Double amputee gets back on feet, back with CHP

WEST SACRAMENTO -- A California Highway Patrol officer from Sonora who lost both legs in a traffic accident last year is returning to work on "bionic legs" after proving his fitness with tests such as running the 100-yard dash in 20 seconds.

"I probably still could outrun four or five guys in my office, even on these legs," officer Mike Remmel joked Wednesday after demonstrating his new prostheses at the CHP training academy in West Sacramento.

Remmel, 47, is the first double amputee to be cleared for field duty after passing the CHP's 14 difficult "critical tasks" test using what officers call his "bionic legs," CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said.

Besides sprinting the length of a football field, new cadets and veterans returning from injuries must run 550 meters in two minutes, climb a steep hill, drag a weight and complete several agility tests.

Remmel spent more than a year in rehabilitation and training before passing the last test and getting his doctor's clearance Aug. 10, exactly 19 months after he lost his legs. He quietly returned to work four days later. CHP brass recruited him to give a motivational talk to cadets Wednesday and invited the media.

Remmel was completing a traffic accident investigation just after dusk Jan. 10, 2006, alongside Highway 49 near his hometown of Sonora. A confused 80-year-old driver struck him at 45 mph, sending him flying 23 feet over a tow truck.

He lost his left leg above the knee, his right leg below the knee. Tow truck drivers used tourniquets to keep him alive until he could be flown by helicopter to a hospital.

Three days later, Remmel came out of sedation after a near-constant series of surgeries. Almost immediately, he began telling the CHP officers crowding around his bed that he would rejoin them on patrol one day.

"I'm setting my goal to return to the field, to field duty," Remmel recalls saying. "No one believed me then."

He learned to use a $40,000 computerized leg that can gauge his stride and react accordingly -- technology developed largely for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. A $10,000 carbon fiber leg fills the spit-and-polish black uniform shoe on his right leg.

To pass the CHP's running tests, Remmel used a $30,000 pair of lighter, springier metal legs. He's run 100 yards in 17.2 seconds -- 18.6 seconds when he's wearing his bulletproof vest and gun belt.

"When I first started doing this, I was falling every 10 yards or so," Remmel said. Now, he is so fast that he is considering competing in sports events for athletes with disabilities.

Remmel is 2 inches shorter than his original 6 feet.

Though he asked his prosthetists to make him an inch taller, they opted instead for a lower center of gravity.

Using his computerized legs, Remmel played golf again for the first time Monday -- and shot a better score than before the accident. In June, he kayaked five miles up a lake, then hiked the last mile to one of the prime Sierra fishing lakes where he and his buddies used to backpack before he lost his legs.

"I needed my old life to come back as much as possible," Remmel said of his internal motivation. "I needed to know that nothing 'ended' -- and so far it hasn't."

'What's a leg worth?'

With 20 years in the CHP, Remmel could have retired on disability. But he said his experiences as an officer helped drive his determination to put on the uniform again.

"I've watched people's lives change in a moment through no fault of their own," Remmel said. "It was just my turn."

Remmel never sued the driver who hit him, although she was cited and lost her license.

"Money's fine. But I needed to feel like I was doing something with what I had after the accident," Remmel said. To sue, "you'd have to ask what's a leg worth? And I couldn't come up with an answer."

On the Net: www.chp.ca.gov.