Documentary photographer and technology consultant Erik Lacson, 48, is living proof that cyborgs live among us.
He’s not like the ones you’ve seen in James Cameron movies or have read about in campy science fiction novels, though. He can’t shoot laser beams from his eyes or travel through time, but he’s got some pretty cool abilities of his own.
He’s not that very different from us. He’s got a job. He’s got a wife. He’s got interests and hobbies like trail running, mountain biking, and climbing. He’s also kind of a geek, albeit an athletic one. And like the rest of the population, he’s got his own unique story to tell, one that involves losing his right leg.
A bad trip
The funny (and tragic) thing is, it all started with a trivial accident back in 2011, a clumsy trip that sprained his ankle.
“It was pretty ordinary,” he recalls. “I was walking back from Podium to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) where I worked. I didn’t see the curb. I fell off and twisted my ankle. The moment it snapped, it was really painful. But fortunately, I limped my way to the ADB clinic, where it was treated.”
The foot was inflamed, but nothing that a bag of ice and two days of rest couldn’t cure. It was nothing to be alarmed about, until he tripped on the same foot two weeks later while waving hello to friend, tearing the ligament, an injury that would force him to stop running for three months and attend six sessions of rehab.
“I remember my chiropractor telling me that the ankle joint was going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” Erik says, his expression shifting as if the moment was replaying in his head. For someone who takes pride in being active, immobility seemed like a curse. The risks of having a bad ankle would be a hindrance to his kinetic endeavors: running, biking, climbing, and his career as a photographer. Although he was advised to stop running for a good three months, on week six of his hiatus, he persisted and was back on his feet, feeding his insatiable drive to move.
'For someone who takes pride in being active, immobility seemed like a nightmare. The risks of having a bad ankle would be a hindrance to his kinetic endeavors: running, biking, climbing, and his career as a photographer'
“I kind of like the whole regimen of training,” he shares. “I like waking up in the morning, doing the same thing each and every day and monitoring my data.” Aside from the cyclical comfort that sports brought him, Erik credits his fitness addiction to his mother’s quadruple bypass, a wakeup call that propelled him out of his partying ways and into the gym.
“I also got into trail running and mountain biking—nothing extraordinary except I really enjoyed doing them,” he explains. “At some point, I decided trail running was going to be my sport. I was trying to build up races until I could do an ultramarathon. I was in a training cycle, and the wisdom there was I needed to do something new once in a while that would work different parts of the body. And that’s when I found climbing. I decided I’d try it and I got hooked.”
Beast(mode) of burden
There’s an odd dichotomy at work when it comes to Erik’s personality. His own fear of mortality coupled with his newfound passion to train may have hurt his body more than actually help him. The endless hours of training would make his ankle act up from time to time, forcing him to finally get an MRI. The prognosis: it was fractured, the cartilage became so arthritic to the point where it was already too thin to function. He describes the pain as if the bone was being grinded down, unstable when not supported.
'There’s an odd dichotomy at work when it comes to Erik’s personality. His own fear of mortality coupled with his newfound passion to train may have hurt his body more than actually help him'
He had some options. He considered having his ankle joint fused through surgery because he’d found that there were a number of competitive climbers who’d undergone this procedure. But ultimately, because of a bad case of the flu, his surgery was cancelled and he opted for platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP) instead, which basically involves collecting and concentrating platelets and injecting them back into the injured part of the body.
After he came back home from working in Tacloban, covering the restoration efforts in the area post-Yolanda, he did three sessions of PRP, only to learn after another MRI that his ankle joint was completely destroyed. It had disappeared and was nowhere to be found. And when he asked the doctor how this happened, he was met with a heart-crushing “I don’t know.”
The turn of the screw
Because a tumor had already been found, a biopsy was done and he was diagnosed with bone tuberculosis. He was told not to walk for six months and had to take a constant dose of medication for his condition.
