“You’re going to stumble, you’re going to fall, you just have to roll with it and keep going,”
Dale Donham has had his fair share of stumbles, but there hasn’t been a single one that’s kept him down.
When Dale was 5 months old he was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a disorder that causes tumors to form throughout the nervous system. Most neurofibromatosis patients have mild forms — skin tags and discoloration — but Dale’s case was a little different. By the time he was 6 years old he had been through six surgeries — by this time, Dale knew he would eventually lose his left foot, and had accepted his situation.
That time came when he was 22 years old, after approximately 14 neurofibromatosis-related surgeries. By this point, his disease had spread up his leg and to his hip, where he had a tumor the size of a tangerine.
“I really had time to mentally prepare,” Dale said. “It wasn’t like I woke up one day and didn’t have my leg — I knew what was coming and was able to kind of mentally get myself ready. I just kept telling myself that it could always be worse and to never give up. At the end of the day, it was either I lose this one piece of my body or I lose my life.”
Before his surgery, Dale had been a dispatcher with the Arkansas State Police Department (ASP) for five years, with his mind set on becoming a state trooper. However, he knew his amputation would make this goal more difficult to achieve.
Dale never lost sight, though, largely because of his support system of family and friends. ASP Director at that time, Colonel Tommy Goodwin, even visited Dale in the hospital after his surgery and promised he would try to get him on the road as a state trooper.
“You know, after my surgery I had to go to the Army-Navy Hospital in Hot Springs for physical rehab,” Dale said. “I saw people suffering from all kinds of diseases, most of which were incurable. I got to thinking — I could have it a lot worse. I sort of used that for motivation and told myself to never give up, and I didn’t.”
After 13 years of working for the Arkansas Highway Department, Dale was accepted to attend the Arkansas State Police Troop School, Class 95-A, to become a state trooper. Dale was the first amputee to ever complete this process, which he used for his motivation and drive to overcome challenges in the courses. Through various physical training exams and exercises, Dale was only exempt from staying in step with the other troopers. All other qualifications, including a seven-mile run, Dale completed to ASP standards.
Though Dale successfully completed his training, his prosthesis did make things a bit more difficult. Dale broke his prosthetics six times through troop school — most of which he had to have Snell fix after hours. Often Frank Snell, president of Snell Prosthetics & Orthotics, would stay late, or even come in on a Saturday, to make sure Dale was up and running.
“I would get there right after school at 5 p.m. and Snell would stay late to help me fix whatever was broken,” Dale said. “They were always there for me to make sure I was up and moving as soon as possible. Sometimes this meant quick, temporary fixes while my new prosthesis was being worked on.”
Despite these hardships, Dale was on the road as State Trooper Dale Donham in 1994, a title that he kept until retirement in 2011. Though there had been officers injured on duty who continued to work for the department, Dale was the first state trooper hired with a prosthesis.
Much like Dale’s success with his career, nothing stopped him from pursuing his hobbies and passions. Only one month after his surgery Dale was in the woods deer hunting with his family.
“We went hunting when I was on crutches and I fell into a hole,” Dale said. “But I just rolled with it. I broke my crutches, but they were aluminum so I just hit thim against a tree until they straightened out. It’s like having a flat tire. You change it and just keep on going.”
Dale is still an avid outdoorsman and now works at the Little Rock Bass Pro Shop in his retirement. Through all of the bumps in the road, Dale has continued his adventures — from scuba diving with a prosthetic leg made just for him to carrying a 25-pound tree stand with him to go hunting.
Though there have been trials, Dale always reminds himself, and us, to just “roll with it.”