When the chainsaw bit into his leg and worked its way through the bone, resident James Button wasn’t thinking about his affinity for marathon running.
He was thinking about whether or not he would walk again. Now, four months later, Button returns to racing in the St. Patty’s Day 5k in Morris Township on Saturday, March 10.
On Nov. 10, 2011, four days after running the New York City Marathon, Button was working with a chainsaw in his backyard cutting up trees and limbs brought down by the Halloween snow storm when the accident occurred.
“I was on top of a ladder in a tree. After cutting through a broken limb, the heavy limb fell towards me, knocking my chain saw onto the outside of my leg, just below my knee,” Button said. “Still turning, the chain saw ripped open my leg, cut into my bone and severed my peroneal nerve.”
Button’s 18-year-old son Kevin ran into the house to call 911.
“I knew immediately that it was serious because I couldn’t move my left foot,” Button said. “I hopped down the ladder on my right foot before sprawling out on the ground.”
Button’s 16-year-old son Sam used his Boy Scout training to administer first aid. “He stripped off his sweatpants and tied them tightly above the wound to stop the bleeding.” Button said.
The extent of the injury wasn’t revealed until after a four hour operation that night in Morristown Medical Center. Plastic trauma surgeon Joseph Fodero irrigated the wound, sewed the nerve back together under a microscope, and repaired muscles.
“After surgery the doctors told me I had severed my peroneal nerve, paralyzing the muscles used to flex my foot and lift my toes,” Button said.
During a second operation four days later, Dr. Fodero transplanted a skin graft from Button’s thigh to cover the wound. A runner for most of his life, the prognosis was tough for Button to take. “My reaction was one of sadness and anger at my careless stupidity,” Button said.
Before the accident Button was an accomplished runner, placing third in the 50-54 age group in the 2010 USA Track & Field New Jersey Long Distance Running Grand Prix, completing in the 2011 Boston and New York City marathons in 3:15. But the injury had left him with a condition called “foot drop” which was an obstacle that could have prevented the 27-year Mendham resident from returning to the sport he loved. But learning to love running took years.
“In high school and college I hated running because I only ran to lose weight for wrestling. I only ran while thirsty, hungry and overheated from wearing layers,” Button said. “Years later when I tried running in just shorts and a t-shirt while fully hydrated, I discovered it to be surprisingly pleasant.”
During his forced period of convalescence, Button was buoyed by the support of his loved ones. “I have been married for 31 years, my wife and I have six children, ages 16-27 and they all visited me during the week I was in the hospital and provided tremendous support after my accident,” Button said. “As did my parents, sister, running club teammates and other friends.”
It was due to that support that Button was able to throw himself into recovery and rehabilitation. “I am recovering with stretching and exercises provided by physical therapist Janice Morra, a very accomplished runner, with DMC Rehab in Morristown,” Button said. “I am also regaining cardio-vascular fitness on machines at the Somerset Hills YMCA and by running.”
Running with Foot Drop would have been nearly impossible without the special orthodic device called a Toe-Off Brace made by Allard USA. But the solution causes its own share of challenges.
“Wearing an ankle/foot orthotic, I’m running much slower,” Button said. “The adjustment to my stride and compensation for my injury has caused strain on my other leg resulting in an inflamed medial collateral ligament and a sprained hamstring muscle.
But with time, Button is hoping to regain more motor function. “My recovery is not finished. The peroneal nerve regenerates very slowly,” Button said. “Its axons grow at the rate of a millimeter per day or about an inch per month. To grow from my knee to my foot would take about a year.”
Button will race in the St. Patty’s Day 5K with fellow Allard USA Team member Beth Deloria who is flying in from North Carolina to support him. Deloria wears the Toe Off Brace as a result of nerve damage from a severe spinal injury sustained in 2004. Beth has committed to running 20 half marathons in 2012 and Button will compete at the Boston marathon this April just five months after sustaining his life threatening injury.
“The Boston Marathon is virtually a 26-mile block party,” Button said. “Its the best way to see a city.”
Both Button and Deloria hope that their efforts will inspire others who have neuromuscular disorders to continue to fight back and reclaim their lives.
“What matters is how you play the cards you’ve been dealt, not which ones they are,” Button said. “Everyone gets knocked down in life. What matters most is getting back up.”