“Being active is the closest thing I have to a religion,” Erik says of the irony of his fate. “I knew that if I stopped, I would fall apart.” Erik needed to undergo a complicated procedure that would involve a steel frame penetrating his leg, supporting it as if to re-fuse and rebuild his lost joint. It worked. And he felt like his life was slowly falling back into place.
Or so he thought.
A screw was left inside his foot to help the bone repair, and when the doctors went back in to remove it, things got even more complicated. The wound would not heal and exudate would leak out of it, liquid spewing out of his foot like in a cheap horror movie. Further, when his test results came back, he in fact did not have bone tuberculosis, and the medication he’d been taking might have been the cause of his complications.
Was it bone cancer? Was it osteomyelitis [a kind of bone infection]? No one could answer him definitively. Only one thing was clear, there was already some life-altering nerve damage.
Making the cut
“I started getting sickly,” Erik remembers, shaking his head. “The pain just kept getting worse. Nobody knew what was happening. I was seeing doctors every day. There was a point where I had seven doctors in my team headed by an oncologist—and it was hell. I was already on a wheelchair. My body was so weak. Hindi ko na alam ang gagawin ko. I didn’t know what the fuck to do with my life.”
Fraught with confusion from his ennui, the idea of amputation lingered in his thoughts.
“The thing about the amputation is, I’d already been thinking about it, because a historical thing happened where in a Bouldering World Cup in Austria, yung nag-champion was an amputee. He was competing with normal people and he won first place. Plus, one time, while I was sitting in Figaro, I saw a man running in front of me with blades for legs. Napaisip ako.”
At this point, Erik’s mindset was that the damaged leg was physically, emotionally, and mentally weighing him down. True to his personality, he was willing to take on the challenge and go to the extremes to remedy the situation.
“I brought it [amputation] up with my wife and she actually thought I was going crazy.” And after much convincing and consultations with experts and loved ones, Erik finally decided—he was going to have his leg cut off.
'True to his personality, he was willing to take on the challenge and go to the extremes to remedy the situation'
On July 11, 2016, Erik went in for the amputation. He remembers waking up the next day, looking down, seeing the leg gone, and feeling a sense of relief. He was elated, also maybe because his pain was being treated with Demerol, which he describes as “pure heaven.”
“I knew then and there that a lot of it was going to come from me—the work and the effort. I was convinced that this was just me trying to reach another goal and I’m very comfortable with that kind of scenario. After the operation, I was without a prosthetic for a month.”
But as soon as the drugs wore off, phantom pain started, where he felt physical agony as if his leg were still there. He would need the help of professionals to rebuild his strength and character.
Form and function
“The challenges in Erik’s case are three-fold,” explains Dr. Stanley A. Chua, Erik’s health optimization specialist and a functional medicine practitioner from the Center of Functional Medicine in Makati. “The first is recovery. After a procedure like Erik’s, he will need to recover as quickly as possible with the goal of preventing muscle loss. Most amputee patients are bedridden and physically inactive and lose a significant amount of muscle tone in their body.”
Dr. Chua adds that this was the first priority post-op. He already knew that if Erik lost a significant amount of muscle around the time of his surgery, he would be unable to proceed in building his body to attain his goal of biking again. “The second challenge is adaptation. Having lost a limb, he will need to relearn skills such as walking, running, and jumping. He has to learn to coordinate his body and muscle movements with his prosthetic. The third challenge is normalcy. Being able to do simple things on his own like grocery shopping, cooking, and driving will be huge challenges going forward. Normalcy can be the most frustrating aspect as some of the common and more mundane tasks may cause despair.”
Since Dr. Chua practices functional medicine and functional nutrition, he supports Erik's goal to optimize the body. Erik’s plan, he explains, has two pillars.
