Craig Dietz, 38, has a drive like no other. The man has the longest list of goals and accomplishments that I've come across in a long time. The difference is that he was dealt a genetic mishap in the hand of life. He was born with stumps instead of limbs.
To be specific, he has two shoulder stubs of less than 6 inches each and a right leg stub approximately 12 inches long. Despite this disability-my word, not his-Dietz swims on a masters' team and competes in races that require hours of endurance and cover miles of open water.
"It's all about taking control of your life," Dietz shared. "Live your life, don't let your life live you. We all face challenges in our lives-whether they are physical, mental or emotional challenges. I'm no different."
According to Christy Appleby, his wife of two years, Dietz has an incredible, innate spirit to live his life to the fullest. "Make no mistake, much of who he is today was shaped by his family," Appleby clarified. "But he deserves credit, too."
Dietz and Appleby, who works in utility law for the Attorney General's Office in PA, first met at a young professionals' social event. Then she joined his volleyball team and the two starting dating a few years later.
The youngest of four children growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Dietz was held to the same standard as his siblings. "His parents treated him just like the other kids and expected him to do the same things they did," Appleby explained. "If he couldn't do something, then they helped him achieve it."
Passing the Test
Becoming a legal driver is arguably the single most important event in a teenager's life in the United States. With a driver's license, one's mobility and independence increase exponentially.
But for Dietz, a driver's license meant a new level of independence that many take for granted. "By my freshmen year in college, I felt the need for more independence," Dietz recalled. "I researched driving options and stumbled upon a clinic that had access to the equipment and adaptations I would need."
Dietz passed the Pennsylvania driving exam on his first try after working with Dan Basore, BS, MS, CDRS, director, MossRehab Driving School. Part of the Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, PA, MossRehab Driving School has been conducting behind-the-wheel evaluations and training for new drivers, seniors and people with disabilities since 1978.
"We performed an evaluation with Craig and his Dad and mapped out a plan," Basore recalled. "They returned for a week of training that included four hours of driving a day."
With six locations in NJ, DE and PA the staff of certified driver rehabilitation specialists and occupational therapists conduct 500 to 600 evaluations annually.
"Teenagers tend to be fearless so they get behind the wheel and go fast," said Basore. "Of course that's just what Craig did the first time he drove. He was a natural but I have no idea how because he had no experience and no sense of motion and momentum due to his disability."
A Man With a Plan
"Where there is a will, there is a way," said Teresa Bowie, MPT, who works as a physical therapist in home care and school settings in Maryland and is Dietz's oldest sister. "My brother has the will and his family and friends have always helped to provide the way."
Creative solutions were a big part of their childhood. Their father often adapted children's toys that helped Dietz participate in activities and his mother fostered his desire to be independent.
"You may not be able to change your circumstances, but you can change your decisions and your approach," Bowie explained. "He has taught me the value of working hard and making the best of the situation you are in."
According to Dietz, family is his biggest asset. "From the time I was young, my parents and siblings understood that I had some special needs and supported me the best way they could," he said.
Take swimming, for example. He's had a passion for the sport since he first tried it with his siblings at the age of 6. But it wasn't until he completed a one-mile swim in the Alleghany River in Pittsburgh, PA, four years ago that he emerged as a competitive swimmer.
This past June, he finished faster than 50 able-bodied swimmers in the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, a grueling 4.4-mile, open water race.
He's not just an athlete, he's intelligent and successful. Dietz graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh with a degree in political science. He subsequently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and passed the bar exam on his first attempt, without any special accommodations. After working as an Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Harrisburg and then for the City of Pittsburgh, he now focuses solely on his venture as a motivational speaker.
"I've heard people disabilities say that they want to inspire others, but I don't understand that intention sometimes," Dietz shared. "I live my life the way I do because I take pleasure in it and am proud of who I am. If the byproduct is that I help or motivate someone, then great."
Craig Dietz, in his third adapted van, worked with Dan Basore, BS, MS, CDRS, at the MossRehab Driving School in Philadelphia, PA, to obtain his driver's license at age 18.
Appleby admires her husband on many fronts. Perhaps more than anything, she loves his sense of humor and his perspective on life. She told ADVANCE that she is still adjusting to seeing him through other people's eyes. "He's just a regular guy who happens to be my husband," she explained.
Appleby remembers her husband's first motivational speaking appearance quite well, because of one particular audience member. "A 10-year-old boy named Sean in the audience had the same disability, except the limbs were a mirror image of Craig's," she explained.
