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Handicap Can't Keep Him Off the Track : Former Prep Record Holder Is Still Winning Medals as an Amputee

August 27, 1987|MITCH POLIN | Times Staff Writer

Moments after runner Mike Parson had completed a recent workout, a curious onlooker stopped to ask him about the heavy wrapping around his leg.

"He asked me if I was wearing a knee brace and I smiled and said, 'No, that's an artificial leg,' " Parson recalls. "He had a shocked look on his face. He couldn't believe it."

It was not the first time Parson has received that reaction. But the 42-year-old runner is starting to make believers out of everybody.

The 6-4, 180-pound Temple City resident recently won one gold and two bronze medals at the 1987 U.S. Amputee Assn. National Track Championships in Nashville, Tenn. He won the 800-meter run and finished third in both the 200 and 400 meters.

He was disappointed about his times of 32 seconds in the 200, 1:16 in the 400 and 4:14 in the 800 but realized he had run a lot faster than most people could have envisioned.

Not that Parson had not found success as a runner earlier.

At Manhattan Beach's Mira Costa High School, he had been one of the top middle-distance runners in the South Bay. In 1962, Parson set the school record and won the Bay League title in the 880-yard run in 1:55.9. The following year he set the school record in the event at El Camino College in Torrance with a mark of 1:54.9.

"Track was my whole life back then," he said. "That was all I was really going (to school) for. I had serious aspirations of competing in the half-mile at the Olympics. It would have been a little down the line, but I think I could have done it."

The dreams came to a halt about a year after he was drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam in January of 1967.

Parson had been a radio operator for about eight months and was stationed at Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon, when the area was besieged by Viet Cong mortar fire on March 21, 1969.

"I was a radio operator on a helicopter pad," Parson remembered. "We had just moved to this landing zone and I was sleeping in a tent when the attack began. I crawled under steel culverts to get some protection and one round (of mortar) landed off to the side.

"My first thought was that my lower legs had been chopped off because of the pain, and then I looked down and saw the blood flowing from my legs. I heard the (medics) say, 'Leave the dead ones and take the most serious,' so I know I was conscious."

At first, doctors told him that he had only a broken leg. They did not mention the possibility that it would have to be amputated.

"It wasn't until later that I realized the severity of the injury," said Parson, who was transferred from a mobile Army surgical hospital to a facility in Saigon and then to a U.S. military hospital in Japan. "All I understood is that I had a broken leg, and when I first saw it it looked like something out of a horror movie. That's when I began to realize how serious it was."

After seeing the injury inadvertently during an operation in Japan, Parson went into shock and suffered through a high fever. But he says he does not remember most of the early days and weeks in the hospital because "I was heavily doped up all the way."

His first rehabilitation stop in the U.S. was Travis Air Force Base in Northern California and he was soon transferred to Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., where he underwent several operations. It was also at Ft. Lewis where he developed a bleeding ulcer, which he said was a result of the tremendous doses of aspirin he was taking.

It was at Ft. Lewis where doctors first suggested amputation. By the time Parson was transferred to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, osteomyelitis was beginning to develop in his leg.

Shortly after treatment began at Long Beach, Parson visited a specialist at UCLA, Cameron Hall, who confirmed his worst fears. In May, 1970--more than a year after he was wounded--his leg was amputated seven inches below the knee at the Long Beach hospital.

He said his leg was sized for a prosthesis soon after the operation and he was walking with a cane within four months. "It was a fairly slow process to get used to, but I could get around," Parson said.

The mental adjustment was more difficult.

"It was very depressing when I learned I couldn't run again. Before the accident I was an active person and enjoyed running.

"For several years after (the accident) I would have dreams about running again. For years I would never watch a track meet because it was too painful to see."

Even with the injury, Parson still yearned to run again, but his attempts were awkward and painful.

"I tried many times to run again and I would hop around the track and it just wouldn't work out. It was very frustrating."

Parson approached many doctors about the prospect of running and was usually left without much encouragement. One doctor even laughed over the telephone at the suggestion, Parson said. "They said you should just drop it and find another outlet."

It wasn't until Parson visited a prosthetist in Arcadia, Timothy Bulgarelli, about two years ago that he began to feel encouraged.

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