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Amputation a life-changing event

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Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 7:34 am

One man’s personal account

When I was told in the summer of 1964 that my leg was to be amputated, my first reaction was to say they didn’t do that any more. That was something out of the Civil War.

Yes, it had been 100 years since the Civil War, and now it’s 150. But it still happens, and last Monday, 13 people underwent amputations after the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

Obviously, losing a limb is a life-changing event, a line in the sand. There’s before, and there’s after. But “after” doesn’t have to be all negative.

There are many reasons for amputations. There are the medical cases, cancer, diabetes, blood clots, etc. There are congenital situations. There are motor vehicle accidents and terrorists’ bombs. And, of course, there is war. Ironically, my amputation left me ineligible for military service.

My amputation was the result of a motor scooter accident. I was 18 and a whole lot smarter than my parents. So when they told me not to buy a motor scooter, that meant I “had to” buy it, which I proceeded to do. I never made it home. I was hit broadside, a quarter-mile from home. The accident happened on Route 62 in North Wilmington, at the end of High Street. I landed on the street with a double compound fracture of my lower left leg.

I was taken to St. John’s Hospital in Lowell. Two nights later, I was transferred to Mass. General in Boston. I arrived just after midnight and was in surgery for about five hours, with doctors trying to restore the circulation in my leg. I was unaware of the serious prospects I was facing.

Infection set in. I was given 20 million units of penicillin a day. But with so much tissue damage, the penicillin was unable to reach the infection. Every third day, I was taken to the operating room, where doctors would open my cast and remove dead tissue. After 12 days of this, there wasn’t much left. The primary concern became stopping the infection before it moved up into my knee.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the accident put my mother through hell. One night, she got home about 10 p.m. and called her friend Maggie Imbimbo, known for her colorful language. “I need to hear some of those words I can’t say,” she said. I believe that signing the authorization for the amputation was the most difficult thing that she ever had to do.

It was my girlfriend who told me they were talking about amputation. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but . . .” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe it. This was 1964, and medicine had advanced so far. No, it had not.

The next morning, two weeks after the accident, I was taken to the operating room. I knew the score. Dr. Chandler told me it was very likely they would amputate.

The sensation I had when I woke up in the recovery room was of my leg being very light. My muscles were apparently reacting to the change, and my leg lifted from the bed. There was no pain at that time; I was heavily medicated. What hit me, though, was the knowledge that this was permanent. My leg was gone.

It would be six more weeks before I was released from the hospital. In all, I went through ten operations. Before the accident, I weighed 180 pounds. When I was released, I was 125. If you just want to lose 55 pounds, this is not the way to do it.

I went back to school in September on crutches. Jim Banda, a World War II disabled veteran, loaned me a pair of arm-cuff crutches, known as Canadian crutches. These gave me great flexibility. I could go up and down stairs step-over-step, since I didn’t have a heavy cast in the way.

It would be mid-November before I got a prosthesis. It truly was a wooden leg, with a balsa wood core. I think Fred Flintstone copied the design from the dinosaurs, or maybe it came out of the Civil War.

This prosthesis was quite uncomfortable, especially in hot humid weather. Because it was attached to the thigh, where there is a lot of flesh, the prosthesis would “piston” with every step, pounding my stump into the hard socket.

In 1980, I saw a poster for a handicapped ski program. That winter, I took my first ski lesson at Stratton Mountain, Vermont. Nine weeks later, leaving my prosthesis behind, I skied the top of the mountain. I like to say that when I started going downhill, everything in my life went uphill. In my second winter, I skied 44 days.

The program also led some ambitious hikes in the White Mountains and canoe trips on the Saco River in Maine. I wouldn’t have pursued those activities if there hadn’t been a dynamic double amputee there to challenge me, refusing to accept any excuses. The group motto was “If I can do this, I can do anything.”

The ski program became a peer group of amputees which also provided some important networking. If one amputee gets a fantastic new leg (or legs), everyone wants to know how it works and who made it. Some great advances in prosthetics have come from athletes putting great demands on their limb-makers. Other advances, though, have come about because of wars.

Eventually I connected with a firm in New Hampshire where many of my ski friends are clients. My high-tech limb incorporates a suspension system that does not allow my stump to “piston.” in the socket. The leg incorporates some energy-return technology of the type used by “blade runners”.

This summer will be the 49th anniversary of the accident. It’s nothing to celebrate, but I don’t let it get me down. Attitude is everything.

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