Road to Victory Began in Tragedy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her Adidas commercial shows a young woman running, loudly huffing and puffing, brown hair tied back, sweat beading on her brow. The celebrity it brings her symbolizes for Jami Goldman that, as an athlete, she has arrived.

The 31-year-old Huntington Beach resident began competitive running less than three years ago, and already owns world records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes.

Her good fortune has been especially bountiful in the last year. She set the three world marks during a series of international races. She stands a good chance of running for her country this summer in Sydney, Australia.

"I am the fastest T43 track runner in the world," she says matter-of-factly, referring to her category of below-knee, double amputee. "It's an amazing feeling. It's not something I would have ever thought would be part of my life."

And who would? Who could imagine that one moment you're driving home from a holiday ski trip with a friend, in a hurry to get her to work on time, and the next moment your car is stuck in a snowbank during a Christmas blizzard on a road that is not being patrolled? One day Goldman was a fit 19-year-old freshman at Arizona State University, studying communications and perfecting her downhill skiing skills.

Weeks later, she would be a T43. Years later, she would be a world-class runner.

For Goldman, it is impossible to separate her achievements from what happened Dec. 23, 1987, the day her life made a turn down the wrong road.

*

Goldman and her friend Lisa Barzano were headed home to Phoenix after a Colorado ski trip. They thought the route was a shortcut. In fact, it was a logging road that closed later that day for the winter.

The snow was coming down hard about 12:30 p.m. when she heard a thud and the vehicle came to a sliding halt.

"I don't know if we hit a snowbank, if we slid, or if we hit some ice,"' Goldman said. "We got out and tried to rock it back and forth. There was a huge snowstorm, and we had tennis shoes on. . . . We tried to dig it out with our ice picks, but it wasn't going anywhere."

They gave up and got back in the car, certain they would be rescued before long. They thought the road was well-traveled.

"We stayed there the whole day, and it snowed. And the next morning when we woke up, it was still snowing. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, it snowed profusely, I mean just out of control."

On that first day in the snow, the women turned the ignition on to use the heater. By morning the battery was dead.

The only food they had was a couple of cinnamon rolls and a six-pack of frozen soda. They had a backgammon set, and played during the first days.

Saturday morning, the start of their fourth day stuck somewhere in the wilds of northeastern Arizona, was the first time they saw the sun. Goldman recalls that they realized that no one was coming, so they tried to walk out wearing ski boots.

"We walked maybe 20, 30 feet, I don't remember exactly how far, and Lisa collapsed, she fell in the snow," Goldman said. They discussed whether Goldman should take off on her own.

"I didn't want to leave her, she didn't want me to leave her and I didn't want to go out into the wilderness by myself. I didn't know where I was."

The buzzing of search and rescue helicopters is one of Goldman's most haunting memories of the ordeal. They heard them often. Each time, Barzano would slip her swollen feet into Goldman's much larger ski boots and go outside to clean off the hood, hoping to make it more visible from the air.

But no rescuers came.

By the seventh day, Goldman's feet had become too swollen to fit into her ski boots. The women knew early on that they were having problems with their feet. They would sit up in the back seat and slip their feet under each other's buttocks. They would also rub and massage each other's toes to warm them up.

Everything was always wet, Goldman recalls. There was never enough heat to dry the socks.

They each had about four T-shirts, a couple of sweaters, a jacket, long johns and pants and they wore it all every night. They would sleep alongside one another to stay warm.

When the sun was out, they would rest their feet on the dashboard, hoping that radiant heat from the windshield would warm them.

They would also melt snow in small plastic bags placed on the dash, then drink the precious water in small sips. On Thursday of the second week, they found a bag of salted peanuts in a back ashtray. They each ate five a day.

During the second week, the days began to merge. Goldman says she slipped in and out of consciousness. She had a watch that kept the date, and she recalls making an effort to be aware of days. Barzano kept a journal.

Goldman said that she and Barzano always expected to survive and never lost hope. "One of us was always there to give the other support."

Late on their 10th morning in the snow, Saturday, Jan. 2, they heard the high-pitched whine of an engine. They looked out to see a man and his son on two snowmobiles. "It was almost surreal. We hadn't seen another human being in 10 days," Goldman remembers.

Each woman was carried to the back of a snowmobile. They were driven by the now-closed gate they had passed 10 days earlier, the snow plowed right up to it.

At the hospital in Springerville, Ariz., they were immediately put into hot whirlpool baths, which brought on excruciating pain, a sign of severe frostbite. Doctors estimated that they were within 48 hours of dying.

Later that afternoon, Goldman's father walked into his daughter's room and she exploded at him.

"What were you doing?" she remembers screaming at him. "Why couldn't you find us? We were right there. We were right in the middle of the snow." Her father, Michael Goldman, stood before her in tears.

After days of searching and intense media coverage, her father thought their ordeal was over.

'I Had No Choice'

From Day 1, doctors at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, where she was transferred, feared Goldman would lose her feet. Twice a day she was put into a hyperbaric chamber--a metal cylinder that contains pure oxygen--in an attempt to improve circulation in her legs. It didn't work.

Gangrene had set in. She couldn't eat. Her weight dropped from 105 to 80 pounds and her overall health was rapidly deteriorating.

