I used to see Lexie Bader in the climbing gym every week, training with the Advanced Youth Team at Movement.
Tall, lean and muscular, Bader seemed exceptionally motivated, especially in her later years when she would often climb with a heavy-looking boot on her left leg. Beneath our light-hearted conversations at the gym, she was quietly suffering horrible, chronic pain since “the accident” in 2013.
A sophomore at Boulder High School, Bader was snowboarding at Eldora when she sped out of control and headed straight for a tree. She screamed, but couldn’t swerve out of the way. She smashed into the tree, breaking her helmet and shattering her left ankle. “There was blood everywhere,” she told me. “I thought I was paralyzed.”
A few days later, 7 screws and some pins held her ankle together. Only, her foot never healed.
She endured more surgeries, all of which involved lasting, excruciating nerve pain. “When I would snowboard or climb I would feel like my foot was getting run over by a car,” she said. “It was just so painful.”
A rare nerve disorder, called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS, had developed and worsened, magnifying her pain. After years of limitation and agony, Bader’s best option was amputation.
“I was already bed-bound, so I would rather take the chance to potentially live a better life than to just give up,” she said.
On June 24, 2019, Bader underwent a new type of surgery in Boston called the “Ewing Amputation,” invented by Hugh Herr, an MIT professor and world-famous climber. Herr lost both of his lower legs to frostbite in 1982, at 17 years old, yet went on to climb harder than ever, even with the basic prosthetics of the day.
Since then, Herr has devoted his career to improving amputations and prosthetics, and by 2018 he and his team at MIT had developed what he described in his TED talk that year as, “a brain-controlled leg with full position and movement sensations.”
The special procedure allows amputees to sense the position, speed and torque of their prosthetic — called proprioception — the same way people feel their natural limbs.
While Bader lived in Boston post-surgery, Herr helped her navigate amputee life.
“He’s now like my second dad,” she said. “I’m really close with him.”
Sadly, CRPS can spread, and it soon infected her right leg. Having re-learned how to walk and climb with her prosthetic, she was thrust back into her nightmare of pain.
“It looked like my bedside was a pharmacy,” she explained, with pain meds and sleeping meds lined up. “I hated taking them.”
But the pain was worse than ever. She couldn’t fathom more surgeries that offered only temporary relief. She thought, “I’m young now. I want to move on with my life.”
So on Jan. 19, she had the same below-the-knee amputation surgery on her right leg. Since then, she’s been using a wheelchair.
“Right now I just need to focus on being able to walk again,” said Bader, who, despite some major lows, tends to maintain a positive outlook. “I want to train again for a bikini competition,” she said. “That’s what I was training for before I lost my recent leg.”
While the competition will be a first for her, she’s well accustomed to being center stage: Bader has been a runway model since she was 15, and she plans to be back on that runway soon.
“She was always one to just go for it,” said Jimmie Redo, head coach of her climbing team and longtime friend. “If you challenged her, she accepted that challenge and took it on, full steam ahead. That’s how she’s doing this.”
“People think that now that I don’t have legs — even when I lost one leg, they’re like, ‘Are you able to swim, cliff jump, raft, climb, run?’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Why wouldn’t I?’ It just takes a lot more effort,” she said. “It’s fun to change people’s thoughts about disabilities.”
Seven months after her first amputation she did just that — she went snowboarding.
This time around, in August, she intends to go surfing.
“I wasn’t disabled before,” she said, “and I’m still not disabled, in my mind.”
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter@cweidner8.
How to help
Lexie created a GoFundMe page where she’s raised more than $15,000 of her $40,000 goal for sport-specific prosthetics (not covered by insurance). You can read more of her story in her own words as well as donate to her cause by visiting gofundme.com/f/double-amputee-longs-to-run-again.