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The ROMP climb in 2018. Photo courtesy of the Range of Motion Project
Adventure

Colorado Adaptive Athletes Climb Cotopaxi Volcano for Disability Rights

A mountaineering mission led by Coloradans is raising funds to support individuals with amputation needs.

Paralympian Lacey Henderson was devastated when she wasn’t chosen to represent the United States in track and field at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games this summer. Henderson lives and trains in the Mile High City, where she had her leg amputated above the knee at age nine. The life-saving procedure was performed after a rare soft tissue tumor was identified in the joint. Fortunately, she grew up with excellent prosthetic care, enabling her to pursue a collegiate cheerleading scholarship at the University of Denver, as well as track and field after she graduated.

Instead of heading to the Paralympics, Henderson pivoted. With an updated passport, she committed to another international mission designed to give back to other amputees. This month, along with a team of other adaptive athletes, she will summit the 19,347-foot Cotopaxi Volcano in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. The crew joined forces on behalf of Global Climbing for ROMP, an initiative that aims to increase awareness for disability rights and raise funds for prosthetic care for people with amputations.

Henderson has never summited one of Colorado’s famous 14ers, let alone mountaineered, but she was motivated by her personal connection to the cause. “I’ve had a privileged experience that a lot of people don’t have the luxury to receive, and it’s transformed my life,” Henderson says. “If I didn’t have the resources made available to me, I wouldn’t have had this collegiate or professional path. The least we can do is help get appropriate care to those in need.”

ROMP, which stands for Range of Motion Project, was founded in 2005 by Denver prosthetist Eric Neufeld. He wanted to provide custom-made devices, like prosthetic limbs and orthopedic braces, along with clinical services to Coloradans who had an amputation. “Untreated amputation is an epidemic in the developing world and we know the solution: It’s a distribution issue,” Neufeld says. “The other driving factor that pushed us to found ROMP is that 80 percent of all amputees live in the developing world and only two percent have access to prosthetic services—and we were in a position to help.”

The majority of amputations that Neufeld treats are caused by complications from diabetes, which can lead to reduced blood flow, nerve damage, and foot ulcers. Orthopedic accidents, like car or machinery mishaps, are another common cause of amputations. Folks can qualify for ROMP support if they don’t have insurance or resources to cover prosthetic care, which includes a mix of U.S. citizens and immigrants, according to Neufeld. ROMP services are available statewide and patients typically connect through the Denver Health Foundation and Agile Orthopedics, a Colorado-based mobile prosthetic provider—which was also founded by Neufeld—that provides in-home and on-site visits.

Once ROMP connects with patients, comprehensive lifetime services are provided. “[Prosthetic care] is like a car: You need to do periodic maintenance and oil changes. You need different liners or parts, and bushings wear out. You lose or gain weight, or become more or less active. Equipment adjustments need to be made to accommodate,” Neufeld says.

ROMP also established two permanent locations in Ecuador and Guatemala, where infrastructure and a partner network exist. “A handful of organizations provide prosthetic care that is parachute style: They distribute gear once a year and then they’re gone. Prosthetics need a ton of follow-up and fine-tuning,” Neufeld says.

The Global Climbing for ROMP event has fundraised more than $500,000 since it first began in 2015 (the 2020 ascent was postponed due to the pandemic). This year’s climb will feature two summit teams, in accordance with COVID-19 travel restrictions: One already made a trek on September 30 and another will do so on October 7. In addition to Neufeld and Henderson, Colorado-based photographer Santino Martirano, ROMP director of development Lauren Panasewicz, and ROMP volunteer Yosh Eisbart will join the 26-member team. Currently, the athletes have raised nearly $112,000.

“Amputees remain disabled not because of a missing limb, but because of a missing prosthesis,” Neufeld says. “Health care, including prosthetic care, is a human right. Climbing Cotopaxi demonstrates empowerment through mobility with the ultimate goal of enabling those with disabilities to redefine their human potential.”

To support the Global Climbing for ROMP initiative visit give.rompglobal.org to learn more.

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