116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Seven years after his left leg was amputated, KMRY radio host Ricky Bartlett was facing another cut in his life.
The flesh-eating disease that nearly killed him in 2014 — a necrotizing fasciitis he believes he contracted 12 years ago in South Dakota — had already returned once to claim a toe on his right foot in 2018. By January 2022, doctors said he would need to amputate half his right foot.
After coming within hours of death from the septic infection in 2014, he wasn’t having any of his doctor’s piecemeal approach to amputating his right leg earlier this year. This time, the on-air personality wanted a clean break.
So he told them to take the whole thing off.
“I ain’t walking around like no goat,” he told the doctor in his Georgia drawl, electing to amputate the entire leg to the point just below the knee to match his other leg.
Three months after he became a double amputee in May, the Iowa City resident hasn’t regretted it.
“Being a double amputee actually feels better. I felt odd before with two different legs,” said Bartlett, 50. “I don’t look at these legs as adversity. I look at them as continuing on.”
Bartlett’s brand of optimism and life story certainly aren’t foreign to his listeners on 93.1 FM. Whether he’s giving a glimpse into his childhood in the projects of Columbus, Georgia, or reading the specials for a nearby pizza restaurant, listeners hang onto his every word.
“People just eat him up,” said Holly Penuel, the KMRY host who hops on after his shift ends at 11 a.m. “You either love him or hate him, but you listen.”
An Alabama native, she’s known Bartlett for 12 years. He reminds her of one tenet from her Southern upbringing: kindness.
While losing two legs has made Bartlett more humble and open to reality, she doesn’t think the charismatic host has found a “new lease on life” after facing the same adversity twice.
It’s the same lease as before. The only difference is what he does in life to pay the rent.
Bartlett is keenly aware of how closely thousands of people listen. That’s why he chooses happiness to pay his rent in life — especially on the air, where he forms an intangible connection with listeners he calls “family” every chance he gets.
“Losing legs has given me a freedom a lot of people don’t have. Accept me or don’t, but I have an appreciation for those who do,” he said. “I don’t put on airs. What you see is what you get.”
Now an advocate for those with disabilities, the first advice he gives to amputees is a hard pill to swallow: “You’re going to hate yourself for a while. You’re going to cry. Suck it up, because it is what it is, and you can’t change it.”
He knows well because he’s still going through some of it.
At physical therapy, the personality that barreled through any shadow of hesitation on the air trembled with frustration as he struggled to lift his prosthetic leg onto a platform. He ran out of breath after walking a couple laps around the gym and silently wiped away tears of pain later as the therapist pushed his knee back into stretches.
Behind the scenes, these are the moments that have built the larger than life radio personality and actor into the voice the Corridor hears between Taylor Dayne and Janet Jackson hits weekday mornings.
“On the air, I’m still true to myself, but I tend to be on the more optimistic side,” he told The Gazette. “When people do see (emotions), it’s highly embarrassing. I wear a mask a lot.”
The host’s brand of optimism isn’t a toxic positivity that refuses to acknowledge adversity or pretend it’s had no effects on life. But at times, the mask is a form of sacrifice for the community he’s grown so fond of thousands of miles away from his hometown.
He tells his life stories with humor because he knows how much hope it has instilled in those with disabilities. He doesn’t get to have a bad day on air because he’s read the messages from listeners who were dissuaded from suicide by his relentless optimism.
How it changed him
Between the loss of his first leg and his second leg, wife Jennifer Bartlett noticed a couple changes.
The rose-colored glasses he wore after his first amputation were insufferable to her, at times — a byproduct of being grateful to be alive, Ricky explained.
“There’s the Mary Poppins on Skittles,” she would say when he raved about something as mundane as the quality of their toilet paper.
But after the second amputation, she watched him finally break away from his “cave man” mentality — the one that said “I can face it all on my own.”
It wasn’t until he lost both of his lower limbs that he realized how much support he had to lean on. And it wasn’t until then that he could finally open himself up to the support of the community he called family.
He chooses happiness despite the strain of physical therapy and crippling phantom pains from limbs that are no longer there. With support from every angle as he relearns how to walk, Ricky doesn’t feel compelled to sign the cliched “new lease on life.”
“I can see that for someone who’s never been through things. But I’ve been through the death of a brother, the divorce of my parents, years of abuse when I was young, extreme poverty, the amputation of my legs, heart disease,” he said. “I don’t allow myself to feel sorry for myself. I don’t allow myself to let things on the outside interfere with what I want anymore.”
The next leg of life
The next leg of Ricky’s journey is already filled with plans.
The Iowa City actor has resumed auditions. He’s set to film for one role in late October.
In September, he took a refresher motorcycle course to hop onto the chopper be bought as a motivational gift for himself. Soon, he’ll relearn how to operate it with two prosthetic legs.
Next September, he plans to travel to Sri Lanka, where he hopes to be the first double amputee to complete the Rickshaw Run with a three-wheeled vehicle racing 400 miles over several days.
But in between it all, he’ll still be on the air, doing the job that helped bring him back to life in 2014.
“I didn’t believe this before,” he said, pointing to the Superman emblem on his left prosthetic leg. “Now, I believe it.”
The outside of his next pair of prosthetics will be fitted with an emblem of a green fist — the logo for the Incredible Hulk.
Comments: (319) 398-8340; firstname.lastname@example.org