A devastating workplace accident left Hector Picard without his right arm and only half of his left arm. Today, 23 years later, he’s become an accomplished triathlete, inspiring others with his endurance and positive attitude. In October, he’ll be the first bilateral arm amputee chosen to compete in the prestigious IronMan World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
On March 31, 1992, Picard, then 25, was working as an electrician’s apprentice. At the end of the day, his job was to remove equipment from deactivated transformers. As he walked through two of them, he didn’t know that one had been left on. He made a right turn, touched the active transformer and was electrocuted with 13,000 volts, which traveled through his right arm and out his right foot. He then grabbed the transformer with his left hand, sending the charge down the left side of his body, out his left foot.
“These supply power to entire neighborhoods,” Picard, 49, told FoxNews.com. “I don’t remember any of it.”
Thirty days later, Picard woke up from a coma with second- and third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body. He’d lost his right arm from the shoulder joint and his left arm from below his elbow joint.
Picard, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spent two months in the hospital, exercising in bed as soon as he was able to, and then went through six months of in- and out-patient rehab, and worked with a psychologist.
After his accident, Picard was totally dependent on other people for everything.
“Fortunately he did get to rehab pretty early. Even though he was still dealing with a lot of acute medical problems, we were immediately able to work on his life skills— brushing teeth, [taking] care of his immediate needs,” Cheryl Miller, DrOT, the national director of therapy operations for HealthSouth Corporation, a provider of post-acute health care services, told FoxNews.com. “His frame of mind, even from the very beginning, was unlike many I’ve seen, doing this over 30 years. He always had this problem-solving ability he displays to this day.”
When he left the hospital, his wounds weren’t healed enough to be fit with prostheses, so Miller modified a splint to wear over his residual limb. To that, they attached a universal cuff that could hold a pen, a fork and a toothbrush— small items that could help him care for himself.
“As soon as I got home, I saw that I was not useful,” Picard said. “My goal was to become the man I was before— helping my wife around the house, providing for my family, being a father to my [1-year-old] daughter.”
Six months after his accident, Picard got his first prosthesis, which gave him the independence to take on small tasks such as changing a lightbulb and grocery shopping alone.
“I thought it was crazy, I hated to run.”
Picard had always been athletic, playing football, baseball, basketball and other team sports in his youth. After his accident, the first sport he played was basketball, inventing a ring attachment for his left arm that allows him to play basketball. He coached his daughter’s softball team for five years, creating a device that could pitch to her. They even won a few championships under his guidance.
His athleticism picked back up when he started going to the gym in 2008, after he discovered his wife had been cheating on him.
“A friend of mine asked if I ever considered competing in a triathlon, and I thought it was crazy, I hated to run,” Picard said.
But he was up for the challenge and completed his first in July 2009. Since then, he’s competed in 115 triathlons, including four Ironmans, where he was the first double-arm amputee to participate in the long-distance races, which consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.
Picard’s next big race is the Nautica Malibu Triathlon on Sept. 19, an event that has always been on his bucket list. The beachside competition benefits Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’ Pediatric Cancer Research Program.
“I’m very passionate about wanting to become a role model for children, especially children with disability,” Picard said.
In 2013, Picard biked from Miami to Spokane, Wash.— 3,200 miles— to fundraise for Jameson Davis, a 2-month-old boy born without arms. He didn’t seek out press and stopped along his 36-day journey to give motivational speeches to staff at HealthSouth hospitals. Picard’s efforts helped the boy get his first prostheses.
“I got emotional and told them, I want him to return the favor, to one day be able to go across the country and come and see me,” he said of meeting the family.
Picard estimated he’ll complete around 25 races this year, including the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona in October. To train, each week, he’s on the bike for 200 to 300 miles, swimming for three hours and running up to 20 miles.
For Ironman Kona, he hopes to make the cutoff time in swimming and biking, and give himself at least seven hours to complete the run. The temperature will likely hit over 100 degrees, and the wind could be 20 to 40 mph on the bike. In 2015, more than 2,000 athletes will participate— each year, about 110,000 athletes compete to qualify for the elite endurance event.
“I’ve had a lot of help from people to get here,” he said. “I am now just very thankful and happy to be in this situation.”
“No, thank you”
Picard functions with only one hand, attached to a myoelectric prosthesis on his left arm that requires control of certain arm and shoulder muscles to use. He has multiple prostheses for activities such as baseball, but he uses the 6-pound myoelectric as his go-to. Early on, he was fitted for his right side, but scar tissue discomfort and the weight of a full-arm device made him stick with just one, Matthew Klein, licensed prosthetist/orthotist and senior area clinic manager for the Hanger Clinic in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told FoxNews.com.
When Picard races, he doesn’t use any of the adjustments that are sometimes offered for disabled athletes. If he used snorkels and a mask, the mask could flip and put him in danger. Flippers could fall off mid-race.
On his bike, he steers with his residual limb, using an adaptor he created so he could easily slide in, have good control and disengage easily. With a prosthetic, there’s a chance of getting stuck in the event of an emergency. Picard runs the risk of wounds and infection because the sheer force of going 50 mph downhill can create irritation on the limb.
“He steers, rests his body entirely, all force into that limb,” Miller said. “He’s serious about protecting that limb, getting proper nutrition, preventing skin breakdown or wounds.”
Picard only uses his left prosthetic during transitions, as it can’t get wet and would throw him off balance during the run. He is able to change a bike flat without hands, as shown in one of his popular Youtube videos.
“I make fun of the fact that, during transitions, I may spend four minutes in it, two minutes of that telling people, ‘No, thank you,’ because everybody wants to help,” he said. “I choose to do it by myself, people see that, respond and are inspired by it.”
Miller and Klein said they aren’t worried about Picard’s intense training regime.
“I think he’s more vulnerable, obviously, but he probably takes better care of himself than you or I do,” Miller said.
The biggest challenge Klein sees is that Picard is hard on his equipment because he is so active. He has three to four hands on rotation, with one always in for repair.
“It’s almost like he was hand-chosen for this unfortunate situation he’s in,” Miller said of Picard’s role as a motivational speaker. “We need more people to work with their peers, to go out and speak … just to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
As for Picard, he hopes to be a role model others, especially children with disabilities. While he admitted he’s competitive, he said he races for other reasons.
“I’m looking to have the experience of a lifetime, to enjoy, meet new people,” Picard said. “And see how far I can push myself if I can improve or not.”