Twenty-three years ago, Jeff Lewis lost his spleen in an accidental shooting. In April 2005, he lost both hands and feet in another life-threatening event.
What he never lost was his determination.
That’s why Lewis, a quadruple amputee, Monday will be at the Buttes in Tempe as a guest of honor at the 15th Courage Awards.
Lewis, a math teacher at Mesa Mountain View High School and Mesa Community College, continues to participate in athletic events and inspire the student-athletes he teaches.
He will receive the award during a ceremony which honors outstanding men and women in sports who have overcome physical challenges and hardship.
Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton and Tricia Downing, a teacher at CEC Middle College in Denver, are other award recipients.
Hamilton overcame a serious childhood illness and later a bout with testicular cancer, but remains an ice-skating legend. Downing was paralyzed following a bicycling accident, but continues to participate in Ironman triathlon and marathon events.
“I am honored but very humbled,” Lewis said. “There are so many people who have accomplished amazing things, like the co-receivers of this award. All I did was get sick and recover.”
Lewis nearly died after falling victim to an accidental shooting. A 15-year-old boy was shooting a .22 magnum rifle at his back fence when a stray bullet found Lewis.
“I guess he didn’t know that a chain-link fence can’t stop bullets,” Lewis said. “The bullet entered my side and shattered my spleen. It still is in my backbone lodged in between my spinal cord and my aorta.”
In April 2005, Lewis developed a circulatory infection — usually taken care of by the spleen — that forced doctors to amputate his hands and feet to save his life.
Lewis returned to teaching nine months after the surgery, walked in races such as the 4.2-mile Pat’s Run, and participated in other activities including bowling, golfing and dancing with his wife, Carol.
“I never ran (Pat’s Run) before this happened to me,” Lewis said. “Now I do it because I can. I am not very fast — they time me with a calender, but I have never finished last.”
There are things in life he misses — playing the guitar and mandolin. But he’s adjusted.
Having bowled with a local team that earned $100,000 in a Pabst National Team Championship, he was determined to return to the lanes. So he helped design a special prosthesis.
Lewis, 54, and his wife routinely visit rehabilitation centers, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. to speak with and encourage other amputees.
Lewis, who was born in Washington but has lived in the East Valley for 30 years, recalled one visit to Walter Reed as his favorite.
“I think they lifted my spirits much more than I did theirs,” he said. “One soldier wore a T-shirt that said, ‘Marine for sale — some assembly required.’ ”
Lewis tries to use his experiences to help those he meets.
“Most of the time I don’t have to share much because they have made a conscious decision to amputate to improve their quality of life,” Lewis said. “I had to learn not to be so ‘gung ho’ with some people because they have not yet accepted what has happened. My attitude within 24 hours of discovering my situation was ‘let’s go!’ ”
Lewis’ Web site www.dontworryaboutme.com tells his story and offers inspiration. He is also available as a motivational speaker — in between teaching at two schools and keeping up with his favorite activities.
“If anyone deserves this award it is my wife, Carol.” Lewis said. “When every medical professional told her that there was no hope for me and there was nothing they could do, she held her ground and fought for me while I was unconscious and could not fight for myself.
“She is the reason I am alive today.”
The Courage Awards, which have raised more than $1 million since their inception 15 years ago, are produced by the Tempe Sports Authority. The event includes speeches and stories from each of the award recipients in addition to dinner and a silent auction.
Daron Sutton, the Arizona Diamondbacks play-by-play announcer, will serve as emcee.
Proceeds are used to fund community nonprofit organizations and scholarship programs for minority students at Arizona’s three state universities and selected community colleges.
For additional information, tickets or sponsorship opportunities, visit www.tempe.gov/courageawards or call Judi Yates at (480) 940-8666.