One-armed Citadel cadet pushes on
As seen in the Greenville News and GreenvilleOnline.com, January 15, 2016
By Nathaniel Cary
On June 6, 2014, Cameron Massengale’s life changed forever. He wouldn’t say it then, but today, he says it changed for the better.
Massengale, a J.L. Mann High School graduate from Greenville, had just completed his freshman knob year at The Citadel, a rigorous year designed to strip cadets at the military academy of their individuality.
He returned to Greenville and took a summer job at a local butcher shop, where one evening he was told to clean the auger on the meat grinder.
While his arm was inside the auger compartment, the grinder turned on.
Massengale lost his dominant right hand and wrist. Then he fought infection and spent nearly a month in the hospital.
He emerged from the hospital a month later having lost more than his hand. He’d lost his career path (he’s wanted to fly helicopters in the Army). He’d lost the ability to hunt and fish and lift weights and even to write and dress himself.
“I had a lot of frustrations,” Massengale said.
He was propelled onward by the near-constant encouragement of his “brotherhood” at The Citadel, who wanted him to return to school, and by the new challenge to learn how to use a variety of artificial arms and to re-learn everyday tasks.
Losing a hand or arm presents psychological challenges in addition to all of the physical challenges, said Jon Nottingham, Massengale’s prosthetist at the Hanger Clinic in Greenville.
“You lost more than just one part of you,” Nottingham said. “You lose five digits, the ability for the palm to close, the wrist to rotate and flex. All those things that we take for granted from birth are essentially gone. It’s devastating.”
But once Massengale caught on, there’s been no stopping him.
He taught himself to eat and write left-handed. He’s used a variety of artificial limbs and a mixed bag of hooks and hands to relearn how to dress himself, hunt and hold a glass of water.
He visited Alaska and caught a salmon one-handed, impressing even himself, he said.
And then he decided to return to The Citadel.
But he wanted to do it without limitations. He wanted to perform rifle drill correctly. He wanted to be able to do push-ups. And he wanted to be able to keep the same detailed schedule as his classmates despite his added challenge.
“I had to relearn to do rifle drill one-handed,” Massengale said. “I was determined to do it all properly with my right side.”
Massengale has tested the durability of each limb. He’s pushed the limits of what the hands or hooks can do and what he can do.
One device broke three times. He’s snapped wrists a couple of times. His providers at the Hanger Clinic say they see him more than most patients because he always needs something fixed, or he needs a new hook or arm to add to his arsenal.
Nottingham said Massengale has been their most challenging client because of the intense activities “and sometimes just because of the Cameron that happens.”
Then he comes back in with a new challenge, a new task he’d like to accomplish.
He wanted to fish, so they found a hook that would help hold a fishing rod. He wanted to lift weights, so they added a sturdier limb with an attachment to grip a weight bar.
Now he’s pushing his limit again. Massengale, now a second-semester junior, wants to join The Citadel’s prestigious Summerall Guard, a silent precision drill team made up of 60 members of the senior class.
About 160 cadets tried out for the team, and Massengale made it through the first of two phases. But he noticed another issue while holding his rifle during drill inspection.
Everybody’s in line. Everybody looks just like the guy next to him. But none of Massengale’s arms could hold the rifle against his shoulder at the correct angle – and since the Summerall Guard is based on appearance and inspections – he wouldn’t have a shot.
“He would not have the opportunity, honestly, for that drill team, if every time they went to evaluate Cameron as a possible member of this team and he wasn’t in line and he can’t do anything about it,” Nottingham said.
So over holiday break, the Hanger Clinic built him a new limb, shorter than his others and with a sturdy hook to hold his rifle, specifically so he could have a chance to make the Summerall Guard.
He has a shot now, and Massengale said he hasn’t yet met a task he couldn’t master.
Massengale reflected on the time he lay in a hospital bed, unsure of life and his new place in it.
“I thought I was just going to be a potato on a couch the rest of my life,” he said. “I look back and that’s not me. I don’t even recognize that guy anymore.”
Now he wants to help other amputees for a living, perhaps in a camp atmosphere.
“This has changed me in a lot of ways for the better,” he said. “As much of a tragedy as it was, I’m almost happy it happened."