Veterans Day Spotlight: Patrick Ward
Team JL Ambassador, Patrick Ward is a disabled United States Navy Veteran, injured while on Active Duty. He underwent 52 surgeries and the amputation of his right leg above the knee racking up a total of more than 2 years in the hospital. He has trained at the Miami Beach Rowing Club for the last 5 years, and currently holds Men’s PR2 World Records in the following: 1000, 2000, 5000, 6000, 10,000, one-hour set time (12765), and 21,097 meters.
In honor of Veterans Day 2022, we sat down with Pat to learn more about his journey from his high school dreams of being a rower, to becoming a PR2 athlete. Read below to learn more about his story, in a first-hand account by Pat.
All my life I wanted to be a rower, but life kept getting the way. From my junior year in high school up until the day I became a doctor in the Navy, school and work were my life. In high school, on the few days I didn’t have to work you’d find me sitting on the banks of Cherry Creek Reservoir, just outside Denver, watching college and high school crew teams practice. While doing my undergraduate at St. Louis University during fall semester I’d get a ride out to West County where crew teams from across Missouri came to compete.
While stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, I discovered a deserted service road that ran high above Rock Creek Parkway, overlooking the Potomac River where Georgetown University’s and Washington University’s crew teams practiced. Not only did I have a bird’s eye view, but the river’s stone walls and basin amplified sounds bouncing off the water. I could both see the rowers and hear the coaches barking out instructions to the rowers. With duty stations like US Naval Academy Annapolis, Navy Base New Port Road Island, Monterey, and San Diego California, my dreams of rowing increased and my chances of ever being a rower deceased.
While serving on Active Duty I was severely injured. In the blink of an eye, I lost everything I’d worked for my life. I lost my health, my wealth, and my future. It’s impossible to dream when you’re barely holding on. I was never going to be a rower.
You wake up one day and find that the life that you had, is no longer the life that you have. I loved my work and by all accounts I was extremely good at what I did. You see I was doing exactly what I’d always wanted to do with my life, and I was doing it with the people I wanted to be with. I was a Navy doctor, and I was happy.
Over the following days, weeks, months and even years after my injury it was surgery after surgery. Each trip to the Operating Room was deemed medically necessary, “Nothing to get alarmed about,” or so I was told. I’d been seen and treated at some of the finest medical centers in this country, but I wasn’t getting better.
As I was being wheeled into another OR for the 40th time I asked God, no I told God, to let me go. Lucky #40 would be the most brutal and barbaric of all the prior surgeries put together in my eyes no better time than to call it a day. In my eyes #40 would be the last one. I stopped counting, I stopped asking and I stopped caring. I no longer recognized myself but worse than that I saw what all this was doing to the people I love. The strain and the pressure, the late nights at my bed side, as well as all nights. Many were beaten down and exhausted all thanks to me.
There are no words I can find that could give even a peak into the darkness and pain I woke up to after the amputation. Nothing could have prepared me for what was coming. The most horrific part of the amputation is finding out that it is two separate surgical procedures done a week to ten days apart. The pain was so incomprehensible I couldn’t speak, or yell. I’d sit up in bed constantly rocking my body back and forth for hours, both hands clamped firmly over my mouth, and non-stop tears going down my cheeks. There were lots of times when crying was unstoppable and so was yelling, begging for mercy, and screaming for help. I was afforded all the best pain medicines in the world, sometimes none of them helped.
After 52 surgeries and the amputation of my right leg I no longer cared if there was a tomorrow. The more time that passed from when I was in the military doing good, the harder it was for me to believe that I was good. Rafael Hernandez, my physical therapist at MiamiVA told me about VA National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic (WSC.) He said that if I would trust him that he had faith that WSC and some lady named Teresa Parks could help me. He was reaching for straws, his bag of tricks on how to help was now empty and and I’d given up. Rafael saw something in me worth saving even when I didn’t. Still I was skeptical. Not just because faith and trust were two things I no longer had, but also because the whole thing sounded like a bad storyline to a bad movie. Under the promise of help a guy agrees to get shipped off to a clinic far off up in the mountains never to be seen or heard from again. I went anyway.
I could write a book about all the ways WSC has helped me, maybe one day I will. It got me to turn off the TV, get up off the couch and get out of the house. WSC’s a library of practical information and useful tools, it’s a master class on living better as a disabled Veteran. I met Teresa Parks, Director WSC, and Rafael’s co-conspirator. Like a conductor of a large symphony she focused on the big picture, and mindful of the smallest details. To her, disabled is a word and a challenge, while Veteran is always a hero. Someone at Miami VA told Teresa of my longstanding unfulfilled dream to be a rower. If life didn't give this guy his dream, maybe his dream could give him back his life. “Let’s find him his chance to be a rower.”
