Helping others get back on their feet

Melissa Stockwell, a resident prothesist at UI Health, is featured in a front-page article in the Dec. 21 Chicago Tribune. This UIC News profile was originally published Oct. 20, 2010.

Melissa Stockwell

Melissa Stockwell, who lost a leg during a tour of duty in Iraq, is a resident prosthetist at UI Hospital — and a triathlon champion.

Army officer Melissa Stockwell had been in Iraq for only three weeks when a roadside bomb blew off her left leg above the knee.

She was the first female American soldier to lose a limb in combat.

“I’d gone 24 years of my life with two legs, and now suddenly it was one,” Stockwell said.

“I decided to look ahead, accept that it happened and get on with my life.”

Less than four months later, she snow skied for the first time. Less than a year after losing her leg, she completed the New York City Marathon.

Four years after her injury, in 2008, she became the first wounded Iraq War veteran to make the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team.

And on Sept. 11, 2010, she won a world championship at the Budapest Triathlon.


Back to competition

Stockwell underwent 15 surgeries in the three months following her injury. She was fitted with prosthetic legs for walking, running and cycling, with a fourth prosthesis to wear around the pool, although she swims without one.

Today, she fits patients with prosthetic limbs for the prosthetics company Scheck and Siress, working as a resident prosthetist at the firm’s orthotic and prosthetic center at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System.

After her injuries Stockwell and her husband, Dick, who had been stationed in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry, left the Army. Moving to Minnesota, she signed up for prosthetics school and he for pre-med.

After wrapping up their courses, the couple moved to Chicago so Dick could attend medical school at Loyola University.

Physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical had reintroduced Stockwell to swimming. She’d swum competitively until age 8, when she switched to gymnastics.

She became competitive again with club teams in Minnesota. After coming to Chicago, she went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to immerse herself in the sport.


More important than medals

She qualified for the 2008 Paralympic Team — swimming the 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle and 400 freestyle — but failed to make the finals in Beijing.

She was, however, chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies.

“I thought for sure it would be somebody who won a lot of medals,” Stockwell said. “Sometimes people understand that the journey is more important than the medals.”

She did better as a triathlete. At the Budapest Triathlon, she bested the other three people in her class — above-the-knee amputees — to win a world championship.

Stockwell led the entire way as she sped through the sprint-distance event: a 750-meter swim, 13-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run.

“The race finish was across the [Danube-spanning] Chain Bridge, this huge bridge with lion statues on each end,” she wrote in her blog.

“Here, on Sept. 11, wearing the USA uniform, and I was going to be a world champion. A freakin’ world champion! Could it get any better?”

It could. Halfway across the bridge, there was a man handing out American flags.

“I took one, held it high and sprinted what was left of the race with tears in my eyes. It was one of those moments that was so meaningful and so full of emotion that I know I will look back on it frequently and remember all that came with it.”

Stockwell has participated in one race since then, the Bucktown 5K, rounding out a year that included 13 events — starting with a punishing half-Ironman, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13-mile run in Oceanside, Calif.


Live life how you want to live it

A flexible work schedule makes it possible. Stockwell thanks Scheck and Siress “for being very gracious to support the activities I do outside of work.”

She makes time for motivational speaking.

“The only reason I am where I am is following people who went before,” she said.

“I want to inspire people to live life how they want to live it and not let obstacles get in their way.”

On the board of Wounded Warriors, which provides job counseling for vets, she is active in the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

Stockwell grew up in various towns in Georgia and Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Colorado, where she met Dick and participated in ROTC the last three years.

The couple lives in Oak Park. Dick rejoined the Army and will serve as a doctor upon graduation in June 2011.

At the moment, Stockwell is in Guatemala. As a volunteer with the Chicago-based Range of Motion Project, she’s fitting people with prosthetics through the end of the month.

Her work is “extremely rewarding,” she said.

“Being able to help people literally get back on their feet and get their life back is wonderful to see and be a part of.”

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Patient Care, Staff