Chandler Balkman’s “leg day” isn’t a rough gym work-out; it’s a yearly celebration complete with a leg-shaped cake.
The exercise science major from Washington was 16 and swimming with his dad in the lake near his home. He was submerged and invisible to his sister, who was driving the family boat back to the dock. She ran over Balkman by accident.
The boat skeg slammed into Balkman’s hip and shattered his pelvis. The propeller shredded his right leg from his toes to his hip. It also severely cut his right hand, gashed his left foot and severed Balkman’s femoral artery.
“I was rescued by my brother and dad in a canoe, and my bishop was on the scene as well,” Balkman said. “The injury was too high for a tourniquet, so my dad jammed his knee into the gaping wound in my hip in an effort to stop the bleeding from my severed femoral artery.”
Balkman made it to the hospital in Seattle in time to save his life, but his leg could not be saved. The doctors performed a hip disarticulation, which is a “surgical removal of the entire lower limb at the hip level,” according to the website for the Amputee Coalition.
He spent 75 days in the hospital to recover from the amputation and an infection from the lake water.
His sister, Jessica, said her brother never once added to the heavy guilt she felt and was quick to point out that it was an accident.
“When Chandler awoke from a coma, he feebly whispered, ‘Come here’ to me,” Jessica Balkman said. “He pulled me in with one hand for a hug and whispered, ‘I love you.’ That gesture set the tone for the coming months of recovery.”
She said one of Chandler Balkman’s best qualities is his concern for others. As they both recovered emotionally, Chandler Balkman showed his sister “nothing but love.”
Chandler Balkman said he believes the family grew closer because of the experience and because of the Atonement. “I have come to personally appreciate that the Savior suffered our pains and afflictions and took upon himself our infirmities,” he said.
Chandler Balkman’s wife, Stephanie, was attracted to his attitude despite his circumstances. “I am attracted to Chandler because he approaches everything in a positive and creative light,” she said. “He has to think a lot more about things than other people, and therefore, he is more patient and thoughtful towards myself and others. I love him for this.”
Chandler Balkman said his wife is the one who pushes him to do better and cheers him up on bad days. He questioned whether or not he’d be nearly as happy as he is today without her.
He has an undying love for skiing and approaches this passion creatively. He was formally training for the Paralympics Ski Race Team at one point but decided to focus on back-country skiing over racing.
“It might sound weird, but me skiing is like getting back at my injury,” he said. “When I walk on crutches or on a prosthetic leg, I am slower than everyone around me. When I ski, I am one of the fastest on the mountain. I think it’s because it bugs me to go slow. So when I have the opportunity to go fast, I like to push myself. I think I have pushed myself to the point that I ski better on one leg than two,” he said.
His cousin, Alec Balkman, attested to Chandler Balkman’s skills on the slopes. “He can outrun me and all of my brothers and usually does it with more style,” he said. “I love skiing with him because it always pushes me to do things that I would never do. Chandler is almost fearless on the ski hill.”
Chandler Balkman said that after a life-changing accident, life goes on. “If you can find some little thing to be grateful about, a bad situation quickly loses its potency, and it’s easier to stay positive,” he said. “However, don’t feign happiness to yourself or others. It’s OK to have a bad day or bad attitude once in a while; just make sure you find your way back out of it quickly. Faking happiness is poisonous and unhealthy,” he said.
Every Aug. 3 the Balkman family and their friends keep the Leg Day tradition alive with a life-sized cake in the shape of a leg.
“It’s a little morbid, but we have a good time,” Chandler Balkman said. “I say it’s worth celebrating the fact that I’m still around.”