The first is optimized nutrition—a specific plan for caloric intake, proportioning of macronutrients, and utilizing certain foods for their healing properties. The nutrition plan began even before Erik’s surgical intervention to anticipate the inflammation and muscle loss post-surgery. His nutrition plan, on the other hand, incorporates nutrient supplementation and hormonal management (the second pillar) to optimize anabolism and the building up of the tissues to counter the stress that he will be putting his body through during his rigorous rehabilitation.
When it comes to the fitness aspect of Erik’s maintenance, sports physiotherapist Clarissa Anne R. Tejada of Kaya Football Club, helps him target what she calls "key points of control," which primarily targets the pelvis.
“The pelvis is wired up to the lower body, which creates a centrifugal network of muscle energy transfer,” she shares. “If an individual trains the ‘center’ well, you provide a good supply of stability, mobility, and endurance.” In Erik's case, she devised a circuit interval training that establishes stability first, then mobility, followed by controlled motions that will be refined as skills.
“His Amputee Rehabilitation was heavy with gluteal strengthening and mobilization on his lower back to allow him to be comfortable in weight bearing in his prosthesis," adds Tejada. I am very particular with the hip-strengthening as this can reduce stress applied on his residual limb/knee by concept of muscle energy transfer. Plus, the muscles in this joint are larger and more powerful in contraction compared to the knee and lower back (which reduces the aches). Along with this, he underwent a series of functional movement patterns that focuses on hip, trunk, and his remaining limbs.”
Erik remembers the first day he got his prosthetic leg, describing the sensation as more unnatural than painful. Made from carbon fiber, it’s a trainer leg that’s meant for daily use.
“When I say trainer leg,” he explains, “it has a low-impact foot so you can only use it for walking.” He’s working his way to a leg fit for the active lifestyle he wants to lead and he assures that it’s going to be a high-tech one.
“The active lifestyle prosthetic for sports has a vacuum socket,” he notes, his eyes lighting up like a kid who’s been told he’s about to have pizza for dinner. “It has a pump that creates a vacuum inside that holds your limb in place. This is the most high-tech. It even has a microprocessor that detects your limb volume and adjusts the pressure accordingly. It has a small remote and you can control it on your phone. I always tell my friends that if you look at this in a different way, it’s actually really cool.”
'That's why I'm always in short—I'm proud that I'm a fucking cyborg. At the same time, it's difficult. It’s not like you can just wear a prosthetic and walk. You have to be very determined'
Even as he discusses the components needed in finding the perfect prosthetic leg so he can run, bike, and climb again, he treats the situation as a hobby, geeking out on the numerous possibilities rather than succumbing to depression.
”A part of me is pretty thrilled to have this,” he says. “That’s why I’m always in shorts. I’m proud that I’m a fucking cyborg. At the same time, it’s difficult. What people don’t see is how much effort it took. This situation weeds out the weak. It’s not like you can just wear a prosthetic and walk. You really need to prepare yourself, do your training. You have to be very determined.”
Despite going through a gamut of physical, mental, and emotional stress, Erik’s philosophy towards life has always remained intact, tempered by a will to test his limits. And he knows that his journey is just beginning.
Walking on a dream
Today, Erik just hopes to get back to a normal life—a routine where he can work, run, bike, do his photography, and hopefully climb a mountain again someday. He’s been biking again, slowly and steadily, pushing himself just a little bit further each time his new foot is on that pedal.
“I spent most of my life seeking the challenge,” he says. “I was always out there trying to get out of my comfort zone. This is the ultimate challenge. People are given difficult situations and it’s up to you what to do with it. Whatever I do, I can’t get that leg back. You just have to move forward and make the best of it. It’s not about what sort of luck was thrown at you, but what you do with that luck. Anyone can have a bad dice roll, but what you do with those numbers is up to you.”
The kind of wisdom Erik doles out in abundance is rare—an altruistic form of enlightenment that only people who’ve faced true adversity are in possession of. And although he’s lost a leg, his faculties are complete.
And in this winning state of mind, one can’t help but see that he is, in fact, whole.