“Anyone that knows me knows that I like a good challenge,” she said. “And that’s what this was for me, a challenge. I had a goal – I was going to walk down the aisle and marry Jim.”
Dena Peckham has always proven successful when thrown a challenge — from becoming a nationally known artist, to walking down the aisle a year after amputation, she has never let a bump in the road defeat her.
Dena grew up with two passions: automobiles and art. Dena broke the mold with her career as a sculptor. She skipped the “starving artist” phase and immediately began her successful career with the U.S. military after graduating with a fine arts degree from the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas.
With artwork around the nation, Dena has sculpted pieces for the military since the beginning of her career, some of which have even ended up in official offices.
Her passion for cars, however, has a bit of deeper connection, as it was something shared between her and her now-husband Jim, and is what brought the two together. Though Dena always loved the style and shape of cars and studied them since she was in elementary school, the passion took off when she met Jim. The two met at a local car club, and it was love at first sight for Dena.
“He says I stalked him, but I didn’t,” Dena said. “I just loved his voice and I just wanted to be around him.”
It didn’t take long for sparks to fly between the two and they’ve been together ever since. Now, Jim is the mechanical mastermind of the two, and Dena is his creative sidekick. However, this shared passion between the two turned for the worse one nearly-fatal day.
On July 26, 2015 Dena’s life changed forever. She went out for a test drive of a red 1957 Jaguar that she and Jim had worked on together. After the car started having a few overheating problems, they pulled over to check it out.
That’s when it happened. Before Dena knew what was happening, she was on the ground with the smell of asphalt and burnt rubber surrounding her.
Dena and her brother-in-law had been following Jim in a 2014 Denali GMC, who was driving the Jaguar. When Jim pulled over, they followed to help look at the car. Suddenly, a Ford Bronco traveling down the interstate at 70 miles per hour started drifting off the road. The driver hit Dena’s truck, which in turn hit her.
When Dena came to, her head was barely a foot from the back tire. She had fallen and was hit by her own truck, but fortunately it had come to a stop just before hitting her head. However, one of her legs had been completely run over and her body covered in road burn, but she didn’t realize that until she tried to move. From that moment, she was in and out of consciousness during the helicopter flight to the hospital.
The next month was a blur because the doctors had put her in an induced coma while they tried to remove gravel from her leg, which took approximately 30 surgeries. It wasn’t until a month later that Dena was awoken to make a crucial decision. Dena was told that doctors were unsure of her knee’s condition, and that they could try to remove muscle from her good leg to transplant over, but it was a hefty risk with a lot of pain. She was given the choice to amputate her leg or try to recover using her other leg’s muscle. If the legs were to become infected, she could end up losing both.
“So I just thought to myself: ‘You know, you can do this. You’d rather have one good leg, than no legs at all,’” she said.
And with that, Dena started the next phase of her journey. She was in rehabilitation for nearly a year, with a combination of occupational therapy, physical therapy and regular check ins, but that didn’t deter her from her goal to walk again.
“Anyone that knows me knows I like a good challenge,” she said. “And that’s what this was for me, a challenge. I had a goal — I was going to walk down the aisle and marry Jim.”
With her heart and mind set on the new challenge ahead of her, that’s what she did. That’s when she met Michael Lacy of Snell Prosthetics & Orthotics, and things started progressing rapidly.
“You know, I interviewed everyone I could find when I was looking for my prosthetics, but Michael was the only one who didn’t sell me some line. He just knew what he was talking about and was honest and patient with me,” she said.
Once she was well-equipped, Dena wasted no time. During physical therapy, she was taught how to get up if she falls, however, she ended up creating her own maneuver along the way. Instead of rolling, Dena pushes herself up slowly, in a position resembling the downward dog yoga move. She said this move requires a lot of leg strength, but is much easier. This tactic is now used by many physical therapists.
“I had to learn how to get up by myself, so that if I fall at home I’m not just stuck there until someone finds me,” she said. “They kept on trying to get me to do it one way, but I showed them what felt natural to me and they were all surprised they hadn’t thought of it before.”
With that, Dena was overcoming every hurdle in her path, with a ‘can-do’ attitude.
“Life is precious to me now,” she said. “So I don’t often waste it. I’m a master gardener — have been for 16 years. I still go swimming — I just take my ‘peg leg’ off at the edge of the pool and go. You can’t let things like this hold you back. When you fall, you have a team of people who will help you learn how to get back up.”
Not even a full year after the accident, Dena walked down the aisle to marry her love, Jim. Not many people thought she’d be able to walk again, considering her age, but she didn’t let anything stop her.