As a teenager, SURFER contributor Mike Coots lost his right leg to a tiger shark while surfing on Kauai and went onto become an accomplished photographer and advocate for the protection of sharks. Recently, following the Boston Marathon bombings, Coots flew to Massachusetts to console the victims who had lost limbs in the attacks and to help prepare them for their road to recovery. What he found in Boston was unforgettable and soul-shaking. On his way back home to Kauai, we talked to Coots about his experience.
How’d you end up in Boston?
I’m a board member for a nonprofit based on Kauai called Friends of Bethany. The nonprofit was founded through Bethany Hamilton and is meant to help out traumatic injury amputees like Bethany and myself cope with losing a limb. We also donate to local schools and organizations. A few days after the bombings in Boston, we met as a board to see if there was anything we could do to help out. A lot of the people injured in the blast were amputees, and we wanted to do anything we could. We raised around $25,000 in a few days and had a ton of local businesses here on Kauai donate goods to the victims. Things like Kauai Coffee, Kauai Cookies, stuff like that. But the more we thought about it, we realized that the best thing we could do for a lot of the victims was to be there in person to let them know what the recovery process was gonna be like, from someone who’s been there. So earlier this week, Tom Hamilton, Sarah Hill, and I flew out to Boston. Bethany was trying to make it but she had a speaking engagement she couldn’t get break.
What happened when you landed in Boston?
We didn’t necessarily have a plan when we got there. But we went to the different hospitals that were caring for the victims and met with the hospital liaison. When we showed up, there were police and media everywhere and we were trying to keep it really low key. We dropped off our care packages at the hospitals and told the liaison who we were and that we didn’t want to be intrusive at all, but if any of the victims wanted to speak to me about what it was like becoming an amputee and what they could expect, that we would be there for them. After a few days, relatives of some of the victims began reaching out to us and we were able to meet with them to provide some support and tell them what to expect as they healed.
Can you talk about what that was like?
It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I think we were definitely able to help out. One woman I met with was about my age and lost her right leg in the same place I lost mine. She was upset and depressed. When we first met, I spent an hour talking to her in the hospital. I basically ran through every bit of advice I could give her on being an amputee. It’s not something that most people think about. And when it happens, there’s so much going on in your mind. “Am I going to be handicapped? Am I going to be in a wheelchair? What kinds of things can I still do?” I told her that some things are going to be different, but there’s so much you can do with a prosthetic now. We talked about everything…walking up stairs, driving, showering—all the day-to-day things that you need to know. It was pretty heavy, but I think her spirits were really lifted when we walked out of there.
How many people did you meet with?
There were three. There was one woman who was a double amputee, a woman who lost her leg, and a younger girl who may have to have her leg amputated because it was so damaged with shrapnel.
That must have been pretty tough on you emotionally.
It was. The whole thing was very emotional. After leaving the hospital one day, I was in the elevator and couldn’t help but cry. But I think being there and being able to speak to the victims was really important. When I lost my leg, a guy came into the hospital to speak to me. He was wearing pants and when he walked out, my mom told me that he was an amputee. That really helped me. To know that this wasn’t the end of my life. So I wanted to give them some honest feedback that wasn’t sugar coated, but still positive. There’s just so much you can do with a prosthetic. It’s crazy how fast your body can adjust. I can stand on a penny now with my prosthetic and know it.
What was the vibe in the city like?
It was a little surreal, but there was a lot of aloha in the city. People were really coming together for everyone. It was great to see a big city like Boston come together around such a terrible event.
I know that there’s been a tremendous amount of support and money donated to the victims, but is your nonprofit doing anything moving forward to help out?
Yeah, we are. It’s great that the whole country is helping out and we want to continue helping. There are a lot of expenses that come with having a prosthetic and insurance companies will do anything they can to not pay for things, so the more we can help them the better. Our nonprofit is raising money by selling T-shirts and we’re taking donations at FriendsOfBethany.com. We’re small, but I can promise that 100 percent of the money we raise will go to the victims. There’s no middle man. All of it is going straight to them. Every penny.