Karl Chapin’s best friend says it like this: “You’re the most unhandicapped handicapped person I’ve ever seen.” Learn just a little bit about Karl, age 60, and you know his friend is right on target. His passions have included skydiving, Kenpo karate, auto racing, scuba diving and golf. In business he has been a salesman, a “repo man” and a private investigator. And in the broad scope of life, Karl has been a soldier, an upper extremity amputee, a successful prosthetic user, a peer visitor, a volunteer kidney donor, and for the past 23 years, Patty’s husband.
“My wife says I’m neurotic. I don’t just get interested in something---I get obsessive-compulsive. I do it until I’m done, until I’ve mastered it, then I move on to something new,” said Karl. “I have a lot of energy so I figure why not use it to make things happen?”
Actually, those “neurotic” tendencies are what lifted him out of depression and into an active life after becoming an upper extremity amputee at the age of 18. In 1967 the war in Vietnam was raging and Karl enlisted in the army, earned his “Jump Wings” and became a paratrooper. He soon ended up in combat in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia. One of the most intense regions of fighting was the A Shau Valley, and it was here that his unit was involved in an operation known as Burchase Gardens.
“We had three fire bases in the valley and the North Vietnamese hit them all simultaneously,” said Karl. “I was looking downhill from me and I saw a bunker get hit. Then I heard someone yell for a medic, but I could see the medics taking cover in another bunker. So without thinking I ran down the hill, and reached into the bunker to pull this guy, Mike, out. That’s when I felt something hit him and I looked down and there was a hand grenade between my legs. I just reached down, grabbed it with my right hand and pushed it into the wall of the bunker.” The grenade exploded and Karl’s hand was blown off; both men were thrown from the foxhole. Instead of panicking, he picked up the wounded soldier and ran to a more protected position, saving both their lives. For his bravery, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Karl returned home quietly and tried to steer clear of the anti-war sentiment that was sweeping America. His initial attempt at coping had two components: alcohol and seclusion. “I didn’t do anything, didn’t go anywhere. I just didn’t want to be seen,” said Karl. “After a couple of years of that, I made a decision not to be handicapped anymore. The first thing I got into was skydiving; I got my jumpmaster license, became an instructor, and taught and skydived everyday for a few years.” The next project was getting a black belt in karate, followed by racing a Porsche, then---well, you get the idea.
About a year after his amputation Karl began using a body-powered below-elbow prosthesis and found it to be a very useful tool. “I wore it all the time,” he said. “I wanted something to fill my sleeve. I just needed that.” As technology moved forward, he added a myoelectric arm with a griefer and several other terminal devices. “I compare my prosthetics to a bag of golf clubs in that each club in the bag has a purpose,” said Karl. “You’re gonna have one type of prosthesis that will do some things and then another you’ll use for something else. They’re kinda like tools for your everyday chores.”
The latest addition to Karl’s “golf bag” is an i-LIMB Hand that he received in May of 2008. Since then, his favorite new activity is shaking hands---something he had not done in 40 years. “My i-LIMB Hand is custom painted. The artist did a beautiful job. It’s a perfect match to my left hand,” said Karl. “It is the most incredible thing and it just makes my handicap disappear. That’s what I like about it. No one looks at me and sees a hook. If we’re going out to dinner or to church, I always wear the i-LIMB. When I’m working or doing stuff around the house I wear the griefer or body-powered, and if I’m just relaxing, I don’t wear a prosthesis.” Not surprisingly, Karl has offered peer support to new amputees for years and has become a certified peer advisor through Hanger’s Amputee Empowerment Partners.
You might think that a guy like Karl never gets bored, but since he traded in his scuba gear for a metal detector, he’s had a little more time on his hands. “I was feeling like I needed a new project but I didn’t know what it should be,” said Karl. “So one day I came across my organ donor card. Well it got me thinking--- I mean why wait until you're dead to donate? I found a website called matchingdonors.com with hundreds of stories about people trying to survive until they got a transplant. I made up my mind right then to donate a kidney. When I told my wife she said ‘Donate an organ? Why can’t you just do the laundry!’”
When Karl arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital for his medical evaluation the doctor looked at him and said “I’m not gonna approve you as a donor. You’re a war hero and I think you’ve done enough for this country already. I don’t think you ought to go through an operation you don’t need to save somebody you don’t know.” But Karl wouldn’t take no for an answer. After a few weeks of additional medical testing and some negotiating with the hospital, the transplant surgery was completed. “I had the operation on a Tuesday, went home on Thursday, and on Saturday I was out hitting golf balls,” said Karl.
Does Karl have a philosophy of life? Absolutely. “You have to be able to laugh at yourself and not take life so seriously. I’ve learned how to see the humor in things and how to joke around with people, and that’s helped me a lot,” said Karl. “Remember, there’s always somebody worse off than you.”