Public Affairs Staff

Lucas Herro of Onalaska, Wis., said having a disability shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying life. It's a message he shares regularly, including recently as the guest speaker for Fort McCoy's observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month Oct. 22 at McCoy's Community Club.


In his presentation, which covered the month's theme, "My Disability is One Part of Who I Am," Herro carried the audience through the last 2 ½ years of his life since he sustained a life-altering injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Life before disability

Herro said he grew up enjoying life in Onalaska, doing a variety of activities, hunting and fishing, and doing things with Family. In high school, he said he was like many teens trying to figure out what to do with his life.


"(After graduation), I went to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for one semester," said Herro, who currently works as a speaker spreading his story of recovery. "I made it one semester before I realized that it may not be for me. I didn't know if I (could) sit behind desks for the rest of my life."

Photo 1
Lucas Herro of Onalaska, Wis., tells his story during the observance. Herro,
a former firefighter and emergency medical technician, was injured and paralyzed from the chest down in a diving accident in 2013. He has made significant progress and can stand independently once again and hopes to eventually walk again. He shared his story with the Fort McCoy community with a message of perseverance.

After he finished that one semester of college, Herro moved back home and re-evaluated.

"I had to figure out what it is I was put here (on Earth) to do," Herro said. "I'm an Eagle Scout, and I love helping people. (And since) I've also been a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, that kind of narrowed it down for me. I decided I was going to be a police officer or a firefighter."

Being a police officer would have been nice, Herro said, but the quick-witted 25-year-old joked that people are always happy to see a firefighter in times of emergency.

"If your house is burning down, they roll out the welcome wagon for you (if you're a firefighter)," he said. "So, I decided I was going to go to school to become a firefighter."

Herro was accepted to a technical college on a two-year program to become a firefighter and an emergency medical technician. During his college training, he said they even did some training at Fort McCoy.

"When I started doing (the training), I also thought it would be a good idea to hook up with the local volunteer fire department," Herro said. "I did it because I wanted to make sure that it was something that I could handle because there are a lot of stressors to that job. Once I hooked up with the fire department, I decided to go on calls with them, too. I got hooked. I thought that this was my passion, and I thought for sure that's what I was meant to do."

Herro graduated from his technical college program, and life was going great. "I planned on going to Madison, where I would continue on," he said.

But then life changed.

Accident

June 30, 2013, was a hot day in southwest Wisconsin — a perfect day to "play on the water" of the Black River, Herro said.

"I was out on the water with some friends," Herro said. "We spent all day swimming and … (water) skiing. At the end of the day, it was (still) really hot, and I wanted to get back in the water and cool off."

Herro said they went out to do one last dive in the water. What no one knew at the time was the place where they decided to dive was in shallow water.

Photo 2
Lucas Herro of Onalaska, Wis., speaks to attendees at the Fort McCoy observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month Oct. 22 at McCoy's Community Club. (Bonus photo, not in print edition)

"I'm a lifeguard and an adequate swimmer — I know how to dive," Herro said. "There is no question about that, but to this day I'm not sure what happened. At that last dive of the day, I was standing up at the back of the boat, and I didn't know how shallow it was to the bottom of the river."

When Herro dove into the water, the force of the dive pushed him into the bottom of the river, causing injury to the C5 vertebrae in his neck and spine.

"(The blow) was low enough to knock me in the neck but not enough to knock me out," Herro said. "So I'm lying there in the water, and I'm thinking I'll do what I do any other time I'm in the water. It was time to get up and get some air. But nothing happened, so I tried again.

"I quickly realized I wasn't going anywhere," he said. "The only hope I had was hoping somebody was coming after me. When I started running out of air, I didn't think it was going to happen so I let go."

Someone did jump in for Herro and got him to shore.

"From what I was told, when they pulled my body out, I was completely lifeless and I was blue," Herro said. "There were 30 people on that beach, and only one of them knew how to do CPR, and it was a doctor. That doctor came over in the commotion and heard that I was diving. He pushed the lady off of me who was attempting to do CPR, stabilized my neck, resuscitated me, and saved my life."

Dealing with disability

After the diving accident, Herro was brought to a La Crosse hospital in what he said was "pretty rough shape."

