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New leg, same indomitable spirit

The last time Merik Thompson was lying in his own bed, he had two legs. Now he had a wheelchair propped in the corner, a bunch of pills that didn't take away the pain, and a stump. And one other thing: all the determination that a 17-year-old can muster.

It was the end of May, and Merik had been home for a day. That was after the 11 surgeries and 35 days at Bayfront Medical Center that followed the freak dirt bike accident that took his left leg. So much had happened, but he was sure of one thing: Nothing would change.

"I'm going to have a prosthetic leg, and I'm going to do all the same things,'' he said.

It began one day in April. Merik hadn't done much dirt biking. A junior at Gibbs High School, Merik had other passions: four-wheeling, inline skating and paint ball. He didn't play school sports, but Merik was athletic. At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, he could bench press nearly 400 pounds.

But when a friend suggested a trip to a motocross track in Ocala, Merik agreed to go.

After a few times around the track, Merik had had enough. The jumps were bigger than he expected. He was getting tired. The next jump would be his last.

He hit it too fast. Thirty or 40 feet off the ground, Merik came off the bike.

All he could do was push the bike away so it didn't crush him, and try to land upright.

Merik landed on his feet, breaking his left leg. His first thought was that he'd be hit by bikes behind him, and he rolled off the track.

He was taken to an Ocala hospital and then to Bayfront Medical Center, where doctors put plates and pins in his shattered left leg.

At first they hoped to save the limb, but the next day, the leg became more swollen, and Merik couldn't feel or move his toes, said Dr. William Lowry, the orthopedic surgeon.

Merik's leg kept swelling, forcing doctors to cut it open, desperately trying to keep pressure from the swelling from blocking blood flow to his muscles.

Then infection developed.

Both swelling and infection can kill tissue. In Merik's leg, it was hard to tell which did more damage.

"You can't separate one from the other," Lowry said.

Within a few days, muscles in Merik's lower leg and foot began to die. Lowry told the family he had no choice but to amputate the left leg below the knee.

Merik's father cried when Lowry broke the news. Merik told him to be strong. They'd get through it.

The amputation still bothers Lowry, who recently performed minor knee surgery on Gov. Charlie Crist.

"I like good results," Lowry said with a sigh. "I think the injury was much more severe than the (initial) X-ray really depicted, with soft-tissue damage."

Merik's family has hired a lawyer. His parents say he shouldn't have been allowed to ride without their permission at Hard Rock Cycle Park and that the track was too dangerous for inexpert bikers.

"The jumps keep getting higher," said Merik's attorney, Tom Parnell. "The risks are getting outrageous. The basic set-ups for these tracks and courses, they're asking for injuries."

Hard Rock owners didn't return calls for comment.

In the hospital, Merik was just trying to get well. One of his first visitors after the amputation was Bill Copeland, owner of Copeland Prosthetics in Tampa.

As Copeland talked about artificial limbs with Merik and his family, he showed them something: Copeland wore a prosthesis, too. He lost his left leg in a railway accident 30 years ago.

Merik's father, Butch Thompson, was impressed. He had never met an amputee. Copeland walked easily. He could jump, kick, climb stairs.

"You would never know," Thompson marveled.

Merik had found a role model.

The leg Copeland made for him would involve a technique he started using a few years ago. The patient's leg is covered in a silicone liner. Then the patient puts the leg on and uses a pump to create a vacuum.

The vacuum seal is stronger and more comfortable than older prosthetics, Copeland said. The liner helps create a tight seal that would irritate bare skin.

When Merik arrived at Copeland's office last week, Copeland was full of warnings:

Don't push it. Use crutches to support part of your weight at first. Start by wearing the prosthesis for short periods. Watch for blisters.

Merik stood up quietly. He didn't cry or cheer. He just walked across the room.

Copeland kneeled to adjust the prosthesis a few times. Merik walked a little more.

Then he stopped and smiled.

"I feel like I can walk out of here," he said.

Lisa Greene can be reached at greene@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

New leg, same indomitable spirit 07/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 7:43pm]

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