It was the last day of WSC and it was cold and snowing. I was asked to speak to the general assembly and I accepted without hesitation. My message was simple: “never give up.” Disabled Veterans, by definition, have seen some of humanity’s darkest moments, sometimes the passage of time intensified the experience. Some of our country's darkest nights have been followed by some of our brightest days. As I spoke the words trust and faith it occurred to I once again had both. The injuries that disabled these Veterans disabled their future. “You fought to save other people’s lives, now I’m asking you to fight to save your own.” Deep within each of us is purpose and with it is joy.
Rowing gave me purpose, and purpose is where I found hope. It’s impossible to dream when you’re barely holding on. I knew that better than most. Never give up. “Everyone in this room was given a second chance at life. Many we know were not so lucky. You owe it to them and to yourself to make good use of the second chance you were given.” As soon as I finished my speech, I left to go for a walk. It was a humbling experience, and an honor to speak to this group. I wanted to savor the few remaining hours of WSC. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I was this happy. That’s when it happened.
I’d stopped to window shop at one of the stores along the plaza, when I looked up I couldn't believe what I saw in the reflection. It was someone I thought I’d never see again, he’d been gone forever. It felt like a lifetime had passed since I’d seen that face. For a long time after he left, I looked everywhere to find him, many good people tried to help me find him too. But in the end, I had to accept that he was gone forever, that he was never coming back. In a million years I’d never have guessed I’d find him here at WSC, but there he was. Realizing how much I had missed him and how happy I was to see that smile again, my eyes filled with tears. Sure, he was older and he had changed physically quite a bit, but I still would have known him anywhere. The guy I saw, the guy I ran into that day.. was me. The me I used to be, the me I used to like being. It had been a long time.
I died after that first amputation, or a good part of me did. Even writing this, brings tears rolling down my face. I got my second chance at life, a lot of people don’t. My body has never let me down and it still hasn’t. If there is a time in your life that you can point to and say, “this is where my life took a sudden and dramatic turn south,” hopefully there is another for where it turned back around. For me Rowing was my U-Turn.
When I say “all my life I’d wanted to be a rower” it’s a statement of fact. I mean .. All My Life. Has it been everything I had hoped it would be? Yes, and 100x more. Sometimes we picture things in our minds and when they come around often it’s not as good as imagined. Rowing was like turning on the music… the sunshine. The first time I went out on the water .. I knew this is where I am supposed to be. This is where I will find and give the best of me. Being on the water has always been my safe place. I could walk on water if need be. When I am on the water, when I am doing what I love to do. time is turned back. It’s me, before the wounded, broken me. I am no longer disabled I’m like everybody else. Rowing speaks to every part of me. The athlete and the artist. I love the discipline.
Without a doubt, and I don’t want to sound star struck but, the greatest moment of my life - the most amazing life experience was competing at World Championships in Paris. And setting a new world record.
A couple from Germany introduced themselves. The man looked like a skyscraper towering over me. Only she spoke English. "My husband was telling me everyone here does same 2000 meters, except you guys do more," making a gesture toward my leg. I stood up to shake their hands. Rowers are good people, if they're laughing it's not at you. If they're cheering, there's a good chance it is for you. There's no bad guy, no us against them. We help each other and understand each other. A cross section of the entire rowing family was there; 2020 Paris World Rowing Indoor Championship made sure there was a place at the table for everyone. You couldn't help but feel proud.
Paris was an off the charts, professional, personal, emotional, and athletic explosion of wonderful. It was a memory I will hold the rest of my life. It was surreal. I deserved to be there; I had earned the opportunity. I wasn’t sure if I was worthy of it. When you’ve had your life taken from you and with it goes every shred of happiness you believe you will ever have is gone it’s hard to open up again and believe you can again be happy. Going to Paris was a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it was happening. My battle of worthy didn’t stop me from going... in fact Paris is where I won my Battle of Worthy.
This was all something that was never going to happen for a guy that was never going to be able to deliver.
My greatest compliment is when I so often hear “you are an inspiration”. What an honor that is to hear someone say that. I try every day to inspire people, I am being honest. Come on.. who could have ever pictured someone like me doing what I have done. I have no ego, that dissolved a long time ago. But I do have joy, happiness and I do have tomorrow. And as long as I have those, I will be out doing what I enjoy most in this world: rowing. I will continue to help grow the sport that saved my life. I will continue to work to make this sport available to all. When people see you doing something that you love, something that fills you with passion, they will follow.