Internationally-Known Rower Angela Madsen Approached the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Editor’s Note: Angela Madsen firmly believes that situation and circumstance should never be allowed to dictate who we are and what we will be able to achieve in our lifetime. Allowing situation and circumstance to oppress us is a choice.  Today, Angela shares the point she was at in life when she made her own choice to stand up to her own oppression and resulting depression, because she had no other alternative. Part 2 of a four-part series.

Angela is proud of her military background as a Marine.

Angela is proud of her military background as a Marine.

Question: Angela, when did you know you wouldn’t be able to walk again?

Madsen: Not until I had surgery in 1993, which was 13 years after my injury. The really bad news was that I shouldn’t have had to be in a wheelchair. The accident that happened when I was playing basketball wasn’t the reason I had a spinal cord injury.

Question: So, what happened in the hospital after your basketball injury in 1980?

Madsen: After the operation, the people at the hospital called my parents and told them that I wouldn’t be able to walk again, and that I’d be sent home. But I made somewhat of a recovery from that diagnosis. When I came out of the hospital, I could walk and live a normal life, except for the pain. I ditched my wheelchair after rehab and was put on limited duty with the fire department.

I was no longer on the basketball team, and I could no longer work with the Military Police. Finally, I was discharged with the diagnosis of being a chronic-pain patient. Eventually I’d have spinal degeneration and would need more surgery at some point. I was given a 10% service-connected disability rating, because my injury happened in the line of duty. They never told me I might end-up in a wheelchair.

Question: What did you do after being discharged from the military?

Madsen: I’d always wanted to be a mechanic, so I went to Sears and told them I didn’t have any tools or experience, but I could do the job. I was hired to change oil and install shocks. I did that for 6 years and was promoted to a mechanic. That was a dream job for me, because when I was a kid, I’d work on and fix my bicycle and all my mom’s appliances. I enjoyed fixing things.

My back held up for 6 years. After that, I began having problems with it and had to go to the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital for an inpatient pain program. I tried all types of therapy, including acupuncture, acupressure and every type of holistic remedy I could find.

Angela can draw a lot of parallels from rowing to when she felt like she was up a creek without a paddle in life.

Angela can draw a lot of parallels from rowing to when she felt like she was up a creek without a paddle in life.

I began missing work and moving from job to job because of the pain. I wasn’t even able to support my daughter anymore. At that time, I thought I’d hit the bottom. But I learned later that bottom was much deeper than the terrible circumstances I was in at that time. I knew that every time I’d been knocked-down, I was able to get back up again. So, I believed that my life and my situation would get better.

Question: Tell us about your career goals and how they were initially affected by your injury.

Madsen: When I worked as a mechanic for Sears, I learned about computerized drafting and mechanical design and engineering. Then I had a job working for U-Haul as a mechanic. Since I worked on the bigger trucks, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that for long.

I went to school for 9 weeks and became certified as a drafter. On my first interview, I landed the job. I designed high-speed labeling machines. I was at this job for 3 years and thought I’d retire from it. But after 3 years, I had to have back surgery, because I was becoming paralyzed.

Question: Angela, what were you told when you went into your surgery?

Madsen: I was told that I would be walking and surfing again within a year. I thought I’d be returning to my job quickly without missing very-much work.

The surgery was meant to stabilize my spine and prevent the collapse of the disc spaces, because they were beginning to impinge on the nerve roots. That type of surgery should prevent paralysis. I was worked-up and approved for the surgery at United Surgical Partners International’s Irving Coppell Surgical Hospital.

But the night before the surgery, they called and told me that since my medical history showed that my injury came from my prior service in the Marine Corps, my private insurance carrier was denying my medical services and sending me to the Veterans Affairs Hospital instead.

Angela often shares her inspiring story of recovering life at Veterans events.

Angela often shares her inspiring story of recovering life at Veterans events.

Question: What happened after the surgery?

Madsen: The Veteran’s Affairs Hospital where I went was a teaching hospital. I learned later that during my operation, the medical students had taken out the wrong disc in my back. I was supposed to have a fusion of two levels of my spine, which meant they were supposed to take out the disc and then take out bone from my hip to make spacers between the vertebras.

In my case, however, they took out the wrong disc and put all the bone graphs in the wrong way. The bone graphs were wedged to the left side of my spine and the top graph was protruding and was sticking-out forward of my spine, so I had a slight aortic impingement. Everything that could have gone wrong in that surgery did go wrong. All the bone graphs and the hardware were put in wrong, so they had to redo putting in the hardware in my spine.

During that surgery, they accidentally drilled through my spinal cord, which paralyzed me.

Question: What did you do when you found out that this happened?

Madsen: I was a mess. I was angry, frustrated and depressed. I was running out of benefits and time. I lost my job. I was in a relationship at the time, and my partner took all my money out of my 401K and savings account and left me without any money. I was trying to live-off $78 a month, which was what I received for my 10% disability from the military. I had hit rock bottom.

Question: Where did you live when you were on the street?

Madsen: I hung around the park benches around Disneyland and on the boulevard. I would sleep upright in a chair at the bus stops. I was able to keep my belongings in the lockers at Disneyland, because you can access the lockers without going into the park. I had my dog, and sometimes I’d stay at a friend’s house.

Question: How bad did your life get at this time for you?

Madsen: I seriously considered suicide to get out of the mess that was my life. I was pretty much in a hopeless situation.

Angela knows that just when you think things are hopeless, a ray of light will appear if you search for it.

Angela knows that just when you think things are hopeless, a ray of light will appear if you search for it.

Question: How did you get out of that mess?

Madsen: It took a long time. I was trying to get my veteran benefits, because I needed a wheelchair. I went to the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital every day and talked to the disabled veterans. I joined the American Disabled Veterans, and they got me into a little apartment inLong Beach. The apartment wasn’t anything fancy, but it got me off the street. The VA would come get me each day to bathe me and help with my bowel management program. So, I basically got outpatient personal care from the VA. Then I’d sit in that little apartment, watch TV and try to go a couple of blocks away to do my laundry at the Laundromat.

Question: Did you ever get any benefits for the botched surgery?

Madsen: Yes, I finally did. Two years out of the hospital, I did get 50% of my veteran’s benefits, and since they backdated the benefits to the time I first filed the claim, I received enough to buy a little house in Long Beach. The house had been foreclosed on, so I got it at a really good price and was able to use my VA loan to purchase it.

However, I just got my housing and auto grants from the military last year, although the surgery that paralyzed me took place in 1993.

Question: Angela, what else helped you reach a turning point?

Madsen:  The first couple of years after I got out of the hospital, I started putting-on weight and weighed 350 pounds, and I was stuck in a 27-inch wheelchair. That’s when I considered suicide. I was ready to end it. I was pretty pathetic, and I was angry with the doctors and everyone else.

At that moment, some of the guys at the hospital encouraged me to go to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. The people at Disabled American Veterans sponsored me to go and paid for my airfare and hotel room. That was the first time I’d returned to any type of sports, and it made all the difference.

Next: How Angela Madsen Rowed Into a New Life

About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at

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2 Responses to Internationally-Known Rower Angela Madsen Approached the Valley of the Shadow of Death

  1. Pingback: Angela Madsen: Once a Marine – Today an Internationally-Known Rower « UroMed Catheter Health Blog

  2. Pingback: Angela Madsen: Once a Marine – Today an Internationally-Known Rower

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