After the speech, Dietz met Sean and his mother and OT. According to Appleby, the mother was doing everything for her son, which was hindering his independence. "It was amazing to see them recognize Craig's independence and all that he has accomplished," Appleby said. "His willingness to try new things and accept no limitations for himself is inspiring. Meeting Sean was one of the things that inspired Craig to continue doing motivational speaking."
When asked how he deals with all of the attention-both positive and negative-that he receives now, Dietz said he has learned to live with it. "There are always going to be naysayers," he explained, referring to some negative bloggers. "Some say I cheat because I use a flipper in swimming competitions, I just have to ignore that static. And I'm not swimming, I'm bobbing."
He does his best to ignore the negative feedback and move on with his life, knowing that the positive reactions to his story far outweigh the negative.
Therapy in Early Childhood
According to Dietz, the physical and occupational therapy he received as a young child provided him with a strong foundation that he has continued to build upon. "PT and OT were important in developing the mindset that I can be independent," he said. "Even though I did not follow their plan exactly, I learned to do things on my own."
One of the futile plans for Dietz in the early days included outfitting him with various prosthetic limbs. Bowie, the oldest of the siblings, recalls sitting in the offices of many prothestists, orthotists, OTs and PTs when Dietz was young. "He had his first prosthetic arm when he was 3 or 4 years old and he tried to use the arm to hold a pencil," Bowie recalled. "He learned pretty quickly that he couldn't do the same things with the prosthetics that he could without."
Bowie also recalls that Dietz had his trunk casted and then was attached to a platform that had 15" legs with duck-like feet. "The contraption was meant to help him 'walk,' and he was told to shift one side of his body forward at a time," Bowie explained. "He couldn't go fast and fell over repeatedly. It turns out that he never needed legs because he could get around better without them."
The exposure to the medical field as a child ultimately led Bowie to become a PT and she finds her background useful in her practice at times. "I don't like to discuss my personal life but sometimes I use his latest venture-whether it's swimming or bowling-as an example to motivate a patient."
Dietz credits an OT with introducing him to the dressing stick, a device he uses regularly to this day.
"I use it for just about everything," Dietz said. "It works for me so I've never tried anything more progressive. I keep one in every room for dressing, bathing, turning on light switches and driving my chair."
Dietz received his first electric wheelchair when he was 7 years old. He uses his chair mainly for community mobility and parks it at the door when he gets home; however, he does use it to add height when he is cooking.
Most recently, a PT prescribed a chair with a tilt function to relieve pressure on his back and bottom. "I didn't have skin breakdown issues until a few years ago-I spend a lot of time out of the chair so it's different than it is for a paraplegic. But I am essentially sitting whether I'm in my chair or not."
Driving Into the Distance
When Dietz participated in the driving program at MossRehab, he practiced on a joystick driving van in which all 360 degrees are active, similar to a power chair joystick. Basore had a prosthetist make a cup measured out to fit his 6-inch stump. "To drive, Craig put his right stump in the cup and leaned forward to brake and leaned to right to turn," Basore recalled.
The MossRehab van was equipped with a headrest that Dietz used to operate the dashboard computer, including functions such as high beams and temperature.
"We provide training if necessary," Basore explained. "Our program is performance based so we need to drive with the patients to truly evaluate their abilities." The hospital-supported program boasts three vans and four cars, and draws patients from across the state.
After the evaluation, Basore wrote a prescription with the amenities Dietz would need in the van. "The families are responsible financially and when the patient needs a lift, chair and adaptive equipment, it becomes an expensive prospect," he explained.
Dietz contacted the Office of Vocational Rehab (OVR), a third-party payer, to offset the costs of the adaptations. "We met to fine-tune the vehicle once it had been adapted to make sure it suited all of his needs," Basore shared.
"I remember Craig as a happy guy with a big smile," Basore said. "Even at 18, he enjoyed life and looked at everything with an open heart. When he passed the driving exam, he lit a cigar to celebrate and put it on his right shoulder. He would occasionally take a few puffs and put it back on his shoulder, and then go back to smiling."
Dietz is now on his third van and still has a long list of goals to tackle. In the short term, Dietz is looking to join a bowling league, return to the ski slopes this winter, train for the Alcatraz swim next summer and maybe catch the next new movie in theaters.
"I have never set out to inspire anyone, I'm just a guy who wanted to take a swim," he said.
For more information on Craig Dietz, visit his website craigdietzspeaks.com.
Rebecca Mayer Knutsen is senior regional editor for ADVANCE and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.