Behind the infectious smile and outgoing personality is a man who overcame adversity with a belief that God had a plan for his life. Lafayette County Sheriff's Deputy Randy Henderson lost his right leg in a car accident 16-years-ago. After years of struggling with different prosthetics, Henderson is now sporting a state-of-the-art X2 prosthetic leg that allows him more control with its microprocessor-controlled knee joint. The X2 prosthetic is the result of a collaboration between the U.S. Military and Otto Bock Healthcare.
Born an Army brat in Stuttgart, Germany, Henderson returned to the states at nine months of age, living in Jacksonville for a short time, before relocating to the Rocky Sink area of Suwannee County to be nearer his grandfather, Walter Pitts. Pitts had a farm in Suwannee and he was also a Baptist minister.
Henderson attended elementary school in Live Oak and he is a 1989 graduate of Suwannee High School. After getting his diploma he joined the service, following in his father's footsteps. Both men served in the 101st Airborne unit of the United States Army; his father, four years during the Vietnam War and Henderson, six during the first Gulf War.
“Same regiment, as a matter of fact,” Henderson said with pride.
In 1994, after serving his country, Henderson secured a job at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) in Raiford as a corrections officer.
Then, in 1995, at 24, a tragedy struck that changed Henderson's life in ways he never could have imagined.
About one in the morning, after working a double shift at UCI, his partner suggested he stop for coffee before driving home to Live Oak, even though Henderson told him he didn't feel sleepy.
“I told him, 'I'm fine. I'm wide awake,' but I went anyway and drank coffee,” Henderson said.
Afterward, while driving his SUV along a lonely stretch of road on SR 100 between Lake Butler and Lake City, Henderson fell asleep behind the wheel. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt.
“I woke up when a fence post was slamming into the front of the truck,” he said. “Then I realized I was on the opposite side of the road.”
He snatched the wheel to get back onto the pavement and the SUV overturned several times, busting the sunroof in the process.
“Either the second or third time it rolled over, I was coming out of that sunroof,” Henderson said. “But something caught my right leg and the roof of the truck came down on the road while my leg was still trapped under it. So it took it right there.”
Henderson landed in a ditch near the tree line about 150 yards from the road. Somehow, he remained conscious and was able to put a tourniquet on his leg. While keeping an eye on the time, he would tighten the tourniquet every now and then in an attempt to keep the bleeding under control, which was something he learned in the military.
“I was staying focused on that,” he said. “That was my way of keeping myself together while I was waiting on somebody to hopefully find me.”
Without a cell phone, all he could do was wait for help to arrive. He said he would black out occasionally, but only for short periods when he retightened the tourniquet.
“I never could stop the bleeding,” he said. “Probably the only reason I'm still here is because the good Lord wasn't ready for me to go yet.”
After an hour of misery, as he lay in the ditch bleeding to death, a Pritchett Truck Line semi came along. Henderson watched the driver pull off to the side of the road and then come over with a flashlight to search the area.
“I tried hollering at him, but nothing would come out of my mouth,” Henderson said. “I think, about that time, I had a little onset of shock. He never saw me.”
Henderson watched him go back to his truck. A while later the Florida Highway Patrol arrived. Trooper Wright followed the debris field from the wreck and found Henderson in the ditch.
“He must have been in the military,” Henderson said. “It seemed to me he was combat lifesaver trained because he was assuring me that everything was okay.”
That's when Henderson's voice came back and he was able to talk.
“I think it's because he calmed me down,” said Henderson. “At that point I knew I was getting kind of critical because my time should have been up already. I remember thinking that before the Pritchett truck came along. I was thinking I should be bled out by now.”
One of the EMT's who arrived on the scene, Henderson figured must have been a rookie because he heard him shout, “Hey! I found the rest of his leg over here!”
“That's a no-no,” Henderson said. “You don't do that.”
Not only was Henderson's right leg severed, but his left leg was broken, and he remembers coming down on it foot first.
“Like any good paratrooper, I probably tried to peel up and all I had to land on was my left and that's how I shattered it,” he said.
He also injured his jaw, which he thinks bounced off the road when he hit the pavement.
“It didn't break it, it just busted it open,” he said. “I think I probably bit my cheeks and my tongue from the impact, because when I first came out of surgery my mom told me I still had a lot of dried blood inside my mouth. I got a hard old head,” he added, laughing.
Henderson says he remembers everything from the accident.
“I knew my leg was gone, but I couldn't feel the pain,” he said. “Like in the military and in this job, when your adrenaline gets going you start losing your fine motor skills. You start losing the feeling in your extremities, so yeah, I think my adrenaline was pretty jacked up at that point.”
Henderson said he lost so much blood that doctors had to replace most all of it. His leg was severed mid-shin below the knee, but because the stump got jammed down into the mud when he was ejected from the vehicle, there was a lot of debris in the wound. The more the doctors cleaned it, Henderson said, the more tissue came out. Consequently, there was no way to re-attach his leg.
“Once they get that close to the knee,” Henderson said, “they just go ahead and take it off because there's no way to get a prosthetic on.”
After the surgery Henderson was restless. He asked the doctor what he needed to do to get out of the hospital and was told he had to be able to transfer himself from the bed to the wheelchair and from the wheelchair to the commode.
“I want to see you do it without pain,” the doctor told him. “If you can do it without pain, we can send you home and give you a home nurse.”
Henderson spent just three days in the hospital.
