U.S. National Amputee Soccer Goalie Eric Westover stopping a ball with one arm. Photo by Carl Calabria

U.S. National Amputee Soccer Goalie Eric Westover

Single-Handed Success: The Story of U.S. National Amputee Soccer Goalie Eric Westover

Written by Henry Ortlip

Life can be unpredictable. Often things don’t turn out as planned and reactions to the challenges life throws can be the difference between giving up or finding the strength to move on and persist. This is especially true for Minneapolis native Eric Westover. Since the age of six Westover’s life revolved around sports until a work-related injury changed his path forever. But, it would take more than an arm amputation to keep Westover down. Risen talked with this inspiring athlete about playing goalie for the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team, founding a national nonprofit organization for amputees, and his faith-filled journey to recovery.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: What was life like for you growing up?
Eric Westover: I started playing sports at the age of six and basically played sports my whole life. Being from Minnesota, I was born with skates on, so hockey was my first love and I started playing goalie right away. They [coaches] asked me if I wanted to play because no one else wanted to. I went out and got my butt kicked, 10-0 my first game. The coach asked me after the first game, “Do you want to play next week?” I said, “Yeah I want to play next week!” I came back the next week and we won. So, I was hooked into the goalie position right away from an early age. I never tried to play another position. I just found that the goalie position was so challenging for me and I liked that. I was still part of a team, but that position was kind of its own; I was the last line of defense.
Hockey was my first sport, but I also played soccer and baseball. When I played soccer, my soccer coach wouldn’t let me play goalie; he made me play sweeper [defense center back]. I used soccer to cross train for hockey and I also played baseball for quite awhile. Probably until sixth grade, I was a catcher. I always went after these really challenging positions. But I couldn’t hit the ball, so I dropped baseball.

Eric Westover with U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team in Washington D.C. (2011)

Eric Westover with U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team in Washington D.C. (2011)

Risen Magazine: What was family life like for you?
Eric Westover: I am the youngest of three. I have an older sister; she is seven years older than I am. I have an older brother who is four years older than I am. My brother played sports as well and my dad coached us. My parents divorced when I was about twelve and then I was kind of on my own. It was [just] my mom and me. In junior high and high school, she was my biggest supporter. She was at every game that I played. Growing up for me was probably a little tougher, because our family was dysfunctional. I was born and grew up in an Episcopal church. I was baptized and married in the same church. I grew up in the church, went to Sunday school, was an acolyte, and participated in the junior choir.

Risen Magazine: Through that upbringing in the church, what was your personal relationship with God like in that environment?
Eric Westover: I would say I had a good relationship. I remember in our youth group we actually took a trip to Chicago as a mission’s trip. We went into a poorer section of Chicago for a weekend, and I gave my life to Christ. I remember I was so excited that I did that and I came home and told my parents. I don’t think I really understood the whole thing, but it was an exciting step for me. I was very involved in our church and I stayed involved. It meant a lot to me that my relationship with Him was there and that I believed in Him, and I understood it from being in church every week. I did my first communion in the Episcopal Church and we had the same priest from the time I was baptized until the time I probably turned eighteen or nineteen. The priest and I were really tight. It was a very neat journey for me.

Risen Magazine: What happened with your arm?
Eric Westover: I was working for a company in Minnesota. I was rebuilding photocopier drones, so, I was doing a lot of repetitive wrist motions and I ended up kinking my medial nerve in my right wrist. That required me to go to the ER. They weren’t really sure what was going on with my wrist. After a couple months of the treatment, I wasn’t getting any better. On December 23, 1992, my surgeon went in and did an exploratory surgery. What he found was that my nerve had kinked like a garden hose. He straightened my nerve out and he also tried to take two nerve grafts. He noted in my chart that I had a disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy [RSD], also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome [CRPS]. And that was it; it was just noted in my chart. I wouldn’t really understand the impact until much later.
After the surgery, I wasn’t able to go back to my original job. I ended up going back to college. As part of my class load, I took theatre. Out of that – which for me when I look back was really another God thing – I ended up finding a career as a technician in the theatre. I became a lighting designer and a backstage technician. Out of going back to college, I fell into this career where from 1992-2000, I built up a business of working for theatres, rock concerts, ballets, and corporate shows. I would do lighting and sound; basically anything related to any entertainment industry as far as technical work.

