Mark Sweatman never considered walking from Atlanta to Birmingham, Ala., when he had two good legs.
Making the trip on one leg? To Sweatman, that sounds like a good idea.
After surviving amputation — and the high cost of prosthetic limbs — Sweatman decided to hit the road to help other amputees.
“I wanted to do a 5K,” said Sweatman, a pony-tailed 41-year-old, whose left leg was amputated below the knee in 2010. “I wanted to be in control of my circumstances. … Then I was out walking, and I heard a call from God. He said I could do better than that.”
Next month Sweatman sets out on a hike of 150-plus miles to test himself and to bring attention to the Limbs for Life Foundation, a group that provides low-cost prosthetics to amputees all over the country.
For this former country boy, it has been a long, strange hike.
Sweatman grew up between Alpharetta and Cumming, riding ATVs between his grandparents’ farms. After earning a master’s in business administration at Mercer University, he was pursuing a doctorate in sociology at Georgia State University when things began to go downhill.
In 2008 he stepped off a curb and broke his left foot. That injury required a cast, but when the cast came off, he developed a crippling and mysterious neurological illness called reflex sympathetic disorder. It caused intense pain in his foot, which he lived with for a year and a half, trying one form of pain relief after another, including spinal blocks and medications.
His condition continued to worsen, and doctors warned that the pain could travel all the way up the leg. Their last resort: amputation.
Sweatman reluctantly bid goodbye to his leg. It was the first of several traumas. He also lost his job, his savings and his partner. His pursuit of a doctorate stalled. His parents rejected him after he revealed he was gay. He contemplated suicide — going so far as to buy an “exit bag” and a tank of helium in a plan to do himself in.
But Sweatman was interrupted by his ex, who committed him, involuntarily, for psychological evaluation.
Though he continued to despair, Sweatman experienced a turning point after reading this quote from Bruce Lee: “Don’t pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a hard one.”
Eventually he saw his troubles in a new light. He was alive. He had one good leg and another pretty good leg made out of carbon fiber. He had a chance to finish his doctorate, which would significantly improve his earnings. He had a handsome little caramel-colored Shih Tzu named Diamond who depended on him. And he could talk to other amputees about resisting the desire to give up.
“It is a blessing to be able to go to people and help them, and tell them everything is going to be all right, it’s going to be rough but it’s going to be OK,” he said at his Midtown apartment. “That’s what I mean when I say ‘embrace your adversities.’ “
First he capitalized on his fear of failure to spur himself to complete his dissertation. Then he worked furiously to land a new job at a financial institution in Charlotte, N.C. Now he teaches sociology at Georgia Gwinnett College and analyzes clinical research data for the Shepherd Spinal Center. He also wrote a memoir of his experiences: “Amputated Yet Whole: How Adversity Made Me Complete.”
The average prosthetic limb for a below-the-knee amputation costs $10,000 to $25,000, said Josh DeLozier of the Oklahoma City-based Limbs for Life. Like shoes, prosthetics wear out. Children outgrow them quickly as their bodies change. “Most insurers only provide one to an individual over the course of their whole life,” DeLozier said.
There are 2 million Americans with limb loss, DeLozier said. His nonprofit acquires the components for artificial legs and sends them to clinics, which can assemble them at a cost of about $2,500. His group has a waiting list of 250 people.
“Mark approached us with this,” DeLozier said. “It was a great opportunity for us to not only spread our mission, but to help us raise awareness about limb loss.”
Sweatman’s longtime friend Angela Baldwin is going to make the hike with him.
Baldwin, 41, spoke about the hike just days before setting off on the Susan G. Komen 3-Day cancer walk, and said Sweatman’s mission is also an important one. “If we can get the awareness out there this year, and raise enough money to pay for one person,” she said, “then we’ve changed somebody’s life.”
The project team — which will include other volunteer walkers from time to time — will cover about 12-15 miles each day, hiking on the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails.
Sweatman’s gait, with the assistance of his vacuum-powered metal-and-carbon fiber leg, is remarkably natural. When he wears a business suit, “many people don’t have a clue that I’m an amputee,” he said.
But this will be the longest distance he’s yet attempted.
Baldwin’s prediction? “He probably will walk me under the table. He’s pretty determined.”