“I got out of there,” he said. “I never cared for hospitals.”
All he wanted was to get back to work at the prison, but he said UCI told him he would never be able to work at the compound again and could never be a corrections officer. Henderson set out to prove them wrong.
Three months later he was being fitted for a prosthetic. He was only wheelchair-bound for a short time before advancing to crutches, aiming to get himself as mobile as possible.
His 80-year-old grandfather, who had moved to Jacksonville, used to get up at four in the morning and drive to Live Oak every day to help take care of him.
“He would be at my house at six or six-thirty sometimes,” Henderson said. “He knew I couldn't stand being cooped up in that house. I've always been an outdoors person.”
His grandfather loved to go to Hamilton County because he preached there for a long time, so the two of them would visit friends there or go for rides in the woods.
Henderson said he got divorced from his first wife shortly after the accident. They have two sons; Tristan, 12, and Aiden, 15. After he married his second wife, Suzanne, they had another son, Trey, who is now five. Suzanne has another son, Brandon, 16, from her first marriage.
Miraculously, Henderson went back to work six months after the accident with what he says was a 'stone age' prosthetic. He didn't go back to UCI, though. Instead, he went to Hamilton Correctional Institution, where he worked from 1995 to 1998.
With his dream intact of becoming a patrol officer, he then went to work for the Suwannee County Sheriff's Office. He was with SCSO for nine years and eight months, starting there when Al Williams was sheriff.
“Yeah, Sheriff Williams took a gamble on me, but I think he always had faith in me,” Henderson said.
Policy stated that you had to work at the jail first before going out on patrol. When it was getting close to the time Henderson could make the transfer, he approached Williams and said, “I'm ready now.”
Henderson had some reservations, because he didn't want to be a liability to himself or the other officers, but he knew he could do it if given the chance. He told Williams to put him on a 60-day trial and if he didn't perform up to standards then he could send him back to the jail and he would be the best jailer he ever saw. A couple days later, Williams told him to go get himself a patrol car.
“Man, I was on top of the world,” Henderson said, smiling. “I owe a lot to him because he gave me the opportunity.”
Henderson's original prosthetic was basically a free-swinging hinge that didn't lock and it presented many challenges, especially climbing up and down stairs or inclines.
“It felt like it weighed 25-30 pounds,” he said. “I imagine I was quite a sight walking on that.”
Some folks, he said, made fun of him and it bothered him. Wearing shorts was out of the question because he was so self-conscious. That's when Suzanne stepped in and set him straight, telling him he shouldn't feel ashamed.
Henderson spent time as a school resource officer in Branford for two years before he left Suwannee County and he said the kids were intrigued with his prosthetic leg.
“Kids aren't looking because they think you're weird or there's something wrong with you,” Suzanne told him. “They're looking because they think it's neat.”
In 2004, Henderson moved to Mayo, and in 2007 he got a job with the Lafayette County Sheriff's Office when Carson McCall was sheriff. Henderson is now a patrol shift supervisor for LCSO.
Since the accident, Henderson has had several different prosthetics. First the hinge type, then a hydraulic one, and in 2004 he was fitted with the first generation computerized leg through the VA, called the C-Leg. One day, while at the Hardenbergh Boat Ramp on a drowning call, he slipped and fell.
“I felt it bust,” he said of the foot on the prosthetic.
A trainee who was with him was standing at the top of the ramp, so Henderson tossed him his keys.
“Get my car and pull it right up to me!” he shouted to him, and the trainee looked at him funny. “Just get my car and drive it up to me!” he repeated. “I'll tell you when you get here!”
Sheriff Brian Lamb arrived, and after hearing what happened, he told Henderson to go home and take care of his leg because he had everything under control. Henderson wasn't deterred and told Lamb he would be back in 15 minutes. He went home, took a foot off an old prosthetic, and within 15 minutes he was back.
On Aug. 24 of this year Henderson was fitted with the X2 prosthesis system, a microprocessor-controlled device that reacts to subtle changes in terrain or the wearer’s gait. Victor Bustamante, of Mid-Florida Prosthetics and Orthotics, is the man who changed Henderson's life for the better.
“I can crouch now, I can squat...things I couldn't do with the other one,” Henderson said. “It's been a life changer, that's for sure.”
Henderson has 18 years total with law enforcement, including his time working at the prisons. Suzanne, he said, is going through law enforcement training and trying to get on with FHP. He and his family attend Advent Christian Church off US 27.
A church member once asked Henderson if he would change anything if allowed to go back in time.
Henderson said, “I wouldn't change a thing. I know a few times I've had a good impact on somebody. Even though I lost a major limb I can still get out there and carry out my dream.”
Henderson hopes he is an inspiration to others with disabilities. He said it's all about adapting and not feeling sorry for yourself – not that he hasn't felt that way himself, especially after the accident when he asked God why this happened to him. He overcame those thoughts, though, thanks to the support of family, friends, church members and especially his wife Suzanne.
With the C-leg, Henderson said he had a constant wound on the end of his stump where it would rub against the prosthetic.
“It used to be when I would get up in the mornings and look at that leg propped up over there, it was just a painful reminder,” he said. “It's not that way anymore.”
Henderson is proud of his remote-controlled X-2 with the camouflage design on the knee. It has allowed him to do so much more, including running, which he hasn't been able to do since he lost his leg. Since the accident, he was able to thank Trooper Wright, but he never got the name of the Pritchett truck driver. If he could, he would like to thank him for saving his life.