About thirty minutes into my drive, it started raining. I knew at that point that God was crying with me on my way.

Risen Magazine: So for almost a decade life seems somewhat normal, but a transition was about to happen. What developed next?
Eric Westover: Out-of-the-blue at the beginning of 2002, my fingers started hurting in my right hand. I have another disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is a long-term type of arthritis. And part of it is that some of my joints would swell up for no reason. Usually a steroid dose pack would bring the swelling down. But the swelling didn’t go down. My fingers started turning blue and I had trouble moving them. I knew something was not right. I ended up going back to see my original surgeon who did the 1992 operation. I told him what was going on and since it had been ten years he thought maybe some scar tissue built up and there was possibly an impingement. He said, “We should probably go and take a look, and just see what is going on. I could clean it up and you will probably be fine.
In March of 2002, he went in and cleaned it all out but didn’t really find anything that shouldn’t be there. I ended up rehabbing and about a month-and-a-half later, when I was out on the golf course, I blew out my wrist. This was probably May of that same year and he [my doctor] had to do another surgery on my wrist. After that, I never really gained any sort of function in my hand, or wrist, and it kept getting worse. I kept losing more and more mobility, and the pain was tremendous. I went back to him and said, “Hey, this isn’t getting any better, it’s getting worse.” He said, “Well maybe we should go back in there again and take another look and see what’s going on.” So, he went back in there again and actually took some of my tendons and connected them together [so all my fingers would move as one block in unison]. I basically lost all function in my right hand, was in a brace, and on a ton of pain medication.
By this time some of the symptoms of RSD were present – my hand was turning blue and getting very cold, I had abnormal hair growth, my fingernails were growing very weird – there was definitely something wrong. I went back to him [surgeon] again and I said, “What are we going to do?” He said, “Well, I think we should go in there again.” It’s now September of that same year [2002] and we are on our fifth surgery. This time he ended up severing the tendons in all my fingers. After this fifth surgery, he got me an appointment at a [specialty] clinic, but unfortunately they had a three-month waiting list before I could get in.

Risen Magazine: Wow, all the surgeries and pain. What was your relationship with God like during this time?
Eric Westover: I was like, “Why is all this happening to me? Was God mad at me? Did I do something wrong? Was this all my fault?” At that point, I really could not handle any more as my whole world had basically crumbled. I didn’t know what else to do. My faith at that point was very shaky. But it was within that next year that a big change happened. In January, when I finally got into the clinic, I met surgeon Alex Shin. After he got test results back, he looked at me and said, “Eric, you are never going to use that hand again.” He said, “I cannot touch you and I can’t fix it.” At that point, I knew that my life was going to change.
By this point, I was on a lot of pain medication (percocet, oxycontin, oxycodone) and was pretty depressed. I had lost my business because I couldn’t work, I lost my house and had to sell everything that I owned and move in with my parents. Thank God for that, because otherwise I would have been out on the street. So, in that respect, I am incredibly grateful that I had the support of my family and my parents. My mom had remarried and she had met this incredible guy who I call Dad. They had taken me in. I drove back to their house and told them what had happened. I was supposed to go back down to Rochester, to the clinic about a week later. That whole week, I cried.
I had been researching amputation and I knew what I had to do. I knew that for me, this was one time that I had to step out in faith and say, “Okay, God, I’m giving this to you. Whatever happens and whatever comes out of this, it’s out of my control and I’m going to let you have it.” And for me, that was a really big turning point in my relationship with Him. Because I think that was the first time I really gave up control and let Him have it. I told my parents what I was going to do. My mom cried, she balled, but she understood. So, I talked to Alex [surgeon] and I said, “All right, I want to amputate.” He looked at me and said, “I don’t like it, but you’re right.” We sat and talked for probably about an hour and the biggest fear we had with the amputation was the pain factor. [He explained that] with amputation, you could have more, less or the same amount of pain you are having now. And he said, “There is no way of knowing until after the amputation.” I said, “We will deal with that when the time comes, because I don’t want to think about that; let’s just proceed.” The other thing with RSD, is that it can actually mirror and transfer to your other limbs. That was another thing we were talking about. At this point, I got it; there is no cure for it.
I had to go to my workers’ compensation company and talk to them. They shut me down right away. They said, “No we are not going to let you do this.” That was a huge blow, which really deflated me. But I was still steadfast with what I wanted to do. I had to actually go and fight the workers’ comp company to prove to them that this was the right thing to do.

