“It was like a dream.”
That’s how Earl Barnes describes the motorcycle accident that cost him the lower part of his right leg. Before the accident, he was doing what he had wanted to do since he was a child: He was a firefighter.
“It’s a funny thing about firefighters,” he said. “It’s something we grew up wanting to do and can’t hardly imagine doing anything else.”
Barnes’ life and career were put in jeopardy the day after his 25th birthday in September 1996. A car T-boned Barnes’ motorcycle at the intersection of Sixth Street and Folks Road. His leg got caught between the bike’s engine block and the car’s bumper. The last thing he remembers is waking up at Kansas University Hospital.
“The nurse there had to explain several times what happened, just with the fog of anesthesia and the shock of this happening,” he said. Doctors were initially able to save the heel portion of his right foot, but Barnes developed a bone infection and the foot was completely amputated.
It was at that point Barnes said he thought he would never be a firefighter again. He remembered spending “several months in both the hospital bed and at home staring at the ceiling wondering what in the world I could do.”
But thanks to the support of family and fellow firefighters, and with the help of some innovative surgery, Barnes began the long road to recapturing his dream. But could he and should he do it?
“There were enough people through there that would tell me, ‘You know what? This is a bad idea, how about you not do it?’” he said. “I would have listened to them, but everybody said, ‘You know what? You have that look about you; you need to finish this.’”
Fourteen months and eight surgeries later, Barnes was back in the firehouse with a prosthetic leg.
“I was on when he was hurt and I honestly didn’t think he’d be able to (come back),” said Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Lt. Kathy Elkins.
Barnes’ fire suit and boots are custom designed to help him dress quickly when the alarm sounds.
“I look at him as just one of the guys,” said Paramedic Lt. Joe Hardy. He and Barnes were in the same recruitment class 13 years ago.
Today, Barnes can do everything that is asked of him. He has participated in four triathlons since his return and enjoys other physical activities, such as scuba diving.
Elkins said he hasn’t lost a step.
“To come back and do this job with what he’s been through,” she said, “it’s really inspirational.”