Veteran overcomes combat injury to climb world’s tallest mountains

Photo courtesy Benjamin Breckheimer.
Photo courtesy Benjamin Breckheimer.
Photo courtesy Benjamin Breckheimer.
Photo courtesy Benjamin Breckheimer.

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A surgical technician at Carolinas Healthcare System is defying the odds and working to summit the seven tallest mountains in the world.

Benjamin Breckheimer is a surgical technician, but before that he served in the Army. On a morning patrol in 2009, Breckheimer was hit by an IED and nearly lost his right leg.

"September 13 started off as any other day," said Breckheimer. "I hit a pressure plate, which set off an IED underneath me. It crushed my legs and I was diagnosed with a concussion."

An emergency team evacuated Breckheimer to military hospitals in Afghanistan and Germany, where medical experts performed emergency surgeries. However, he'd need special limb salvage surgery to save his leg.

"Really, an amputation would have been a reasonable alternative to re-constructing his leg because it was so severely damaged," said Dr. Joseph Hsu, an Orthopedic Surgeon that specialized in limb lengthening and deformity correction trauma at Carolinas.

Dr. Hsu served as a surgeon in the Army and had met Breckheimer back in 2006.

"We ended up working shoulder-to-shoulder on some of the very seriously injured wounded warriors," said Doctor Hsu.

When Breckheimer was sent to San Antonio after his injury, Dr. Hsu began working to help him regain his ability to be active.

Not only did Dr. Hsu perform over a dozen surgeries on Breckheimer, but they also developed a unique rehab program that combines advanced functional bracing and intense physical therapy, along with ongoing peer support.

"We actually developed a brace there that actually stores energy and returns it to the limb," said Dr. Hsu. "I am pretty optimistic about people with pretty severe wounds, but I could never have predicted that one of the patients would go on to climb Mount Everest."

After years of rehab, Breckheimer is now climbing the tallest mountains in the world.

"After this happened my life did a complete 180. I thought, what a better way to show appreciation for the people that have helped me than by taking my two legs to the top," said Breckheimer.

Benjamin Breckheimer has already climbed Mounts Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, and Everest. He will climb Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina this coming December.

"I knew I could do it, it was just getting there," said Breckheimer. "Climbing is so physically tough for me that it attracts me to it even more. Now that I have reached the top of Everest, I feel like I can summit any mountain."

Currently, Carolinas HealthCare System is the only healthcare organization in the country offering the Return to Performance Pathway to a non-military population. Dr. Hsu brought the civilian version to Charlotte in 2013. The team is analyzing research data to ensure they are making the best improvements to the program. They are researching to ensure other programs like this can be developed elsewhere.

"A lot of the patients are civilian patients in Charlotte and they came here thinking that amputation was their only option for recovery and moving on with their life. But, we would get them into the pathway here," said Dr. Hsu.

The pathway combines advanced functional bracing and intense physical therapy, along with ongoing peer support. This is a program in which patients are fitted with a specially-designed passive dynamic ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) and undergo intensive physical rehabilitation. Peers mentor each other in the program and help coach one another as they move forward.

"My plan is to do the seven summits," said Breckheimer, "but there are few others I want to do after that."

Copyright 2017 WBTV. All rights reserved.