U.S. National Amputee Soccer Goalie Eric Westover stopping a ball with one arm. Photo by Carl Calabria

Eric Westover stopping a ball with one arm. Photo by Carl Calabria

Risen Magazine: You eventually were allowed to have the operation, but it took a couple of years. May 2004 is when the amputation actually took place?
Eric Westover: Yes, I drove myself to the hospital and as soon as I left the house, I started crying. About thirty minutes into my drive, it started raining. I knew at that point that God was crying with me on my way. I walked into that hospital and they did the amputation that day.
The good thing about the way it had happened was that I had all this time to grieve for my arm before it was actually amputated. As I look back, I see how God worked. Most people don’t have time to grieve for their limb. It happens and it’s traumatic. I had time to grieve for my arm. I knew it was coming and I had all this time to deal with it and to prepare for it.

Risen Magazine: What was your state of being coming out of surgery?
Eric Westover: When I woke up in the recovery room I was a little disoriented. The first thing I remember was that my arm was really warm. Then I thought, it’s done, it’s gone. So, I looked down. It was all wrapped up, but it was definitely shorter than it was before. The first thing I thought was, “This is the first day of the rest of my life. All right, let’s do this.

Risen Magazine: Unbelievable. As you recovered a year or two after the operation, how did things turn around for you?
Eric Westover: Everything turned around pretty quickly. I actually played in a golf tournament about two weeks after I lost my arm. My stepdad’s family does a golf tournament every year and I had told them, “I am going to be out playing golf with you guys at the tournament.” As soon as I was released from the hospital, I was out on the driving range hitting balls. I still had my stitches in and I was still wrapped up, but I was determined I was going to be out playing golf. I heard people whispering, “This guy has a sock on his arm. He’s hitting one-handed.” So, I stopped and put the golf club down. I took off all the dressings on my arm so they could see my stitches and that I didn’t have a hand. The driving line got so quiet. I just started hitting balls again. That was an important step for me to get back to some semblance of a normal life. I wanted to get back and do the things that I love.

Risen Magazine: …And finding new loves like founding a non-profit. Tell me about how UpperEx National Outreach Coalition [organization dedicated to facilitating positive outcomes for upper-extremity amputees] developed?
Eric Westover: Before my amputation I had been talking, and became pretty good friends with a bunch of arm amputees. I said, “You know, in my research there is nothing out there for people with an upper extremity limb loss. I want to do something about that. I want to provide some kind of resource or something that can help somebody who has lost an arm.” I said to them, “What do you guys think would be good – a website, a magazine?” They replied, “Maybe a magazine or something.” I got the domain name, UpperEx, and I decided to try an online magazine and see how it would go. I put out the first issue in May of 2005. The first issue had maybe fifty subscribers and within a year I had more than 1,000 subscribers. It went from just an online magazine, to a website, to a resource. Probably within a year-and-a-half, I was starting to get fifteen thousand downloads of that magazine from more than 37 different countries. I would have never thought that small idea would grow to something like that.

Risen Magazine: How did you go from the magazine to playing soccer with the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team?
Eric Westover: They [U.S. Team] recruited me off of Facebook. They saw that I played hockey goalie and they were holding a training camp in Philadelphia in 2006. They asked me if I wanted to come to Philadelphia and try out for soccer. I went to the three-day training camp and at the end they asked if I would like to join the team. I was like, “Well yeah, I’ll join the team!” And I’ve been with the team ever since.
Again, it’s just another door that opened because I lost my arm. In all of this, I always tell people losing my arm has been such a huge blessing to me. If I did not lose my arm, none of these opportunities would have been there for me. That is really where my faith comes in. As I look back on it, God played a huge part in everything else that has happened because of it.

Risen Magazine: What is the environment like at the amputee World Cup?
Eric Westover: To play in amputee soccer is just as competitive as regular soccer. I think it is probably even more competitive than able-bodied soccer because we all have lost a limb and we were all competitive athletes before we lost a limb. We are not easy on each other, we have had people leave games on stretchers and players get bloodied up. There is no feeling sorry for each other. It is the same as regular soccer. We respect each other, but we are all talented and everyone has their game. Once we are out on the field, it’s game on.

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2014

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