Losing an arm would be a devastating experience for most people. For Tisa Cawthon, surgery a year ago to remove her left arm has brought her freedom she never imagined.
"I was in a car accident 17 years ago. So I had this sling on and didn't have any motivation to move forward. My arm was paralyzed, a brachial plexus injury," says the 33-year-old Medford woman.
She listened wistfully to the stories her friends told of running marathons. Cawthon's attempts at running were painful. Her paralyzed arm pulled down the entire left side of her body, causing knee pain and even whiplash.
Cawthon then began working with physical therapist Justin Carson of Jackson County Physical Therapy in Medford.
"We started with a stationary bike and walking on a treadmill. Then we added weight training for the whole body: weight lifting, therapy ball and core exercises. Jogging was still painful," Carson recalls.
Cawthon began to realize that her paralyzed arm not only weighed her down physically, it was a metaphor for all that was holding her back from living life fully. She considered amputation.
"I wasn't there before, I think, emotionally. I knew it was going to be different. The outward appearance is very shocking (to people); it's different now. I used to be asked all the time, 'What happened to your arm?' when it was in a sling," says Cawthon.
Making the decision to undergo such a major surgery proved difficult, even though she knew intellectually it was the right choice. Her solution? Set a series of athletic goals that would only be possible after the surgery.
The Pear Blossom 10-mile run in Medford last April was goal number one. A half-marathon in June was number two. After surgeries last November and January, she had only three months to prepare.
Her first attempts at running following the surgeries revealed how far she had to go. She couldn't even run a mile without walking. The first step was then to alternate walking and running, increasing the mileage and decreasing the walking time until she could run 10 miles. Step two was to head back to physical therapy.
"We did a treadmill video analysis of her running to look at her technique," says Carson. "I added squats, lunges, bridges and Thera-band for upper body. Also, therapy ball for core strengthening and free weights and stretching."
Tisa Cawthon finished both the 10-mile and the 13-mile races, and found she had a hunger for new experiences, especially those that had felt out of reach less than a year earlier.
Next on her list was a bike-run duathlon. She bought a Marin bicycle that was modified to meet her needs. One hand brake controls both the front and rear brakes — with an emphasis on the rear brake so she wouldn't sail over the handlebars after a sudden stop — and all the gear-shifting levers are within reach of her right thumb.
With her first duathlon now behind her, she's caught the multi-sport bug and is training for a triathlon. Swimming, however, has proven to be the most difficult of the three sports.
"I'm faster freestyle, but it's more tiring. So I usually do breaststroke, because it (the effort) is more 50-50, arms-legs," Cawthon says.
Each of these accomplishments is part of her new goal-oriented mindset, one that keeps her going. Her family was initially more scared than she was about her decision to undergo surgery, but they came around after they saw how it changed her outlook.
"By having their support with my decision, by having the goal, the physical goal, that was something that motivated me more and gave me more inner strength. I was doing stuff that other people — able-bodied people — are still not doing. So that gave me extra internal confidence. "» It was looking forward to something instead of dwelling on, not a loss, it was a change. This has been a very freeing year. I've gone crazy with freedom," Cawthon says.
To look at her today, it's hard to believe she hasn't always been this fit. Dressed in a hot-pink tank top and black stretch lycra bike pants, she glides along the Bear Creek bike path on a morning run. When she stops, her dark hair dances on her shoulders as she bubbles over with the details of her next goal — in this case, learning to drive NASCAR.
Her next big adventure is to renovate an RV and hit the road with her boyfriend and business partner, Lenny Marut, creating a truly mobile office. Their company name is "HWH," an abbreviation for "Health, Wealth, Happiness."
Cawthon is a fifth-generation Southern Oregonian, but moved to Houston, Texas, for 10 years to get trained as an interior designer. But a dislike of that climate, the fast pace of life — and cockroaches — convinced her to head home.
Cockroaches, in fact, gave her an idea for her business. Cawthon and Marut have designed and marketed three applications for the iPhone, including "Cockroach Crunch," a video game for relieving stress by squishing those ubiquitous bugs as they scamper across the tiny screen.
Looking back on the past year of her life, Cawthon is convinced she made the right decision, to take the road less traveled.
"I think that I could have gone down that road of 'Woe is me, woe is me,' and it would have been easy, but that's not who I am," says Cawthon. "I don't see that as a healthy way to live."