A Towaoc firefighter who recently lost his leg is making a comeback to return to duty and help injured veterans find work in emergency services.
When Jeff Bryan went skiing in the back bowls of Breckenridge one day in 1991, he could have never guessed the impact it would have on the rest of his life.
A competitive ski racer and adventurous outdoorsman, Bryan found himself bombing down a familiar slope, jumping off kickers near a ski lift when his boot clipped a pole.
“I was going 50 mph, so it hit hard, and was the beginning of decades of medical problems,” he said.
A broken ankle never healed properly, and a prosthetic ankle was installed. He then developed small bone fractures in his lower leg that led to constant pain while on his feet.
“I would wince with sharp pain every time I put that foot down,” he said.
In January, during a checkup in Aspen, several specialists recommended Bryan receive a below-the-knee amputation on his right leg.
“There was no choice; it was at the point it could no longer be repaired, and I was living a life of constant pain,” he said.
In April, he had an Ertl amputation, which involves fusing bones and pulling muscle and tissue around the stump to help cushion the leg for a prosthetic.
Bryan is a lieutenant with the Ute Mountain Ute fire department. He handles personnel training and directs and fights fires on the front lines.
He’s learning to walk using a basic prosthetic leg that has a flexible ankle and foot fashioned with a regular tennis shoe.
“I plan to get back to doing everything I used to do, including fighting fires, hiking, skiing, and rock climbing,” he said. “As part of my therapy, I have already been going out on the lake with my paddle board.”
For climbing, he’s creating a custom prosthetic foot fashioned with wedge-shaped blocks of wood layered with rubber soles.
“My recovery is going well. I feel like something toxic has been removed, so that’s a relief,” Bryan said. “I do have some phantom leg symptoms. My mind is telling me that my socks are bunched up against a foot I do not have anymore.”
He plans to handle his disability with a positive attitude and a determination to recover and return to work.
“I’ll be one of two firefighters in the state who have returned to duty after an amputation,” Bryan said. “I want people with similar injuries to know it is not the end of your life. With technology, they can still do the work.”
The fit 51-year-old easily strides in his prosthetic leg. A slight limp “is in my mind actually, not because of the prosthetic. I just got so used to limping, that I’m doing it even though there is no reason to.”
He shows off the leg to a curious teen, taking it apart, and explaining the mechanics. A life lesson is part of the conversation.
“You have to be tough and know injuries like this can be overcome. I’m not letting it stop me. You can still live a good life,” he says.
As his muscles atrophy, Bryan has to constantly adjust the fit of the leg so it stays snug and doesn’t knock, causing imbalance.
“There are so many prosthetics out there, with carbon fiber, computers bionics, and battery packs that assist in walking,” he says. “But I figure I’ll keep it more simple with a basic model so there is less that can break down.”
His experience has inspired a goal to help veterans with amputations get work in the firefighting industry.
“I want them to know that even with their injuries, they can adjust and continue their mission of working with a team to help people,” he said.
Bryan is especially thankful for the support he has received from the Ute Mountain Ute fire department. His employment health insurance covered the surgeries and follow-up care. His co-workers and peers have chipped in to help with out-of-pocket bills.
“They all donated sick days, and are waiting for my return, which is going to be as soon as possible,” he said. “Their support has been amazing, and has given me confidence to work hard toward a full recovery. I’m well on my way, but it will take some time.”