Amputee Returns to Pickleball

By Matthew Schwartz
January 9, 2024

“The pain,” Dave Foppert says, “the pain was excruciating.”

Foppert, 67, is a lifelong athlete. He began playing pickleball two years ago when he could no longer play basketball, another sport he loves. An athletic 6’1” and 180 pounds, he instantly took to pickleball, not just for the joy of playing but as a way for him and his wife, Terry, to meet new friends after retiring to Asheville, North Carolina.

(On a personal note as someone who’s played with and against Foppert, I can attest to his nasty serve and excellent court coverage.)

Foppert had lived with pain in his lower right leg for 30 years. The Cranford, NJ native suffered with hyper coagulation, also known as excessive blood clotting. The blood clots began in the leg when he was 35. He had a very rare, acquired mutation in his blood due to a virus or bacteria he picked up, the source unknown. He had 12 vascular surgeries on his femoral artery. Bypasses and stents were tried.

“The leg would be okay for a few years,” Foppert says, “then another clot would form, requiring additional surgery.”

Each operation was followed by several months of incapacitation and healing. “The pain before and after [each surgery] was extreme,” Foppert said.

His vascular surgeon could keep trying to reroute or clear the artery, but the prognosis was that at some point amputation would probably be necessary. “I always knew that amputation may be my reality in the future so it wasn’t a shock when the time came. I had always been very mindful and thankful for everything I was able to do. Basketball, ski, bike, raise four kids before that time came.”

I met Foppert at an Asheville pickleball court in 2022, months before his amputation. I knew nothing of his condition. One day while partnering with him I noticed him limping and asked what was wrong. “Foot problem,” was all he said. He seemed down and was very quiet. Little did I know.

Dave and Terry didn’t show up to play at our local pickleball courts for a while. I just assumed they were traveling or playing elsewhere. Then I heard from fellow players the reason why: In December 2022, Dave had his right leg amputated below the knee.

“The thought, the prospect when you think of getting your leg amputated is frightening as hell,” Foppert said. It is worse than the reality. Driving 11 hours from Asheville to New York for the surgery was tough. A lot of time to think about how I’ll soon be without part of my right leg.”

The amputation was done in December of 2022 in New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital by a prominent vascular surgeon, Dr. Gary Giangola. After the pain and grogginess from the morphine wore off, he says his first thought after the operation was, “Let’s just go from here.”

Ten months of recovery and rehabilitation followed, including learning to walk with a prosthetic lower leg.

Foppert has a positive outlook on his future. It is helped by what he saw while in rehab: A 16 year-old girl paralyzed from the waist down after a car crash caused by her mother. People without an arm or both arms. Obese amputees who could barely walk even before they had a foot or leg removed and had trouble adapting to prosthetics. “I can have a relatively normal life. I can still play pickleball and other sports,” he said.

Foppert got his prosthetic leg in March of 2023 and returned to pickleball five months later. “I was pretty tentative at first,” he said.

It was August when Dave returned, it was hot and humid so he showed up like the rest of us, wearing shorts. He wasn’t hiding his new leg and wanted no sympathy from other players. He wants you to play your normal game against him. Don’t think twice about making him run for a drop shot or lob. If that’s the strategically correct shot, hit it, as you would against any other player. And don’t go picking up the pickleball if he’s closer to it. When he’s closer to the ball he wants to get it himself. He wants to be treated like any other player.

I’ve noticed that Foppert seems happier on the court compared to when I played with him prior to the amputation, and told him so. “It doesn’t hurt to play now. Before, it hurt.”

His wife Terry has been a constant and crucial source of love and support. You can see the affection when they play together, with the occasional smiles and verbal jabs after either hits a good shot or bad one. Trash talk with affection and a smile. Terry is also a lifelong athlete, a former tennis player and terrific pickleball player who plays with Dave several times a week.

Foppert has a message for fellow amputees who play pickleball or any sport: “You can do anything you want. You just have to set your mind to it.”

His next goal is returning to another sport he loves, skiing. “Someday when I go skiing then I’ll know I can do anything.”

Now, when Dave says “zero-zero-start”, the word “start” could refer not just to the game, but to the rest of his life.