My short bio: My name is Christa Brelsford. I've been a climber since I was 12 years old, and lost my right leg on January 12th, 2010 in the Haiti earthquake. In the last 4.5 years, I got married, ran a half marathon, finished my Ph.D in Sustainability, and had a baby. In September, I'll represent the USA at the Paraclimbing World Championships in Gijon, Spain. The world championships are an opportunity to celebrate what I am still capable of doing and also live out the promise I made to my friends in Haiti, to make sure their kids have access to the same quality education I'd want my own kids to have, by raising funds for Haiti Partners, a non-profit dedicated to helping Haitians change Haiti through education. My fundraiser: https://www.crowdrise.com/ClimbingforSchools

My Proof: http://www.today.com/id/34876138/ns/today-today_news/t/she-lost-leg-haiti-shes-glad-be-alive/

http://www.womenshealthmag.com/life/haiti-stories

http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/climbing/ice-climbing/Helping-Injured-Climbers-Return-to-the-Ice.html

Comments: 60 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

eviljelloman8 karma

As a fellow climber, your story has inspired me for years - it's awesome how you have springboarded from that tragedy to do some good. Before asking my question, I just wanted to give you props for being awesome.

My question: I seem to recall the owner of Trango being very involved in various efforts to design and improve climbing-specific prosthetics. Are you using something he designed, or are there any other sources for artificial limbs that work well for climbing? It seems like so many other sports have SERIOUS research dedicated to creating great limbs for them (running especially), and I'm curious how the effort compares for the much more niche sport of climbing.

ChristaBrelsford6 karma

Thank you.

Malcom Daly, who (used too?) run Trango designed what I think is the best commerically available climbing foot. I have a TON of respect for Mal and I'm hugely grateful for all that he's done for the disabled community, both in terms of access and equipment, but his foot wasn't quite right for me. It's a pretty stiff, edging foot, and I've always liked climbing in slippers so I can smear (I climbed in mad rock hookers for a very long time). So, the foot that I climb on is based on Malcolms design, but is based off of a much softer last, so that I can smear.

it acutally works out to be a 6 year olds prosthetic foot with the toes ground off and covered in climbing rubber.

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

I wish that there was more R&D for climbing prosthetics - I keep hoping someone will build me an articulating ankle, but I'm not holding my breath. (on the other hand, I have my whole lifetime to wait for it, so I'll still be here if anyone ever does!)

jameslogan9195 karma

Did you ever consider professional competitive sports before loosing a leg? If yes, was it paraclimbing?

ChristaBrelsford5 karma

I had climbed competitively, but not professionally, in college. Just before the earthquake, I had needed to have shoulder surgery to fix a chronic oversue injury, so was taking some planned time off from climbing to get that healed, and wasn't sure how well I would be able to climb post shoulder surgery. The earthquake happened just after my official physical therapy course was finished, so I was able to get back to climbing within days of being released from the hospital.

Paraclimbing is a pretty new sport, so I didn't know it existed until I needed it, but I've always been a rock climber, and I never questioned that I would continue to climb one way or another.

dogphishinhead5 karma

What grade are the routes that you will be climbing?

ChristaBrelsford5 karma

I'm not sure, but I am guessing qualifiers will be in the 5.9 to 5.11 range, and finals will probably start in the 5.10 range and top out in the easy 5.12 range.

PatrickBecerra1 karma

Are you climbing 5.12 with the prosthetic foot?

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

5.12 is the top end of my range right now, but I have sent (on top rope) one 5.12 outdoors since the earthquake: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/face-off/105940747

Danglybeads3 karma

How long did it take you to become motivated to climb again ?

ChristaBrelsford7 karma

Ummm . ... 5 minutes? maybe? ;)

When I was still half buried under a house, I knew of "that guy with no feet trying to run in the olympics" - Oscar Pistorius. I figured that if he thought he could run in the Olympics, I could certianly climb. I didn't know how long it would take or how hard I would be able to climb, but I knew I'd be able to do something.

Dvdpntr033 karma

How did you lose your leg?

ChristaBrelsford8 karma

I was sitting in a house with my brother Julian and three of our Haitian friends, in Darbonne, Haiti when the earthquake struck. The house we were in collapsed, and the roof caved in while I was running down the stairs, so my right leg was caught between the roof and the concrete stairs. Luckily, my brother and our friends weren't too badly injured. One man did get a serious concussion that took a long time to recover from, and my brother broke a few toes.

I'm also really really greatful that the man who we had been staying with during the earthquake was fine, and his wife and two kids were also not injured.

clobyark1 karma

What was the pain like while your leg was trapped?

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

It's pretty crazy how the brain works. My leg must have been broken right when the roof collapsed, but I didn't know that had happened until 45 minutes or so later, when my friends where digging me out and I turned around and saw the damage. In that period, I was terrified, but I honestly didn't feel any pain. I guess that is what adrenaline does for us.

