Nearly five years ago, Albert Yu-Min Lin was out with a friend in an open-top four-wheel-drive vehicle—a cross between a golf cart and a Jeep. Bombing around the desert and kicking up clouds of dust was the sort of thing the 40-year-old scientist and professional adventurer did to relax. On this particular September day, his friend was driving. He took a fast turn, the vehicle tipped, and Lin’s reaction was to put his right foot out, the way you do with your arms when you trip while running. His leg got pinned under the full weight of the vehicle, and the roll bar completely crushed the bones below his knee—shattered them like they had taken a bullet. Lin and his friend had to wait for an hour for help to arrive.
For Lin, this was an immediate introduction to the curious ways the mind creates reality. “I could look down and see this completely transformed part of my body under extreme duress—totally mutilated—but not actually feel it,” he tells me. “Looking down at my leg it was like I was looking through a distortion lens. All of my senses were slightly heightened. Things were brighter and sounds were different. But I didn’t feel any pain. My brain was telling me that there was no pain.” He was both completely aware of his situation, and watching as an outsider.
He was in the hospital for weeks after the accident. The doctors tried to stabilize his leg— they talked about various surgeries and ongoing treatments so that he could possibly walk again. Lin loved to surf and hike and play with his two young children. But after serious deliberation, he decided to amputate. Lin recalls seeing a picture of photographer and surfer Mike Coots, who lost his leg in a shark attack when he was 18 years old, surfing a huge barrel with a prosthetic leg. Lin’s friends tracked Coots down and put Lin in touch, and they talked on the phone while Lin was still in the hospital. Lin started thinking more and more about the life he could live with a prosthetic leg. How it would allow him to find a new normal.