The Comeback Kid: #12 in a Series


Andy Bailey, a former social worker, dreamed of spending his golden years training like a pro triathlete – a sport he had enjoyed for 20 years. At the age of 68, he was still training six days a week for his races. On December 12, 2006, he went outside to wash his car. He looked up and saw a runaway laundry delivery van careening down on him and its driver frantically chasing after the vehicle.

Andy was trapped between his car and a railing when the van struck both, sending him down a steep incline. He was lucky to survive the accident, but the injury to his foot was severe.

He spent the next seven weeks in the hospital. While he was there he contracted MRSA, a bacterial infection that can threaten life and limb. When he was told he had it, he didn’t think he would survive.

On December 30th, his doctor performed an ankle fusion to repair the leg. His wife, Jeri, spent New Year’s Eve with him in the isolation room. Though she was wearing a different kind of gown for the occasion, they celebrated the night together. A friend dropped off a tray of appetizers and sparkling cider for them to enjoy instead of hospital food.

Two days later, two plastic surgeons made a muscle flap by removing his latissimus dorsi muscle and creating a skin graft with a patch of skin from his left thigh – an intricate operation that took eight hours. Andy was placed in an isolation room in the rehabilitation unit for two weeks. A physical therapist worked with him there, showing him different exercises with Thera-Bands.

In early February, he was discharged from the hospital with large wounds. He had difficulty going upstairs, so he scooted up them on his butt until a physical therapist showed him how to maneuver better with his crutches. Two weeks after Andy went home, he started getting eruptions of MRSA on his ankle.

Despite large doses of antibiotics, the MRSA remained a tough foe. In April, his doctors theorized that perhaps a bone fragment and two staples from the plastic surgery acted like a magnet for the bacteria. There was another operation to remove the debris.

Seven months after his surgery, a CAT scan revealed that his wounds were not healing. His doctor discussed the possibility of amputation. Andy was devastated and willing to do anything to save his foot. He saw three more orthopedic doctors. Each physician had his own idea of a possible way to save it. He tried a bone stimulator for three or four months, but the MRSA was still there. In September, his doctor removed a screw in his lower leg where more of the bacteria had formed.

Throughout those months, Andy was in excruciating pain. He also worried about spreading the virus to his devoted wife, Jeri, who learned how to change his dressings. In November, he went off the antibiotics and had another MRSA outbreak. His doctor told him, “You cannot keep doing this…it’s killing you.”

Andy had his lower leg and foot amputated on February 28, 2008. A month later, he showed up at the Ironman California 70.3 race to show support for another disabled friend who finished the race in nine hours. He was inspired by her courage.

By mid April, he was ready to be fitted for his first prosthetic which he wore for six months. Though his stump has healed, he discovered that it is still getting smaller. He and his prosthetist, Dino LaCapria of Orange Coast Prosthetics, continue to tinker with the fit, so he can do the activities he enjoys. You guessed it, triathlon.

In October, he participated in the CAF Triathlon Challenge as part of a relay team. Andy traversed three sets of stairs to the beach to do the 1.2-mile swim. A storm arrived that morning, creating pounding surf and a thick fog. After several delays, the race was cut to 800 yards. Andy was accompanied by two swim buddies, including Jim Fitzpatrick, and his prosthetist. “They kept me out of the fray and dragged me up on shore and up those stairs,” he recalled with fondness, “My runner was the first hand cyclist to finish and my cyclist won his division. We had the second fastest time of the day.”

During the winter, he participated in three short indoor triathlons put on at health clubs in the San Diego area, where participants were invited to swim for 10 minutes, spin cycle for 20 minutes and run on the treadmill for 15 minutes. Andy used a pull buoy for the swim and walked the run portion.

A friend introduced Andy to another gentleman, Fermin Camarena, who suffered a stroke and participated in events with a tricycle. The two teamed up and did the Tinsel Triathlon in December, the Pasadena Triathlon in March, and the PossAbilities Triathlon in April.

He still did not have a prosthetic designed for running. Fortunately, he knew that would soon change. Back in February, 2007 Andy and Jeri attending a banquet for outstanding endurance athletes just three weeks before his amputation. They had a chance meeting with Tabi King, the Marketing Director for Ossur Americas, a prosthetics company in Aliso Viejo. She said, “When you’re ready for your Flex Run foot, let us know and we’ll help you out.” That meant the world to him.

In March 2009, he was ready. He was fitted for this high-tech piece of equipment, just in time to participate in Ossur’s running clinic with some Para-Olympic runners. “It was a trip using the Flex Runner. Everything is on your toes. I’m used to being a heal striker,” Andy explained, “It’s been a big challenge for me. The problem now is that I’m so out of condition, I’m gasping for air. I haven’t run very far on this thing yet.”

On June 14th (last Sunday), he participated in his first 5K, a fundraiser sponsored by the Orange County Track Club, which he has been part of for the past 25 years. Though he did not complete the whole event, he did manage to run a half-mile with his wife and the proud folks at Ossur looking on. Estancia High School also started the Andy Bailey's Challenge scholarship fund for promising cross-country runners headed off to college.

He also received an award from the San Diego Triathlon Club for the comeback of the year as well as a lifetime membership for everything he has done for the club the past 15 years. Andy is also a long-time member of the Orange County Triathlon Club, where he has participated in many fundraising events for the CAF the past nine years. At the age of 70, he plans to participate in many more triathlons in the future.

He closed with another long quote that’s just too good to edit. And since this is a blog, there’s no need to…“When I start to feel sorry for myself for all this stuff that shouldn’t have ever happened to me, I remind myself that there are so many other people who are so much worse off than I am. And they are accomplishing unbelievable things,” he explained, “I saw quad amputees and quadriplegics participate in that CAF Triathlon Challenge. There were 150 disabled athletes down there. It’s just unbelievable. They have a desire to live and do whatever they can to take care of their families. So that’s what I’m trying to dwell on. Be happy that you’re alive and that you can do whatever you can do. A lot of disabled people accomplish more than the average person. I’m not sure I could have accomplished all that I have now if it hadn’t been for those other athletes. If I can inspire somebody else to try to do the best they can do with whatever they have, I’m really happy about it. Life is precious. We need to hold on to it. Don’t give up. And keep trying.”

NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at sixtwothreetries@gmail.com. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be one of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.