Barzano, meanwhile, responded favorably to the oxygen treatments. Several of her toes were amputated, but she was able to leave the hospital within three weeks.

Goldman's condition was far more severe.

"Jami was watching her feet deteriorate every day," said her mother, Robin Goldman. "At the end, she was the only one who could take care of them. They had turned black. She didn't think the nurses or anyone else was careful enough."

After three weeks, her medical team saw no alternative to amputation. They suggested that Goldman get a second opinion. She did, and ended up switching to a doctor who concurred with amputation. But in an important benefit to Goldman, the new surgeon worked in tandem with a local prosthetist. All decisions took into account the eventual fitting of artificial limbs.

Nearly three weeks after Goldman was rescued, Dr. James Malone told her that her life was now at great risk.

"I had no choice; there was really nothing else to do," Goldman said.

She draws a blank trying to recall the moment of her decision to amputate. "It just doesn't come to me."

But her mother can still see the scene: "Oh, she cried. She was extremely upset. But she knew it was coming. We all knew. We'd seen the legs turn black."

Goldman also had to decide where her legs should be severed. Gangrene had set in in one foot, but had infected the other leg almost up to the knee.

She was told that an unequal cut would decrease agility and produce a limp. Her legs were amputated the next day, six inches below each knee.

During the surgery, Goldman's prosthetist attached large casts to the bottom of each leg. When she woke up, the spread of her blanket looked normal. "It wasn't as shocking," her mother said. "She didn't see herself without legs."

Goldman felt better immediately. The infection receded. Within 48 hours she stood on her new legs with the help of a tilt table. Three weeks later, she walked out of the hospital with the aid of a walker, and moved into her parents' Phoenix home. Within days, she was fitted for legs.

Goldman had never been athletic, but her doctors told her it was important now to maintain a rigorous workout routine. She hired a personal trainer.

She used a walker for the next six months. And she hated it. But she would go to the swimming pool nearly every day. There, in the warm water, the buoyancy allowed her to walk without any help.

"I would just walk back and forth, back and forth," Goldman said. "It gave me a real jump-start in getting my balance back."

By fall, nearly six months after the amputation, Goldman moved into an off-campus apartment in Tempe and went back to Arizona State. That winter she went skiing.

It took two years before Goldman could strap the legs on in the morning and wear them all day. In the house she would often use a wheelchair.

"At first, I really wanted to keep the legs on all day," Goldman said. "The idea of taking them off was appalling to me."

But soon she started thinking of them as shoes. "I'm like anybody else. At the end of the day your feet are tired, they're sore. So when you get home, you take off your shoes, change your socks, get comfortable. Well, me too."

A prosthetic leg is attached to the stump in a leather sheaf by straps that wrap around the knee. For an active person, the contact area often becomes bruised and sore.

Cosmetic legs cost $10,000 to $25,000. Goldman has one "regular" pair that she can wear with any flat footwear, and one with the foot set for a high heel.

"When I go to a club, and I meet someone, they're not going to know unless I want them to know," she says.

Seeking Spot on U.S. Paralympic Team

Goldman ultimately earned a degree in child development at Cal State Long Beach. She was working at a child-care center in 1996 when the prosthetist at Life-Like, the Carson-based company that made her cosmetic legs, asked her if she had heard of the Paralympics, which had just followed the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

She was intrigued by his description of the athletes, and he directed her to a company that makes running legs.

The legs arrived two months later, in February 1997. That April, she ran her first race and won a gold medal, just missing a world record. Running began to redefine her life.

"In the beginning, there was the thrill of being involved in something I never thought possible," Goldman said. "But when you're at the starting line of a race, waiting for the gun to go off, that is a feeling that nothing in the world can replace."

She has since hired a professional running coach; she works out at a gym and runs nearly every day.

Goldman won four gold medals last summer at the International Sports Organization for the Disabled World Championship Games in Barcelona, Spain; the Revival Games in Germany; and the U.S. Nationals in Virginia. In the process, she set world records for her category in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.

Because there are so few T43s (below-knee, double amputees) in the running world, Goldman is usually lumped together with T44s, runners who are missing one leg. Sometimes she has to run in the same heat as two-legged runners who are missing an arm.

She is trying out for the U.S. Paralympic Team that will compete in Sydney after the Summer Olympics.

"OK, I'm over the fact that there are few of us missing both legs," Goldman said. But, she says, "don't put me against women who are missing arms. That's ridiculous."

There are only 36 slots this year, and she is keeping her fingers crossed that she will make the team. Selections will be announced in late spring.

In the meantime, Adidas is sponsoring her and has given her entree to the limelight afforded to athletic stars. She tests new models of running legs for a San Diego prosthetic company and envisions a future helping to develop advanced limbs for all amputees.

A clothing designer selected her for a fashion spread. She continues to win trophies and medals.

Every December, when Goldman goes home to Phoenix for Christmas, she sees her friend Lisa. They don't talk about the ordeal; it's all behind them, she says.

But in private moments with her parents, Goldman finds comfort in reliving those 10 days lost in the snow, those 10 days that began Dec. 23, 1987.

"I relive it every Christmas," Goldman said. "I still talk to my parents every day. It's the only way I can get through it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°