Story by Melissa Sgarlata | Photos by Tory Germann
Kim Paquin admits her prosthetic leg sometimes falls apart. Her ankle is slightly detached, there are holes in her knee, and for as long as she can remember she’s placed her stump directly into a socket without having a cover to protect her skin.
“But I’m lucky to have what I have,” she says.
Paquin, who lives in Lowell, isn’t one to complain even though health complications have been a non-stop roller coaster ride since she was 12.
That was the age she lost most of her left leg to bone cancer. Her teen years that followed were spent in and out of hospitals for chemotherapy treatments that would eventually take a toll on her heart, requiring her to wear a pacemaker.
Life, she says, is filled with challenges. Instead of dwelling on the bad parts, she pours her energy into the things that bring her joy — her husband of 25 years, Rob, and her daughter, Nicole, who just graduated high school.
They’re all avid hockey fans and this summer Paquin will accompany Rob to Niagara Falls with the boy’s hockey team he coaches.
“I still have fun,” she insists warmly. “I do my thing. I live life like everyone else.”
She has never been able to afford a quality prosthetic leg. When asked about that, she answers in her typical sunny-side manner, “there’s always someone out there who probably needs it more.”
Steve Chamberland is big, broad, and bald with a blond goatee and dark tattooed sleeve down his right arm. Despite the somewhat gruff exterior, his blue eyes well up with tears when he talks about the amazing people he’s met over the years.
But he’s quick to tell you he wasn’t always a softie. A Lowell native who grew up in Tyngsboro, Chamberland claims in his younger years he drank too many beers, got into some wild fights and used to be, well, kind of a “shit head.”
Then lightning struck. On Memorial Day weekend in 1999, he was out riding his Fat Boy motorcycle in Dracut and was hit by an oncoming truck. His right leg was severed when it got wedged in between the metal of the Dodge Ram’s grill.
“It just snapped right off,” he recalls matter-of-factly, in between bites of chicken wings and crab rangoon at China Maxim in Dracut, a restaurant not far from the site of his accident.
Chamberland, who played amateur hockey, baseball and semi-pro football for the Granite State Warriors and Leominster Lions, was also in training for competitive wrestling three weeks prior to the accident.
He made a vow to himself and was determined to continue wrestling with one leg.
In 2002, he was hired by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) with the stage name “Steve the Freak.” Seven days after being hired, he was let go and replaced with another wrestler who also had one leg. The reason for his dismissal, he adds, has never been clear to him.
“I guess they hired the wrong one legged guy,” Chamberland says.
After leaving WWE, he spiraled into a deep depression, a depression he describes as much worse than when he actually lost his leg.
“I just gave up on life,” he admits.
He was living in Florida at the time and immersed himself in competitive shot put while trying to find direction. In 2011, he caught the story of Anaiah Rucker on The Today Show.
The nine-year-old Georgia girl was walking her sister to the school bus when a truck came barreling toward them. She pushed her sister out of the way to safety, but was hit by the truck. Rucker survived the accident but lost her leg, a kidney and suffered from a broken neck and injuries to her spleen.
Chamberland, along with pro wrestler Sean “X- Pac” Waltman and wrestling manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart, was attending a friend’s store opening in Greensboro, Ga. near Rucker’s hometown. After hearing her story on national news, Chamberland decided to present Rucker with a new prosthetic leg at the store opening.
“She was crying — everyone was crying,” remembers Chamberland.
He gave Rucker a colorful prosthetic inside a pink sneaker. But he wasn’t off the hook that easy. Rucker had tough questions and told her mother she needed to talk to “Mr. Steve.”
“That’s when it got real,” Chamberland says.
When the young girl asked, the former wrestler talked to her about phantom limb pain and explained that even though there will be bad days, life will be great if you work at being great. After meeting with Rucker, Hart didn’t beat around the bush with the truth.
“He (Hart) said, ‘you make a decision about what you’re going to do from this day forward,’” Chamberland says. “He told me to ‘suck it up and stop being a little bitch.’”
The combination of meeting Rucker and Hart’s tough love lit a fire under Chamberland, propelling him to start 50 Legs, a charitable organization which earned 501c3 status in 2013.
“God makes people special for different reasons,” says Chamberland, who believes he was meant to lose his leg.
He pauses, and then ponders aloud about tracking down the other driver from his accident to thank him. Because, says Chamberland, losing his leg has made him a better person.
Friday, June 19 was the day after Kim Paquin’s 44th birthday. She was volunteering for Micky Ward’s Charity Golf Tournament at the Four Oaks Country Club in Dracut. Her being seated next to Chamberland was no accident.
“He would walk by me and look at my leg and say ‘that thing’s a piece of shit,’” Paquin laughs. “He was teasing me all day.”
Little did she know that Chamberland was a man on a mission. And she was his target.
Following the golf tournament, when everyone was seated in the banquet hall, it was revealed that Chamberland had flown in specifically to present Paquin with a new, state-of-the-art prosthetic leg.
