Surfing, skateboarding, and hanging with friends, Cameron Clapp epitomized the "California teen" until one night when his life changed in an instant. At 15, a train struck Cameron. He lost both legs and his right arm.
Walking through the Amputee Coalition National Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2011, Cameron Clapp, 26, hears hoots and shouts from a knot of teenagers across the room. He’s late for an appointment, but he reverses his path to make his way over. Fist bumps are exchanged all around as the young men and women share bits of news. Then Clapp’s off again.
"It's all about one human being sharing positive energy with another. I thrive on it wherever I can find it," he says. These days Clapp, who is missing both legs above-knee and his arm above-elbow, spends much of his time reaching out to young people, including new amputees and injured soldiers at military hospitals.
He is well suited to the task. He is enormously athletic, with a sense of balance honed by plying the waves of the ocean in his hometown of Pismo Beach, California. He projects a calm groundedness to those who meet him, even for a short time.
"There is a joy that follows Cameron," says Hanger Vice President of Prosthetics Kevin Carroll, CP, FAAOP. "What Cameron has done for humanity since he lost his limbs is off the charts." At least once a month through the year, Clapp and Carroll travel together to various Hanger Clinic locations to meet with recent amputees. "In reality," says Clapp, "if this didn’t happen I would not be the person I am today. Whatever hardships have come into my life, I’m honestly a happy person. I try to portray that in my attitude and personality."
The young surfer’s life changed dramatically a few nights following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The then 15-year-old and his twin brother were moved by the national tragedy and, as the night wore on, they were drinking heavily. I wandered over to some railroad tracks near their house and passed out. "I remember looking at a 9/11 memorial, then—boom—I woke up three days later with my limbs missing," he says.
Impossible is an Opinion not a Fact
After his recovery, Clapp first stuck to a wheelchair and didn’t have much luck with prostheses. There weren’t many bilateral amputees like him walking. Then, at a Hanger Education Fair, a team including Carroll emphasized a program of intermediate tasks to help him learn to walk. Clapp got around with a pair of shortened prostheses, called "stubbies," then graduated to hydraulic knees and eventually to microcontroller-powered Otto Bock C-Legs. “It was a little tough love from these guys at first: If you want to walk, you need to walk,” he says.
"The team’s got the protocol down." As Clapp bounced back physically from his accident, he also participated in a recovery program from alcohol. And his outreach to young people now includes work as a guest speaker in schools across the country, counseling teenagers on choices they make involving drugs and alcohol. "If I help someone who has a problem with alcohol or addiction," he says, "or if I can help someone who’s having trouble accepting being an amputee—well, it gives something back to me. It becomes part of who I am."
His advice to new patients: "Surround yourself with good people… good doctors, therapists, family and friends. Set reachable goals, work hard and maintain a good attitude."
Now 23, Cameron epitomizes the ultimate California dude. His tousled blonde hair and easy conversation engages people of all ages. He willingly talks about his accident and using prosthetics. As an ACA Certified Peer Visitor he spends time mentoring other amputees and helping to show them what is possible in their lives. "It’s all about attitude," says Cameron. “Be determined and ambitious; you have to want to do something about your situation. Accept that your body is different. The sooner you accept your new body image, the sooner you will move on with your life."
Cameron believes that staying active is critical to a successful outcome; a belief he whole-heartedly pursues. From running to swimming to cooking, Cameron’s activities are numerous and diverse. He’s even added acting to the list of things he enjoys. To date he has appeared in the HBO series "Carnivale" and the NBC comedy "My Name is Earl" and later this year he’ll have a major role in the motion picture Stop Loss.
"Many of the activities that I love to do would not be possible without prosthetics," notes Cameron. "Prosthetics enable a person to pursue the things that make their life richer."
Cameron has been invited to demonstrate his skills to wounded service members that have lost limbs in the recent conflicts in Iraq and
Afghanistan, Cameron Clapp in wetsuit“ Helping the soldiers is one of my most fulfilling things I have gotten to do. It’s tough for them, coming home from the war without an arm or leg, or both. I talk to them and show them that life is not over. I want them to see me and know that they can have a very productive, fulfilling life, too.”
Each summer Cameron attends Camp No Limits, a camp for children struggling with limb loss. He physically demonstrates what is possible. He gives them hope. “This camp helps these kids learn how to use prosthetics properly. It helps build character and confidence,” says Cameron. “The spirit, enthusiasm and determination of these kids is phenomenal. They help me just as much as I help them. It’s a privilege to be in their presence.”
Cameron’s achievements have not gone unnoticed. In 2005 he was nominated and honored with the prestigious Shining Star award, an award that recognizes the achievements of an outstanding person with a disability. Other notable recipients of the award include Christopher Reeve and Ray Charles.
Cameron currently lives in California. As if he’s not busy enough, he wants to learn to kayak, go back to college, continue with motivational speaking and acting, and eventually become a prosthetist, or maybe a foreign diplomat.
For more information about Cameron you can visit his website at cameronclapplive.com.