The War Amps PLAYSAFE Program was launched in 1978 as a way to make children more aware of the dangers around them every day. Members of the Child Amputee (CHAMP) Program—many of whom have lost limbs in accidents—speak to schools and community groups across the country and appear in videos and public service announcements. These Safety Ambassadors warn other children to look out for dangers before they play, whether they’re in their own backyard, on neighbourhood streets, or near railway crossings or property.
Rob Larman is the director of The War Amps PLAYSAFE/DRIVESAFE Program. He became involved with the organization 35 years ago for very personal reasons: when he was just 14, he lost his leg in a rail incident. Here, he recounts his story for Operation Lifesaver.
You know the risks—and consequences—of unsafe behaviour around trains all too well. Can you tell me about what happened to you 40 years ago?
It was November 21, 1978 and my friends dared me to hop on a slow-moving freight train. I didn't want to back down from a dare, so I ran up beside the train and hopped on. But as it started picking up speed, I became concerned about how to get off, so I jumped. My feet hit the ground, but I lost my balance and leaned back in toward the train. It struck my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. I rolled underneath the train and it dragged me until it cut my leg off below the knee.
They had to re-amputate my leg above the knee because of the damage. I recovered from that, but spent about three months in the hospital. I returned home, integrated back into school and then went for the fitting of my artificial leg approximately five or six months after my accident.
That's a long time ago, but I'm sure it's not something you ever forget. What kind of effect did it have on you personally?
Well, you know there are a series of emotions that you go through when you experience such a traumatic ordeal, especially at the challenging age of 14. For me, at 14, I thought it was the end of the world. I didn't know how I was going to recover from something that I thought would negatively affect my ability to play sports, or date. I didn't know how I was going to cope with all that. But I was taken under the wings of our war amputee veteran members, and I soon realized that it wasn't the end of the world and there was an enormous amount of support there for me. It took me a good two years to finally come to the conclusion that, "OK, you're going to be alright."
I became directly involved in this organization and learned to overcome my amputation. I was able to take the advice I had been given and turn it around and use it to help other young children and families who are raising a child with an artificial limb.
How do you think your own experience helps you to support children who are dealing with losing a limb?
Compassion, I think is the best way to describe it. The biggest difference is the compassion that you have and the understanding of what someone is going through or the struggle that they're facing—from being "normal" to living life as an amputee. But disabled doesn't mean unable. It means we have to do things a different way. It can be difficult to deal with. But it's really about having the compassion to listen to other individuals who are going through the same struggles and say: "Yeah, I know, and it's okay to feel that way and it's okay if you're angry today." Because once we get rid of that anger and go through the different levels of grief and frustration, tomorrow is always going to be a brighter day.
So, you let them see that tomorrow will be a brighter day, but the other thing your organization does is to try to prevent accidents from happening in the first place. If you could talk to any child or young person who is thinking about jumping on a freight train because someone dared them, what would you say to them?
I think what I would say to a young person is: “When you take chances—hopping on a train, using tracks as a shortcut or walking around lowered crossing gates—you increase the odds of something happening to you. If you think about safety each and every day and make really good choices, the odds of something happening to you become less.”
And I think it's very important to be able to share a story about safety and then show them the price you can pay when you take chances. It’s about really, really drilling home to young children that you only get one time around with the limbs that you have. You want to protect them. You don't want to take shortcuts. You don't want to take chances.