Veteran amputee helps others to stay fit

Former combat medic adapts to change, inspires others to not make excuses

(COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERAN AFFAIRS)

MIAMI – In seconds, Laura Ortiz went from riding her motorcycle to flying about 50 feet and landing in the middle of the street.

Her military training kicked in. She remained calm and dragged herself to the curb of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. A driver coming from Miami Beach stopped to help. A man used a beach towel and sheets to apply a tourniquet and try to stop blood loss.

A friend recognized her Harley Buell 883 and stopped. When she saw his expression, she looked down at her body, and saw her right leg was mangled. She had her helmet on, and remembers hearing the ambulance and helicopter that took her to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"I was on my way home from work," said Ortiz, who served as a combat medic with the U.S. Army National Guard. "I was only four blocks away from home."

Ortiz said she signed up to the military when she was 23, because she wanted to help others. This is the same motivation that is driving her today to help others get fit and to participate in a University of Miami study meant to understand the challenges of amputees, she said.

"I will be helping UM professor Bob Gailey in any way I can," Ortiz said. "The findings will help others coming behind me."

Ortiz, of Miami Beach, was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. She moved to Miami in 1998 and worked at the Ralph Lauren store in Miami Beach, The Delano Hotel, The Standard Hotel, Moonchine Bistro Bar & Lounge and The YMCA.

Her journey to becoming a physical trainer and triathlete, as an amputee was challenging. She didn't have health insurance and it took about five years for her to have access to the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System. To do what was in her power, she bought a stability ball and started to exercise to gain strength.

At Jackson Memorial Hospital, "there were 50 people for two physical therapists ... I focused on what I could do and not on what I could no longer do," Ortiz, 45, said.

She said she kept the "can do" frame of mind that she had when she was in the military. A foundation in Orlando, Fla., helped her get a prosthetic leg, so she was able to run again. Other amputees have inspired her.

Ortiz said she has grown to admire fellow parathriathletes Rey Torres and Chris Bustamante, because "they just keep going." She said she can look at the athletes with disabilities as people with stories, as opposed to victims of circumstances.

To stay connected, she belongs to a Facebook group named "The Team Red White and Blue." She also belongs to the Amputee Coalition and she is a peer mentor for new patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"They will call me and tell me to go, so I can talk to someone who is just coming in," Ortiz said. The goal is to show them that there is a life, after losing a limb.

SWhen she got access to care at the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, her life changed radically, she said. Now instead of one prosthesis, she has five. And with the help of a VA recreational therapist, she is a lot more active.

"I have a running leg, a shower leg, two day to day legs, a boating leg -- each one does something different," Ortiz said. "It's amazing."

She is also enjoying working at The Troops for Fitness program in Miami-Dade County parks.

For more information about The Troops for Fitness program, call Laura Ortiz at 305-694-2728.

As a trainer, she likes to help those who want to change. She first sets a clear course of action and talks about what it takes to accomplish realistic and attainable goals, she said. The clients provide the discipline and the commitment.

"Someone like me eliminates the excuses from most people," Ortiz said.

The other war veterans working in the program are Terrell Bell, a Miami Central High School graduate who served in the Navy Submarine Force, as a machinist for five years, and Miguel Camino a Hialeah High School grad and U.S. Marine. Cristian Espinoza, Ian Scott Cummings and Fabian Vega also work with Ortiz.