San Francisco resident Mike Castellanos eased into a chair in the waiting room at UC San Francisco’s Orthopedic Institute in Mission Bay on a recent Thursday, adjusting his dark blue cargo shorts to fit comfortably in the cushioned seat.
“Don’t be showin’ too much leg!” the receptionist joked.
Castellanos, 45, laughed as he looked down at the prosthetic limbs fitted where his knees and legs used to be.
“The first thing doctors told me when I lost my legs was that I would probably gain weight,” Castellanos said. “I didn’t want that.”
And Castellanos didn’t let that happen.
Two years after Castellanos’ legs were crushed beyond repair when a car struck him while he collected garbage at his job with Recology of the Coast, the lifelong San Francisco resident believes he is in the best shape of his life.
He exercises daily at a gym near his Visitacion Valley home, focusing mainly on strengthening his core, and visits UCSF at least once a week to meet with Rami Weinberg, a physical therapist at the university who has been working with Castellanos since two months after the crash.
“He’s worked really hard to get to where he is. It’s not easy,” Weinberg said as he and Castellanos began their session Nov. 5. “There are very few bilateral amputees in general that exist [who] can even do this.”
Weinberg was engaging Castellanos in an exercise he calls “crowd-sourcing,” in which Rami follows Castellanos down a hallway and attempts to knock him down. The idea, Rami explained, is to mimic walking on a crowded street.
For Castellanos, balancing is the hardest part of the exercise.
“It’s like walking on stilts without knees,” Weinberg said of using prosthetic legs.
Castellanos chimed in, “Sometimes it feels like you’re walking on your knees. Sometimes it gets where you just don’t notice it at all. Sometimes it gets painful, sometimes it’s like nothing.”
But despite the pain — Castellanos understands that he will likely feel phantom pain, a sensation where limbs used to be, for the rest of his life — he is ready to resume his lifelong passion of running.
Last month, Castellanos was fitted for a pair of vacuum socket prosthetic limbs that cost upwards of $200,000 — the sockets alone cost around $25,000 each — allowing him much more comfort throughout the day. He hopes soon to attempt using running blades similar to the kind used by South African runner Oscar Pistorius.
“One of the reasons we had held off [on the blades] is his sockets don’t fit well and he can’t control them very well,” said Richard Nguyen, the clinical manager for the Orthotics and Prosthetics Center at UCSF who fitted Castellanos with his prosthetic legs. “Putting on running blades is just going to make things that much worse because they’re not as stable.”
Castellanos, however, is determined to run again, an activity he used to partake in nearly every day before his early morning garbage routes, sometimes waking up as early as 1 a.m. to run. In fact, he had even run the morning of the crash that claimed his legs.
Castellanos recalls having to manually dump each trash bin that November morning because the reloading truck wasn’t working properly.
“I was tired because I had to dump some really heavy garbage cans. I remember dragging a can, and as I was lifting it up to empty it, something just hit me from behind,” Castellanos said.
The incident happened on Castellanos’ regular route in Pacifica around dawn Nov. 8, 2013. While emptying bins in the 200 block of Catalina Avenue, a 25-year-old San Francisco woman driving a 1997 Infiniti slammed into Castellanos, pinning him against the garbage truck, according to news reports at the time. The driver, who remained at the scene, reportedly told police she was blinded by the sun.
Miraculously, Castellanos remained conscious immediately after the crash.
“I looked down and saw my legs completely mangled,” he recalled. “They were just pretty much hanging on by the tendons. I saw all the blood, and closed my eyes.”
Paramedics arrived quickly and loaded Castellanos onto a stretcher, placing his crushed legs on top of him.
“Everything felt like slow motion,” he said. “The trip to San Francisco General Hospital seemed like an eternity.”
Castellanos ultimately received 44 units of blood and spent hours in surgery. He woke up in the late afternoon, to the surprise of doctors who had warned Castellanos’ parents that he could very well have fallen into a coma.
“I felt like my life was over,” Castellanos said of when he woke up. “Being a very active man, being a runner, and not having your legs anymore, that’s drastic.”
His life, however, was far from over. Less than a week later, on Nov. 13, 2013, Castellanos began physical therapy, a road that would lead him to where he is today — climbing stairs, navigating crowded sidewalks and planning to hit the pavement again with running blades.