Almost three years ago, the most pivotal day in Dave Mackey’s life started off like any other day. The champion runner and 2018 Colorado Running Hall of Fame inductee woke up early, threw on his running shoes and headed out the door to run up to Bear Peak, near his home in Boulder. As he got higher and the terrain became more difficult, a large rock shifted under his foot when descending off the peak. He quickly tumbled more than 50 feet off the ridge, and once he landed, his left leg was pinned by the 300-pound boulder.
A nearby friend heard Mackey shouting from a distance and ran towards the scene. With the help of several nearby hikers and eventually a group of Rocky Mountain Rescue volunteers and Boulder Open Space Rangers, they were able to get him out from under the rock and to safety. Mackey was treated at both Boulder Community Hospital and Denver Health.
While the doctors were able to save his leg, after 17 months and 15 surgeries Mackey was still left with severe complications including a significant limp, mobility issues, persistent osteomyelitis and constant pain. He talked to handful of top-notch specialists and his family, and in October of 2016 Mackey decided to have his lower left leg amputated below the knee.
As an incredibly fierce competitor in trail running and with a long list of running and adventure racing victories and records, this was a bold decision. Fast forward to today, post-amputation, and Mackey is thriving. More than thriving — he’s working full-time as a Physician Assistant at DispatchHealth, skiing with his family, running, biking and has even completed two ultra-marathons this year.
“I’m 90 percent back to where I was. I’ll never win a race again, but honestly I don’t really care to. For me it’s just about enjoying the moment. I guess by definition I have a disability but I don’t consider it that at all,” Mackey explains.
So how did he manage to bounce back from such a traumatic injury?
It wasn’t an easy journey. He relied on the support of his family — especially his wife, Ellen and kids — to make it through.
“Kids are pretty flexible little beings,” Mackey said, after being asked if his children were affected. “They weren’t traumatized at all. It’s just been a learning process. I think in the end they’ll be better for it. And in many ways so will I.”
Mackey also focused on setting small goals during the healing process.
“I was working full time at DispatchHealth while recovering. So whether it was setting a goal to go on a walk before work or run a marathon in the near future, goals were what motivated me to get up in the morning.”
Mackey has been working as a Physician Assistant at DispatchHealth for a little more than a year. DispatchHealth delivers on-demand healthcare to the patient, wherever they are most comfortable. From experiencing trauma and recovery, Mackey has developed a newfound perspective on the healing process and deeper compassion for his patients.
“Having gone through this journey, now I can better advise and relate to my patients, especially those with chronic disease or unexpected trauma.”
“Occasionally we see amputees, and many of those patients have lost their limb due to diabetes, and have kidney disease or heart disease. I enjoy encouraging them to be mobile and helping them through the process. I don’t usually openly share my story, but I definitely understand what they’re going through. Plus, by treating people in their homes I’m able to learn a lot about their surroundings and their family dynamic. Your environment has a huge impact on your health and being immersed in it helps our medical team determine the best course of treatment. When someone goes to an ER or urgent care, their medical team doesn’t have that context.”
Mackey continues to set higher goals and be an inspiration to others, especially those in the running community. When asked if he could describe how running makes him feel, Mackey laughed.
“No, not really. It’s indescribable. Running and being athletic in the outdoors is what helps gets me through life. I guess if I had to choose a single word, it would be invigorating.”
Mackey finished the Leadville 100 trail race in 2019. He became the only one-legged athlete to complete the Leadman.