Ascending ambitions: A patient’s story of perseverance and peaks

Patient Stories | January 11, 2019
Jon happily waves his brace at the summit of Grand Teton
The perfect combination of expert, compassionate care and personal drive

From new heights to a new low

Jon Luthanen had always been very driven. He was the type of person who constantly sought out new challenges; he placed post-it notes of his lofty goals as daily reminders on his bathroom mirror.Jon looks out over a mountain scene.

Most of his aspirations were related to the outdoors. He was a mountaineer, alpine climber, backcountry skier and fly fisherman who found solace in the wilderness. There were remote places to visit and peaks to climb.

But in May of 2017, his goals all suddenly seemed out of reach. Jon fell while bouldering in Utah and suffered from a complicated pilon fracture in his ankle. He learned that he’d experience permanent disfunction in his ankle and need to adapt his active lifestyle to one that minimized repetitive impact.

This news was devastating to Jon. His outdoor adventures were not simply hobbies or distractions; they were important to his identity, psyche and social life. “I felt like my life had been ripped out from under me,” he said. “I was in a dark place.”

The trail to recovery

Warren Taranow, DO, an orthopedic surgeon with PeaceHealth Medical Group’s Center for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Bellingham, oversaw Jon’s care.

 “It was a major injury. His tibia essentially hit the top of his foot bone and exploded,” Dr. Taranow said. “I explained that it would require delicate surgical work to put it back together again, and it would never be the same. But as an outdoor enthusiast myself, I promised Jon that I’d restore as much mobility as I could.”

Jon underwent a four-hour surgery with Dr. Taranow, followed by four months of recovery—slowly transitioning from a scooter, to crutches, to a walking boot, to a compression sleeve. He worked with physical therapist Ned Hartley, PT, at the PeaceHealth Grabow Therapy & Wellness Center, for three months straight.

Dr. Taranow also recommended something else to aid in Jon’s healing: a prosthesis. He connected Jon with Tom Broselle, CPO, LPO, with Cornerstone Prosthetics & Orthotics. Tom created an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO)— a dynamic offloading brace— for Jon that used carbon fiber technology to minimize impact on his ankle joint. Jon admits that he wasn’t a fan of it at first (“I felt like ‘Frankenfoot,’” he joked), but he soon realized it was precisely the tool he would need to get to where he wanted to be.

Making strides

After feeling sidelined for so long, Jon felt his motivation return. “I wanted to push the envelope while looking after my body. I wasn’t going to be confined by the limited trajectory of my prognosis,” he explained.

Jon worked closely with Tom to customize his AFO leg brace as he began increasing his physical activity, returning to Cornerstone time and time again to make small modifications to the prosthesis to tailor it to his specific needs. He began running again. He signed up for a demanding course with the Bellingham Mountaineers to facilitate his re-entry into the wilderness, completing each of its difficult climbing requirements.

As Jon gained momentum, there was something at the back of his mind—a goal that had never been attained, a post-it note that had been on his mirror for the summer of 2017 that had been pushed aside: Grand Teton. He had a new climbing objective.

The summit

Many external factors seemed to conspire against Jon to prevent him from making his Grand Teton climb a reality, but he did not give up. After finding a climbing partner through an online forum, he made his way to Wyoming. On September 9, 2018, at precisely 5:30 p.m., he successfully summitted Grand Teton via the Upper Exum route. His AFO leg brace accompanied him the entire way—only being removed from his ankle and strapped to the back of his pack for the last 1,000 feet of technical climbing.

This accomplishment was a major milestone and turning point for Jon. He later sent Dr. Taranow and Tom a full trip report that included exhilarating photos and a full recap of the revitalizing experience. It also included a strong message of gratitude. “I cannot thank you both enough for the work you have done to allow me to pursue the things I love to do most,” the note read.

New mountains ahead

As he reflected about his journey, Jon further acknowledged the support he received along the way. “I don’t think I could have been in better hands than those of PeaceHealth and its partnerships,” he said.

He also shared hopes of inspiring others. His message: “You are only limited by your mind… With the right tools and care team, you’re truly unbounded if you’re willing to put in the time, energy and effort.”

As for future goals, Jon reported that new endeavors will likely make their way onto the post-it notes on his mirror. He has his eyes set on Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s highest peak, and he aims to take part in mountaineering philanthropy efforts to fundraise for under-resourced youth through a program called Summit for Someone.

“Wherever he’s headed, I know that he’ll continue breaking the mold,” Dr. Taranow said. “Patients like Jon remind us to keep fighting for what’s important to us and pushing our limits.”