Golf Saved My LifeSeptember 22, 2011

The Game Made Me Feel Whole Again

Hector Manley, 20, captained his high school golf team. His lowest round in competition is 74.

Hector Manley, 20, captained his high school golf team. His lowest round in competition is 74.

In the village where I'm from, El Guayabo, in El Salvador, near the Guatemalan border, the dirt streets have no names. I remember everything from the day of the earthquake: Jan. 13, 2001, was a nice, sunny day, and my mom had taken my baby brother to the doctor for a checkup. I was 11 and had gone to the garbage dump to meet some friends. We liked to hang out there, look for marbles, toys and anything usable. The dump was a ravine of about 60 meters, and we were halfway down when the ground split between us. I was on the low side, and all my friends ended up on the high side. The garbage that had been smoldering underneath ignited into a small wall of flame. I thought about trying to jump, but it was too far. So I stood and prepared for the worst. The garbage tumbled down in a landslide, and I went with it. I ended up at the bottom of the ravine, stuck from the waist down. The air was smoky and dirty. I could see and smell, but not really feel, the fiery garbage burning my legs. I couldn't move.

My friends ran to a sugar-cane field and got a guard who came with a shovel to dig me out. He is my hero to this day. As he carried me over his shoulder I saw the bones of my toes. I knew my burns were serious, but because I couldn't feel pain I didn't panic.

Luckily, just minutes later a garbage truck returned to the dump. The driver took me 10 miles in this truck to the clinic. On our way out of the village we stopped at my house, which had crumbled completely from the earthquake. My brothers and sister were with a neighbor, and I told them to tell Mom where I was going.

We arrived to find the clinic building had also crumbled. With the doctors cut off from their supplies, all the injured were left standing outside. So we drove to Sonsonate, an hour away, and the doctor there wasn't helpful. He said I was in shock, and that when the pain hit, perhaps in minutes or hours, it would be too much for someone my age to handle, and I would die. I didn't realize it then, but the doctor didn't have the equipment to treat me and dismissed me quickly because there were too many other patients he thought he could treat. He said our best chance was to go to the Benjamin Bloom Children's Hospital in San Salvador, and for this he arranged a driver and an ambulance, which was a pickup truck.

With so many roads closed, the trip to San Salvador took four hours. I sat in the front, looking at my watch. It wasn't until we saw the devastation in San Salvador that I realized how huge the earthquake had been and that maybe the doctor was right. This really could be it for me. Power lines were down, the streets were a maze of rubble, and people were crying and dragging dead bodies.

The first doctor I saw at the children's hospital told me I was very lucky. I don't know how my mom managed to get there so fast, but she was with me when the pain finally hit that evening, about eight hours after the earthquake. This pain cannot be described. I said a short prayer to God to watch over my family and took one last deep breath, and that's all I remember.

I woke up three days later. My mom was sitting by my bed, and I could tell from her eyes that she hadn't slept. Then I saw the bandages where my legs had been and started crying. My first thought was that I'd never be able to play soccer. Like many boys my dream was to be a professional player. I yelled at my mom and the doctors. My mom, in tears, said it was the best thing to do. But nobody had asked me if it was the best thing.

The next 3½ months were hell, though everyone in the hospital was nice. The daily disinfectant spray hurt terribly. I had to be fed with liquid because my stomach was burned, too. I weighed 40 pounds. My dad, who had been driving trucks in sugar-cane fields on the other side of the country, came home and built a shelter for our family. My mom would stay one night with me and then go home to take care of my brothers and sister for a night. People in our village would stand on the side of the road and give her small bits of money for bus fare.

An American couple on the board of trustees of the hospital -- Don and Karen Manley -- took an interest in me. When I was released, they came to El Guayabo to ask my parents if they might take me to live with them so I could be fitted for proper prosthetics. Our home was still a tent. Of all the various international groups and charities offering help, my parents trusted the Manleys. They agreed I would go for eight months, then return at Christmas.

Everything about America was a shock. The Manleys lived in Findlay, Ohio, and I had never seen a place that was so clean and neat. I didn't speak a word of English and spent much of that summer watching the Disney Channel trying to pick up what I could. That fall the Manleys enrolled me in sixth grade. In addition to trying to learn the language and the culture, I had to figure out how to walk on my new legs.

When we flew back to El Salvador for Christmas, the country still had not recovered from the earthquake. After a lengthy discussion aided by a translator, my parents and the Manleys agreed it was best for me to keep living in America so I could continue therapy. They also agreed that the Manleys would begin the paperwork to formally adopt me. We experienced such terrifying complications and warnings going through customs that I didn't return to El Salvador for five years.

In the summer of 2002, I took my first steps without crutches. That fall I was watching TV when golf came on. It seemed strange, and the clothes were funny, but I was intrigued because the players were walking, not running. I had never seen or even heard of this sport. I asked Mr. Manley if he had ever heard of it. He had.

"Can I try it?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "But it's a lot harder than they make it look on television."

The next week we traveled to The First Tee in Columbus, and I took my first swings. Every time I swung I fell down, but I accepted this as part of the sport. The farther I hit the ball, the happier I would be picking myself off the ground. The people from The First Tee were very helpful. They gave me three irons, a driver and a putter to take home. Right away I loved the sport, and it was a turning point in my happiness.

Mr. Manley took up golf, too, and we started going to the range every day. In the beginning I woud lean back against a topless golf cart so I could hit balls without falling.

Hector Manley

Photos: Courtesy of the Manleys

The first time I ever played 18 holes was in a high school varsity event as a freshman. Walking the front nine and taking a cart for the back, I shot 126. A couple of times my competitors helped me in and out of steep bunkers. On the last few holes I grew so tired that my only goal was to finish. (The muscles in my lower back essentially bear the entire task of moving my prosthetics.) There were boys who shot in the 70s, but my score was not last. Two kids finished behind me. Seeing my name in Magic Marker on the board was a thrill.

My sophomore year Mr. and Mrs. Manley sold their business and moved to Naples, Fla. My new school, Seacrest Country Day, didn't have a golf team, so I campaigned to start one. Our first-year record was 2-8, but my senior year we were 18-4. I was the captain all three years, and my lowest competitive round was a three-over-par 74. I never had lessons. The best advice I received came from a golf pro who told me my swing was destined to be unique, so it was up to me to master it. Fatigue is, and always will be, an element in my game. I can hit an 8-iron 150 yards, but usually by the back nine I'm hitting a punch 6-iron from this distance.

I'm now a senior at the University of Tampa. I don't play for the school, but I continue to compete in amputee tournaments and local matches. I've also spent my last few summers as an instructor at The First Tee of Naples/Collier chapter. Golf changed my life, and I enjoy teaching kids the game because it can do the same for them.

The first time my father traveled to the United States was for my high school graduation. I took him to a course so I could show him what golf was. He had never seen a club before. He was amazed at how far the ball flew and how difficult it was to follow in flight. Though he didn't fully understand the game, he is competitive like me and told me to keep working at it, to get as good as I can.

Like most golfers, every time I start a round, I feel it will be my best ever.