Sarah Doherty’s life was forever changed one evening in 1973 when a drunk driver slammed into her while she was cycling to a friend’s house in her hometown of Taunton, Mass. The near-fatal impact tore off her right leg and shattered her pelvis.
But while no one could have known it then, the horrific crash would ultimately benefit thousands of people. The accident launched Ms. Doherty on a lifelong quest for better crutches and mobility aids for active amputees – work that has improved the quality of life of amputees and people with spinal cord injuries around the world.
The grateful beneficiaries of her life’s passion poured their thanks out on social media last month as word spread of Ms. Doherty’s sudden death on Jan. 11 at age 62 from a suspected brain aneurysm.
“I never met her but she changed my life. Because of her, I have a life in the outdoors. I am so, so grateful for her and her contribution to the disability community,” wrote one person on the Facebook page for SideStix Ventures Inc., the small business in Sechelt, B.C., that Ms. Doherty founded in 2010 with her husband, Kerith Perreur-Lloyd.
Ms. Doherty and her identical twin sister were born in Taunton to John and Jane Doherty on Dec. 21, 1959. They were the sixth and seventh children for the big Irish-Catholic family, with two more still to come.
Ms. Doherty was an active child before the accident but not particularly sporty, her twin, Susan Gabriel, recalls. That would all change as the adventurous young woman healed from her traumatic injury and looked for new ways to maintain her enjoyment of the outdoors.
Six months after her accident, she had taken up skiing. She joined the New England Handicapped Sports Association, and under the coaching of fellow amputee Kirk Bauer – who would go on to found Disabled Sports USA – began making a name for herself as a competitive ski racer.
In her early 20s, she moved to Winter Park, Colo., to devote more time to the sport. She was chosen for the U.S. Paralympic team in 1988, which competed in the debut of adaptive skiing at the Winter Olympics in Calgary that year.
She started climbing mountains, summiting Washington’s Mt. Rainier in 1984, the first woman on one leg to achieve the climb. The following year, she became the first amputee without a prosthetic to summit North America’s highest peak, Alaska’s Denali.
The final leg of that climb had to be completed on just one crutch after her other crutch broke under the strain, Ms. Gabriel notes.
Every adventure was a chance not just to test her abilities doing things she loved, Mr. Perreur-Lloyd says, but to test and modify her crutches for higher performance and comfort. Ms. Doherty was committed to finding a crutch design that allowed active people with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors.
“The way we’ve been trained to think of disability is that a person should buy the cheapest mobility aid possible and use it as little as they can to deny the ‘defeat’ of needing it in the first place,” Mr. Perreur-Lloyd says.
“But you wouldn’t try to drive a nail in with the palm of your hand. Sarah understood mobility aids as tools that could expand how you live your life. She demonstrated that every day, just by being.”
Ms. Gabriel says her sister wore a prosthesis in her school years, as self-conscious as any teenager about her appearance. But the amputation was so high on her body that the prosthesis was never comfortable, and Ms. Doherty gave it up entirely as a young adult.
Mountain-climbing and ski racing took a back seat to motherhood and a career as a pediatric occupational therapist after Ms. Doherty met and married her first husband, Dr. Russ Kellett. Their children, Hannah, Abilee and Joshua were born in Roberts Creek, B.C., where the couple settled after first visiting the Sunshine Coast in the years when Dr. Kellett was in medical training.
The marriage later ended, and Ms. Doherty returned to her dream of designing a better crutch. An opportunity came in May, 2004, to join a group of women who had come together to walk the 800-kilometre Spanish pilgrimage, Camino de Santiago.
Setting out on prototype crutches that she had developed, Ms. Doherty walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, accompanied by a Canadian woman and a German man whose paces were similar to hers.
“She walked with two complete strangers right over the Pyrenees,” Ms. Gabriel marvels. “She was an extraordinary person.”
The Canadian, Georgina Foster-Haig, was left in awe of Ms. Doherty’s tremendous athleticism and indomitable spirit.
“One day it had rained and rained, and we were walking down to a place to stay for the night that was pure mud,” Ms. Foster-Haig says. “We were slipping and sliding all over the place, and it was really hard for Sarah to get traction for her crutches. She never complained, just kept going. She was a force of nature.”
Fortunate coincidences have altered the course of Ms. Doherty’s life at various points over the years, starting with the police officer who happened to be parked on the block where Ms. Doherty was hit by the drunk driver. His decision to lift her into the back seat of the squad car to get her to hospital faster was a factor in saving her life.
Then there were the two surgeons newly returned from field hospitals in Vietnam who happened to be working at the Taunton hospital that day, fresh from the experience of dealing with horrendous traumatic injuries.
A coincidence on the sidelines of an elementary-school soccer game in Roberts Creek in the early 2000s was another life-changer for Ms. Doherty. She found herself chatting with a man whose 10-year-old son was on the same soccer team as her own son.
The man was a structural engineer who shared her love of hiking and the outdoors. They made plans to go hiking, and were soon having regular conversations about how to build a better crutch. Ms. Doherty had the real-life experience, while Mr. Perreur-Lloyd knew the science.
Recalling that fateful encounter at the soccer field, Mr. Perreur-Lloyd says he was “in it from the start” with the woman he would one day marry. But Ms. Doherty’s trust had been badly shaken by the failure of her first marriage, and it took the long walk of the Camino in 2004 to clarify things for her.
She came back from the walk knowing two things: She was ready to love again; and the crutches she had used on the walk needed further adaptation.
And so began SideStix. Mr. Perreur-Lloyd says the little company couldn’t have gotten off the ground without the grants and support of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, which “walked alongside of us for years.”
Ms. Doherty’s efforts on behalf of people with disabilities got noticed. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, and named a Woman of Achievement in 2014 by the service organization Girls Incorporated of Taunton.
For many years, Ms. Doherty wrote monthly online features of people whose own lives were changed by SideStix. Those powerful testimonials kept her going through years of business ups and downs, Ms. Gabriel says.
The couple made a successful pitch on the sixth season of CBC’s Dragons’ Den in 2011. Plans went no further, however, after they realized that the Dragons envisaged a factory in China pumping out ready-made crutches, not the highly individualized product that Ms. Doherty had in mind.
“Sarah was our icon, our chief guinea pig, and so central to this company,” Mr. Perreur-Lloyd says. “There’s so much I haven’t wrapped my head around about how SideStix will go on, but we have to. This was so important to Sarah.”
Those who knew Ms. Doherty recall a charismatic listener who gave people her whole attention in any conversation. Her daughter Hannah Kellett – the only one to miss out on the 2009 family hike of Vancouver Island’s difficult West Coast Trail – says that beyond all the accomplishments, her mother was simply “a really good human.”
“She trusted in things happening the way they were meant to. She equipped all of us with the tools we needed to move forward, even now,” Ms. Kellett says.
Pain was a constant in Ms. Doherty’s life, and recent years were particularly hard, Ms. Gabriel says. She lived with an undiagnosed broken pelvis for three years after a fall. Another fall broke her sacrum.
Even as her family mourns her death, Mr. Perreur-Lloyd says they take comfort knowing she’s no longer in pain: “Anyone who loved her will know her energy is still with them.”
Predeceased by her older brother, Steve, Ms. Doherty leaves her siblings Mary, John, Paul, Margaret, Susan, Elizabeth and Bill; children, Hannah, Abilene and Joshua; husband, Mr. Perreur-Lloyd; stepson, Kelly; and grandsons, Ivan and Zeke.