Dannyn Peterson is a tough-talking, motorcycle-riding Air Force brat with a heart of gold. She swears easily and laughs often. She carries a knife and a CPR mask. She is a mass of contradictions molded together into a complex, intense, fun-loving human being.
Ask her to attend a meeting and she will answer with a snarl. Tell her there’s a disaster client who needs assistance and she will drop everything and go to whatever lengths are necessary to help.
But what might arguably be the biggest paradox to Peterson is that the 47-year-old Northern Kentucky resident prefers to go by the nickname “Dash.” Sitting in her compact cubicle in the Cincinnati office—tucked into the corner where she is hidden from the common view yet commands a gunfighter’s perspective of the entire disaster operation—the first thing you notice about Peterson is her right leg. Or lack thereof.
Where there was once a calf, ankle and foot, there is now a manmade combination of carbon fiber, plastic and stainless steel. A motorcycle accident in 1992 began a 17-year journey of pain and agony that ended with her leg being amputated just below the knee, bringing great relief from her suffering but also bring with it the irony that the person who calls herself “Dash” now doesn’t go anywhere fast.
“Don’t ever tick me off,” she says. “You can out run me, but if I ever catch you I will take my leg off and beat you with it.”
She laughs hysterically.
While the issue of a disability is no laughing matter, Peterson shrugs off all attempts at taking her loss and limitation too seriously. Life’s jagged edges have left her philosophical to the point where everything is relative and not much can get her down. “A lot of people choose to sit around and let pain overtake them and let disability overtake them,” she says. “Before I had my operation, that’s when I was disabled. I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. Now, I just have a fake leg. That’s how I see it.”
While she may have lost her deftness afoot, her mind still operates at a hypersonic speed and her desire and ability to work have kept pace. A day without Dash in the office is rare, and one look at her long list of Red Cross qualifications reveals one of the region’s most skilled volunteers.
By title, she’s a disaster workforce engagement specialist in charge of onboarding and educating new disaster volunteers, as well as deploying others at a moment’s notice to some national or international disaster. She’s also a regional dispatcher, a caseworker, an ERV driver, a DAT member, a naturalization volunteer, and a certified health and safety instructor, which includes, of all things, swimming.
“I have a leg I use for swimming,” she says. “If you don’t have it, you just go in circles. Well, you don’t, but you kind of do. Anyway, before the accident I was a competitive swimmer. Even with one leg, I’m a stronger swimmer than most people. I did open water long distance swimming, so yeah, you actually do want me around when you are drowning.”
What she spends most of her time on, though, is teaching new volunteers the complexities of disaster work, blending Red Cross requirements with insights culled from her years on the frontlines. She ran a shelter in Indianapolis during Hurricane Katrina, a shelter in Waco, Texas, during Hurricane Ike, and did casework in Tupelo, Miss., when tornadoes ripped through the city. When typhoons tore apart Saipan this summer, she spent 45 days managing the disaster’s case work—from half a world away. Thanks to technology, she managed six caseworkers and handled 100-150 cases a day while sitting in her Northern Kentucky home.
“One of the things that I really work on is teaching new volunteers that instead of waiting for the disaster to happen, talk to their employer or teachers or families now. Let them know that there is a possibility that you might be gone for two or three weeks, and it might happen at a moment’s notice. When the phone call comes in, you have to be packed and ready to go. This means that you have to take care of kids, take care of the dog and make sure the bills are paid for the next few weeks.”
It’s the kind of invaluable perspective and knowledge that can only come from someone who has been through the circumstances and learned the hard way, and it’s the kind of information that can make or break a successful disaster volunteer. Someone who has a smooth first experience is likely to continue.
Interestingly, Peterson has a similar approach when dealing with clients. She’s been on their side of a disaster several times and, when those experiences are combined with an education in sociology and social work, it creates a different paradigm.
“I think I see things through a different lens than most of our volunteers,” she says. “I don’t just see that your house burned down and we need to put you in a hotel. It’s a process, a long process. I used to work the help desk for 2-1-1, too, and that changed how I see my clients and what their other needs are. I look at the bigger picture. In many cases, I know what they’ve been through because I’ve been through it as well.”
When she was 5 years old, her family’s home in Southern California burned. The Red Cross was there. She dealt with wildfires in the area and the flooding that happened as a result of the trees being destroyed. The Red Cross was there. When she was 19 and living in Columbus, Ohio, her family home was struck by lightning. “It was a rickety, old Victorian-era home, and it went up like a pile of matches.” The Red Cross was there.
“Because of those experiences, I knew I wanted to give something back,” she says, “but I was too stupid in my young adulthood. I was too busy doing careless, crazy stuff and living life. I figured that I would do something when I was older. Then, when I was 22, my whole life changed.”
* * *
“Have I ever shown you my tattoo?” she says.
She stands up, pulls off her artificial leg and reveals a tattoo that’s wrapped all the way around the middle of her lower leg, just below her stump.
“- – – – Cut below the dotted line. – – – -”
She laughs hysterically.
“I got it the week before I got my leg cut off. The surgeon still remembers me.”
She grabs some loose pieces of padding that fell out when she removed the leg and tosses them back in the socket that wraps around her stump. “I’m actually going this afternoon to get a new leg because this one is too big, by a lot. I have a whole bunch of stuff just jammed in there to keep my leg from knocking around. When I first got my leg amputated, the lower part of my leg was bigger around than my head. Now it’s about the size of my forearm. So they have to keep making me smaller and smaller ones.”
This will be leg number 19. The others are lined up in a closet at home.
Whatever inconveniences and adjustments she’s had to make to life with an artificial leg, though, were nothing compared to the agony she was living with during in the 17 years between the time of the accident and the amputation surgery.
“I had a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It was really hard to bathe because water going over my leg really hurt. A sheet lying over my leg was just excruciating. The pain was absolutely insane. It kept getting worse, and it kept going higher and higher up my leg. I was taking morphine or synthetic morphine for most of the 17 years to try and tamp it down. I was on so many drugs I was just a zombie. And it was very depressing because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.”
The whole ordeal began innocently. She went into work to take care of some paperwork and was riding her Yamaha Maxim 650 motorcycle around a curve when she hit a muffler that fell off someone’s car. The bike went down and her leg was trapped underneath.
“I had a brand new helmet on, and it didn’t have a scratch. But that didn’t do my leg any good. I tried to get up and couldn’t. My leg was just dangling there. This was before cell phones, so I wrapped my belt around my leg and waited for someone to come by.”
Today, she talks about it in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner, but knows that it was not simply one of those mundane events that fill most of our lives. It was life altering in every way possible—physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally. She nods in agreement.
“Yeah, I had to completely readjust everything in my life. It made me look around and re-evaluate what I’m seeing and what I’m doing. It brought about a lot of change. But it also brought me to the Red Cross.”