Former March of Dimes poster child running the Bridge Run for first time
After moving to the Charleston area more than two years ago, it didn’t take long for Betsy Burch – the national poster child for the March of Dimes in 1980 – to figure out what she wanted to do.
Run, not walk, the Cooper River Bridge Run.
Yet Burch, who is now 40 and a registered nurse at East Cooper Medical Center, had never run more than 100 yards. She is an amputee and did not have the appropriate prosthetic limb for such a task.
Burch was born without a tibia in her right leg and with malformed hands. She had 20 surgeries, including an amputation of her right foot that enabled her to get a prosthetic and walk.
Pursuing athletic endeavors is not new for Burch. She competed on the national swim team in her mid-20s, but didn’t qualify for the Paralympics.
“I’ve always been very active and very independent, sometimes to a fault,” said Burch, adding that her experiences with March of Dimes, which included meeting people such as Robert Redford and Jimmy Carter, helped give her confidence and determination.
“I think even though I was very young at the time, 6, I think it (representing March of Dimes) provided me the opportunity to get out there and not be ashamed or afraid of who I was. … Through the rest of my life, I was determined to do anything.”
Outside of the spotlights of the March of Dimes and the U.S. swim team, Burch also was bold enough to teach aerobics, in part to inspire others.
“I figured if I could do that maybe other people who think they can’t do it will see they can do it,” says Burch.
Last August, she and her boyfriend, Eric Stinnett, a Sullivan’s Island firefighter and former UNC-Chapel Hill wrestler, started running with the goal of finishing the Bridge Run.
“I figured we’d just go step by step, starting with 100-yard runs, then quarter mile runs, then half mile runs,” Stinnett said. “We just kept stepping it up. Once we hit the mile mark, I knew she could do it.”
Their first race was the Knights of Columbus Turkey Day Run on Thanksgiving Day. She ran with her “everyday” prosthetic limb, but it was as far as she could go with it. She needed a blade, or J-leg, to go farther.
After she told her prosthetist Steven Kramer, practice manager at Carolina Orthotics and Prosthetics, what she wanted to do, he got to work on getting her a blade, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“Betsy has been a joy to work with and when she told us what she wanted to do, we had to do all we could to make it happen,” Kramer said.
He said everyday prosthetic legs were not meant for running much beyond two miles and that most insurance plans only pay for a new one, whether an everyday or a running-only blade, every three years.
The practice donated the socket and a manufacturer, Ossur, donated the blade. In all, the prosthetic is valued at about $10,000.
The blade made all the difference. Burch and Stinnett have worked up to five miles and ran on the bridge for the first time last week.
“I have no problems or issues within this (the blade). In fact, my real leg hurts more than this one. It is awesome because it springs you forward. Still, it’s challenging to run, but it’s great.”
Despite her confidence, Burch admits to still struggling with reactions she gets from people.
“I think the hardest part is just getting out there and not being afraid. Of course, you have the stares, the looks and I think that has been, to be honest, the toughest thing,” Burch said.
“Some people label amputees or people who look different as disabled and I think that’s not the correct term. People can be physically challenged, but I think disability is a state of mind and you don’t have to be disabled. It’s a choice. If you have physical challenges, there are ways to overcome and adapt.”
As for the expense of getting a blade, Burch says it’s a matter determination.
“There are programs that can help you get the supplies you need,” she said. “It’s out there. It’s just a matter of finding the right prosthetic and the right prosthetist.”
Beyond the Bridge Run, Burch said her next challenge is stand-up paddleboarding, which Kramer also helped by creating a new prosthetic from the parts of her older ones so that she doesn’t risk getting her everyday leg wet.
Stinnett admires Burch for wanting to do something so challenging.
“ It’s good to see her with that kind of strength. I’m glad to be a part of it and to help provide her some motivation,” said Stinnett, adding that she has demonstrated what his high school wrestling coach called “The Three D’s: desire, dedication and determination.”