A shocked Paquin couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I feel unbelievably loved – there’s just no words to explain,” Paquin said in a phone interview afterward. “Just how many people who were involved that we knew, and they all kept it from me.”
Her husband, Rob, and their friends from Team Micky Ward Charities reached out to Chamberland for help in getting Paquin the kind of high quality prosthesis that would change her life for the better.
“It couldn’t have happened to a better person,” Chamberland says. “We all had tears.”
Since its inception, the Tampa-based 50 legs has helped 68 people receive a new prosthesis. The recipients range in age from 10 months to a 72-year-old Vietnam Veteran named Conrad. Their stories vary from horrific boating, Jet Ski, and lawn mower accidents to bone cancer. Almost always, they ask Chamberland the same question: Am I ever going to be normal again?
Celeste Corcoran was standing with her daughter Sydney and husband Kevin outside of Marathon Sports, trying to get a glimpse of her sister Carmen crossing the Boston Marathon finish line. Carmen, fortunately, wasn’t close when the bomb went off.
Celeste wasn’t so lucky.
“I remember everything,” she says. “It was horrific.”
After the explosion, Kevin rushed to help his wife. They didn’t see Sydney and thought, that in the commotion, she had been pushed farther away and was safe.
“I tried to look down at my legs and remember seeing my foot at an odd angle, said Corcoran. “I said, ‘is my foot attached to my leg,’ and it was, barely, and Kevin said ‘yes.’ He knew when he saw my injuries that my legs were going to have to be amputated.”
Although her parents couldn’t see her, Sydney was still close by. Her left leg was sliced open and her right foot, severely injured. Pieces of shrapnel from the blast tore into her right thigh and embedded in her femoral artery. She almost bled to death on the street.
Her “heroes” were Zach Mione and Matt Smith, who were inside Marathon Sports during the blast and rushed out with T-shirts. Zach tied a T-shirt tourniquet around her leg and Matt held his hand inside her leg to try and stop the blood flow, Corcoran said.
Corcoran and her daughter were brought separately to Boston Medical Center, not realizing at first that the other was injured or even in the same hospital.
“We were being intubated side by side and didn’t even know it,” Corcoran says. “Her (Sydney’s) vascular surgeon didn’t think she was going to make it. She was on her way out.”
Sydney survived and after multiple surgeries, is now able to walk. Corcoran had both legs amputated. Her right leg was amputated above the knee, and her left leg was amputated below the knee. After weeks of rehabilitation she received her first set of prosthetic legs.
“They were horrific and archaic,” said Corcoran. “I felt so discouraged and absolutely crippled — nothing could be worse than this.”
Her prosthetics were so old that while attending an amputee conference, another amputee walked up to her and said he had the same prosthetic legs in 1975. The older prosthetics were also frustrating to put on and Corcoran used to break out into a full sweat trying to attach the leg to her knee.
“It looks like a huge screw where your knee would be. You would line up a screw with your leg, if you get it in right, it does this click,” she explains.
Chamberland was her ray of hope.
Corcoran, like all 50 Legs recipients, was flown to Orlando, Fla. to be fitted for a custom quality prosthetic by Stan Patterson, owner of Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates, which partnered with 50 Legs to bring a better quality of life to each patient. The company also has several employees who are amputees.
With acute attention to detail, Patterson fitted Corcoran with new, life-changing legs.
“It was the difference between walking and not walking,” Corcoran says. “It wasn’t easy and it hit me like a slap in the face — how hard this was really going to be.”
A hairstylist on Newbury Street, she is now able to stand and work a couple days a month, trying to regain a sense of normalcy.
“We’re just trying to heal,” says Corcoran, who, like Chamberland, is committed to helping other amputees have access to the best possible prosthetics.
“Steve has the biggest heart,” Corcoran says. “He gave me my life back.”
Tiffany Willis, who oversees fundraising, operations and marketing for 50 Legs, describes Chamberland as the kind of person who “will give the shirt off his back for anyone.”
Chamberland, who continues to work on growing the organization, says he couldn’t do any of it without his partners, which include Angel Flights New England, a non-profit that provides free flights for people who need medical care, and the Rosen Hotels. Both organizations offer their services for free to 50 Legs recipients.
In November, Paquin will be flown to Orlando with Rob, where she’ll be fitted for a new leg, the cost of which is being supported by Team Micky Ward Charities and 50 Legs.
“I can’t imagine what it looks like, or how it’s going to feel,” Paquin says.
Chamberland assures her she’s going to feel like “a new woman.”
Her wish is to join Rob and Nicole on their mountain hikes. Throughout the years her husband and daughter have hiked at various spots in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, while she stayed home.
“I just want to go on one hike with my husband,” Paquin says. “I want to climb a mountain with him.”
The 4th Annual 50 Legs Charity Golf Tournament tees off Monday, July 27, at Four Oaks Country Club, 1 Clubhouse Lane, Dracut. For more information, to make a donation, or volunteer, visit www.50legs.org