Once I got dug out, getting moved around was very painful because the bones weren't connected anymore, so my fort was kind of just flopping around. I didn't get any pain meds until I got to Miami 30 hours later, and there were times when it was pretty hard to handle. The best technique I had was staying mentally focused on anything other than pain. So, lots of the people who I met along the way were surprised that I kept them talking to me about whatever it was I could think of.

monsus3 karma

First of all: quite an amazing story!

What was the recovery and rehabilitation like? Do you suffer from phantom pains?

ChristaBrelsford5 karma

Thank you! Recovery and rehab were much longer than I expected - within weeks, I was pretty physically normal except for the missing leg and having lost almost 20 lbs. I got my first prosthetic about 2 months after the earthquake (and went ice climbing a few days after that), and got a fully weight bearing prosthetic in about June, so that was when I could finally walk without crutches. By about a year out, I felt like my strength and endurance were pretty near normal. Nowdays, a lot of my training is about targeted strengthening of my right quad, and hips to make up for the fact that I favor that side and it doesn't have the range of motion of normal.

I did get phantom pain in the early days, but once I started walking and learned a few mental techniques for dealing with it, it stopped bothering me.

Concise_Pirate3 karma

I have read that people who lose a limb usually recover to the same level of happiness they had before the accident. Is that true for you?

ChristaBrelsford4 karma

I'd say definitely, in my case! I mean, I wish I still had two feet, and always will. However, I don't think I'm any less happy that I would be otherwise. I have read a few studies that say that both lottery winners and people who suffer traumatic injuries return to the same baseline level of happieness they usually have in a few years - seems to be true in my case.

maltese_underscore2 karma

You've certainly done a lot since you lost your leg. Do you feel more motivated in life now? Not in a "I realised the true value of life" way, more in a "you probably think I can't do it so watch this" way? Basically, do you feel you do things to do amazing things that I with 2 legs couldn't do to prove people wrong?

ChristaBrelsford3 karma

Yeah, I think that there are two parts to it. One is the "I'll show you" perspective. That definitely influences some of what I do. The other part is that in the earthquake, I really saw how privileged I am in comparison to most of the rest of the world, and I want to give back. I also kind of wanted to be a role model for people in Haiti who lost limbs- I was worried that if I, with the best medical care in the world, wouldn't try something, they'd discouraged from trying too.

ak_hepcat2 karma

I know OP!

She's a super-strong-willed person, and I'm proud to call her friend.

Alaska represent!

Christa - the last time we saw each other was in Arizona last October, and we had dinner together, while you were still preggo on the DL. ;-)

I'm absolutely following your journey to the paraclimbing, because it's such a great inspiration for others, and also because I just like that I know you.

So... you gonna come back up north any time soon?

ChristaBrelsford3 karma

I remember your username from back in the AIM days. ;)

Baby boy is now 6 months old, and crawling around on the floor as we speak. I'm not sure when we're all headed back up to Alaska - hopefully next summer.

Thanks!

HP7782 karma

[deleted]

ChristaBrelsford8 karma

I was in Haiti working with my brother on an adult literacy project, mostly just trying to learn about the groups and people in the region, so that we could understand how to be helpful before charging in on our great white horses to fix things. So, we'd just been tagging along to learn.

I went back once, about 10 months after the earthquake, to attend the inaguration of the newly rebuilt school we'd been working in. After the earthquake, I got kind of a lot of attention, and so we figured we'd us the attention to do something useful for this community. If I can figure out how to post a picture here, I'll show you the school before and after.

ChristaBrelsford6 karma

Here is a blog post about the inauguration ceremony for the school we were working in:

http://haitipartners.org/2010/11/giving-thanks-inaugural-ceremony-at-cabois-school/

and at this point, I think that I can do the most good for my friends and colleagues in Haiti by continuing to fundraise and push for more services here in the US. There are really really good teachers and educators on the ground in Haiti, and I can do more good by making sure they have the resources to do their important work than I can by trying to teach anyone anything, for example.

Concise_Pirate2 karma

How long did it take to get used to operating with one leg? How long to get to a really good/athletic level?

ChristaBrelsford6 karma

I could walk without crutches at about 6 months out, and felt like I was doing pretty well within a year. I was climbing at the gym just a few days after I got out of the hospital, and was ice climbing outside 2 months after the earthquake.

qazpl1452 karma

First off you are an amazing person for being about to get back up and moving so soon. But secondly do you believe that this event will effect your future much? It seems like you know what you want and you are achieving your goals. Is there anything you wish you could do now that you no longer can?

ChristaBrelsford3 karma

Thank you.

To a certain extent, I don't feel like my life is hugely different than it would have been if the earthquake hadn't happened. I'm lucky enough to have good health insurance, so I get my medically necessary prosthetics at an affordable cost, and I sit at a desk all day, so my employability isn't really affected by my missing leg. And that is actually a major part of the reason that I've worked so hard to make sure that I keep remembering my friends in Haiti who dont have access to those resources. For me, I'm doing OK. For many people there, whether or not they lost a limb, life is irreversibly changed. I got to go home, and their home will never be the same. So, I'm doing my best to make sure that they get the resources they need, to continue the long term reconstruction that is necessary.

