ALEXANDRU ROTARU ’22 | ASSISTANT COPY EDITOR
Nicole Ver Kuilen is an award-winning runner and filmmaker, and an amputee advocate who lost her leg because of cancer at the age of 10. Since then, it has been her mission to become that sliver of positivity in the amputee community and beyond, and to show the world that amputees can live normal lives and that they deserve the same rights and treatment as any other person.
“It’s interesting to reflect on any challenge that any of us might face in our life, and how we respond to that challenge,” Ver Kuilen said. “And I think that’s what really defines us: it’s not the challenge itself, but our process of responding to that challenge, and defining who you are in that moment.” For her, responding to her amputation with an open heart and gratitude for the people who were there for her when she needed it most continues to define her to this day. This is one of the reasons she founded Forrest Stump: to advocate for the amputees’ right to live as they want to, without the barriers of costs for special prosthetics. “Insurance doesn’t cover activity specific prosthetics, like running blades,” Ver Kuilen said. “They think it’s not medically necessary.”
And this is just one of the many paradigm shifts society must make, in order for all people to truly benefit from their constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Insurance companies must realize that having access to waterproof prosthetics and running blades is not a matter of convenience. Because of this limited access, amputees have to face many restrictions to their lifestyle, which can affect their health and well-being in a negative way. For instance, “50% of individuals with disabilities get absolutely no aerobic activity whatsoever,” Ver Kuilen said, because they do not have the means to acquire the equipment that would enable them to be physically active. The irony of this situation is that the same insurance companies sponsor most, if not all, running events, from 5K runs to marathons.
Another paradigm shift has to come from how society views and treats amputees in general. “I think it’s important to remember, for most entities, they don’t necessarily want to be defined just by their reputation [i.e. as amputees],” Ver Kuilen said. “And I know that was something definitely for me. But, at the same time, I do feel pride now due to my prosthesis, and due to my amputation, but it took me a long time to get to that point. We’re all in different stages within our life, and I think it’s important not to assume that one person may be more comfortable than another person.” Everyone has a different pace of life, including when it comes to adjusting and embracing a new lifestyle, and that should be perfectly normal, just as it is for accommodating to a new role or a new culture.
Stereotyping is another issue amputees must face. “Don’t assume that any person is exactly the same as another person you’ve met,” Ver Kuilen said. “That’s the key, because we’re all different. We all have different beliefs and abilities and things that we like doing.” Yet, the media portrays most amputees in similar manners. “I think it is a really important thing to not assume that every person that you meet, who is an amputee, is going to be this outrageously fit or athletic individual, I think we often see in the media,” Ver Kuilen said. “It’s important to remember that every person has something beyond just that one character trait that defines them. […] Someone might be a singer, or might be an artist, a businessman, or whatever it may be.”
For Ver Kuilen, running is a passion turned into a lifestyle and a method to tell the world that the amputee community is more than their disability. “Running to me is similar to breathing,” Ver Kuilen said. “It’s just part of something that’s so important to my daily life, that just gives me so much life and satisfaction, and just passion.” And this very passion, combined with her desire to be the person who brightens the day for those who are suffering, have led her to take on a daring challenge: run 1500 miles, from Seattle, Washington, to San Diego, California, to raise awareness on the issue of prosthetic accessibility, and make a documentary about it. “Before leaving for the coast [from my old job, to start Forrest Stump], I got in touch with a filmmaker named Chris Duncan – we actually both went to school at the University of Michigan. One of my teammates, Kathleen, and Chris were in the same dorm freshman year. And, so, by way of introduction from Kathleen, I was able to meet Chris, and we put our heads together. He thought it would be a really great thing to do a documentary on my 1500-mile journey.” And that is how her film, “1500 Miles” came to be.
Ver Kuilen is also the national champion in her category for paratriathlon. She is hoping to compete in the 2024 Paris Paralympics. Also, since her film, “1500 Miles,” has been shown at 11 Film Festivals, including one international, she is hoping to take it on the road, on a speaking tour. Finally, she is hoping to get more amputee advocates on board for Forrest Stump.
Nicole Ver Kuilen will be giving a talk, as part of the President’s Distinguished Speaker Series, in Ball Theater, next Thursday, October 3, at 8 p.m.