"The doctor came in and said, 'You broke your C5 vertebrae. We are going to take bone from your back and fuse your C4, 5, and 6 vertebrae and support it with titanium rods in place,'" Herro said. "So I went into surgery the next day so they could repair the damage to my spine. Unfortunately, the damage from the blow hurt my spinal cord and put me in the situation I am in today."

After surgery and some recovery, Herro said his doctor gave him the bad news.

Photo 3
Lucas Herro (left) of Onalaska, Wis., accepts an award from Col. Steven W. Nott (right) at the Fort McCoy observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month Oct. 22 at McCoy's Community Club. (Bonus photo, not in print edition)

"He said the injury made me a quadriplegic," Herro said. "He said you are probably going to be dependent on other people for the rest of your life. You are going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Pretty soon, because I couldn't move anything below my back, I was terrified."

He said the doctor gave him a book to read about living life as a quadriplegic.

"I was like, 'Thanks for the light reading while I enjoy my stay in the hospital,'" Herro quipped. "But really, I had a hard time reading that book because every time I opened it up it became a reality to me. This was actually happening. I loved to sleep in the hospital because I would dream and I would still be able-bodied. And then I'd wake up, and I'd be paralyzed."

Mentally, Herro said, he went through some dark times. However, one day he decided to fight and keep on fighting to get better, and he read the book he received from the doctor. "And once I got to the end of the book, I thought maybe the doctor was right, and I would live the rest of my life like this," he said.

Herro then began therapy at the Mayo Clinic's outpatient program in Rochester, Minn. He said it was time to begin the fight.

"I will never forget my first appointment there," Herro said. "The doctor asked if I could move anything below my level of injury. I got really sick of people asking me that question, and I said, 'No, I can't.'

"She said, 'I want you to do something for me. I want you to look at your leg and ask it to move,'" Herro said. "I looked at her and said, 'That's a great idea — I wish I would have thought of that.' But anyway, I decided to try again. I looked down at my leg, and I asked it to move. And sure enough, there was this little flicker in my left thigh in my quad. It may not seem like much, but when your body has been basically lifeless for (several) months, that little flicker is a flicker of hope. That's a flicker of possibility."

Herro said that flicker has grown into something more.

"I worked and worked, and two months later my right quad started flickering," Herro said. "All the while, I was turning that little flicker into a muscle contraction. After a couple of months, I could kick my left leg out. And I was getting close to kicking my right leg out. It just so happened that that part of my body started to wake up."

Herro finished his program with the Mayo Clinic and now attends another therapy program three hours a day, five days a week. He said he continues to make progress, including recently standing independently and taking a few steps.

Never give up

After the injury, Herro said he had to figure out a way to cope.

"I realized that if I compared myself to who I was before my accident, that's when I (would) go to a dark place," he said. "But if compare myself to where I was four months ago, or a year and a half ago, that is something for me to be proud of."
Every two weeks, Herro said he sets small goals to try to achieve something different.

"This whole independence thing is going to take a long time for me," Herro said. "But I have been working on that … and now I can get into bed independently now in less than five minutes.

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"I don't do everything I used to do, but I do the majority of it … just in a different way," Herro said. "I'm still working at it and I'm not going to stop working at it."

It's that "never-give-up" attitude that Herro wants people to remember about people with disabilities. He said that everyone should remember to be grateful.

"Take time to appreciate what you have," Herro said. "Bad things are always going to happen. We all have a choice to think positive and do positive things. That's how you can make the best of bad situations."

First Sgt. James Fuqua III with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Fort McCoy Garrison, attended Herro's presentation and said he found it inspiring.

"Being a volunteer firefighter myself, it takes a certain amount of selfless service to pursue that avenue," Fuqua said. "At such a young age, to have that courage and drive to pursue firefighting and then have your dreams shattered (has to be difficult). His attitude and resilience is a testament to why he was accepted by the firefighting community and why they continue to support him. He still has a locker at his department, and they still have him train with them. He is a true inspiration and a role model for all."

For more information about observances in the Fort McCoy community, call the Equal Opportunity adviser at 608-388-8994.