As for what I miss: at the moment, it's walking barefoot in the grass.

mahg942 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA. What keep you going after you lost your leg? It is amazing how you can carry on doing what you love as a sport. Congrats on that!

ChristaBrelsford3 karma

Thank you. For me, it never really felt that hard to keep going, and after a while, I've gotten used to it. In the early hours, I knew it was going to take everything I had, plus a lot of help from others, just to survive. And being alive was clearly better than the alternative. Once I got to the US and was physically stable, it just seemed so much easier to focus on the things that I can control, and the postive aspects of the experience, than to worry too much about whats out of my control or about the sad parts of loosing my leg. I also felt hugely lucky to be a US citizen, and so have access to good quality medical care, when I knew so many people still in Haiti didn't have that.

mahg942 karma

Do you have any regrets about the trip to Haiti?

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

Not at all. I wish i still had two feet for sure, and if anyone ever figures out some stem-cell regrow your leg thing, I'll be first in line.

However, I went to Haiti to learn from people whose lives are pretty totally different than mine, and boy did I get an education. The fact that i happened to be in the wrong place during something awful and essentially unpredictable - well, no choices i could have made would have changed anything. So, I don't regret any of the choices I've made that lead me here, and I'm continually surprised at how kind people were - both in the first hours after the earthquake, and in the longer term recovery process.

its actually made me a lot more optimistic about people in general.

cosmic_punk2 karma

Were you on the TV show I Survived?

ChristaBrelsford1 karma

Yes, I was, but the producers hurt my feelings so I've never actually had the courage to watch the segment. I hope it turned out OK.

cosmic_punk1 karma

What happened?

ChristaBrelsford1 karma

It's sort of the same experience I had dealing with any of the mass media stuff - they called me at home, they called my parents, they called my friends, and they called me at school. With so many people telling me they'd been calling, i felt like i had to talk to them, and they were my very best friend until they got me in the studio. I was a uncomfortable about doing the show, but they said that it would be a really good chance to continue to bring awareness to reconstruction in Haiti, and I think that's important.

Then, once I got to LA to film the show, they didn't let me talk about any of my long term recovery process, or the work that I had been doing to raise money to rebuild the school that we'd been working with. It all makes sense from the producers perspective, it just made me feel kind of icky and sensationalized.

Sihplak2 karma

What did it feel like to lose the leg, and what's it feel like having a prosthetic leg?

ChristaBrelsford3 karma

So, the crazy part is that I didn't know that my leg was broken until I was getting dug out, and saw that it had been totally mangled. I was scared, but felt fine until then. And from there until I got to Miami 30 hours later, it was painful, but not ever too unbearable.

Walking with a prosthetic is a lot like walking in a downhill skiing boot, if you've ever tried that. The ankle is fixed, and so that has the biggest influence on activity levels and mobility. Prosthetics are all designed for walking on flat, level surfaces, and so they do really well in those conditions. They don't do as well on steep slopes, soft surfaces like sand, or anything uneven, so the approach to climbs is often harder for me than the climbing itself.

blue_banshee1 karma

Hi there! I noticed that you have a PhD in sustainability, and I was hoping you'd be willing to talk about that, and about how sustainability relates to the work you do for Haitians. Is there a connection there?

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

I defended my PhD just a few months ago, so it's been a busy summer. My academic research isn't directly related to the work I was doing in Haiti, but both are driven by the same thought:

My biggest goal in life is to use careful thought to do good in the world. I was in Haiti to learn how to help, and I research and study sustainability for the same reason.

My dissertation was focused on water resources in Las Vegas Nevada- trying to figure out how to help water managers make good decisions about water use in cities; and right now, I'm working on this project: http://www.santafe.edu/news/item/gates-slums-announce/

YayVelociraptors1 karma

Thanks for doing the AMA! Do you know Josh Sundquist?

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

I've heard of him, but never met him.

PieceOfJake1 karma

Were you awake when you realized you had lost your leg? What was your reaction?

ChristaBrelsford6 karma

I was awake. I turned around as my brother and our friends were digging me out and saw (before I felt) that my leg was kind of a mangled chuck of steak. I pretty quickly just said, well- the first step is to survive. the second step is to worry about my leg.

hoodyupload1 karma

Hi Christa did you ever regret been in Haiti , during the earthquake and what do you think you would have done differently to avoid losing your leg ?

ChristaBrelsford2 karma

Hi,

I wish that I still had two feet, for sure; but even more than that, I wish ~300,000 other people hadn't died in a natural disaster that turned into a humanitarian catastrophe because of poverty. I lost my leg, and that is a real, big, and life long change. However, homes, schools, lives, and livelihoods were destroyed in Haiti in a way that is just as significant for those people than losing a limb is for me.

So, I don't regret the curiosity that brought me to Haiti. And once I got there, there was absolutely no way to predict that I would happen to be there during this earthquake. I grew up in Alaska, and earthquake drills were a major part of our education there, and the advice did pop into my head during the earthquake, so it did some good. Basically, aside from being able to see into the future, I don't think that there is anything anyone could have done differently that would have saved my leg, and there are a lot of ways I could have ended up dead instead of an amputee. I'm grateful for the way things turned out.