One of my childhood friends had her leg amputated last year due to infection.
She's new to the area and I've gotten reacquainted with her. She's shared some of the trials of living with limb loss. One of her major challenges has been finding other people to talk with who have had similar experiences.
The Amputee Coalition of the USA says that 1.7 million people, or one in every 200, deal with limb loss. Limb loss is the result of accidents, infections, burns, diabetes, cancer, frostbite and congenital factors.
With my friend in mind, last week I went to Horizon Books to hear Randy Park, 56, a coach, athlete, teacher, father and husband, discuss his own limb loss. At 21, Randy was in a motorcycle accident. Sometime later, infection necessitated that his left leg below the knee be removed. Randy's story is featured in the book, "Full Circle" by Gordon Galloway.
In 35 years, Randy has had more than 80 surgeries and numerous prostheses. Currently, he's wearing a robotic ankle from the BIOM Company. The CEO of BIOM is a double leg amputee. Randy said many times during his presentation that his motivation for sharing his experiences is to help others. He commonly asks persons with limb loss what it is they want to do and then helps them find a way to do it. This includes playing tackle football!
One of my favorite moments from the presentation centered on the exchange of stories and ideas between Randy and retired Traverse City veterinarian and international ski champion George Lombard. George lost his leg in a farm accident more than 60 years ago. The two men discussed the role of sports in their lives, pain, diet, balance, sockets or what the stump fits into, ganglions or massive nerve tissue and neuromas, or tumors consisting of nerve fibers. George mentioned that with age, the stump of a limb can shrink and create difficulty in fitting the prosthesis. Arthritis in one's hips, back and other parts of the body can also add challenges to using a prosthesis.
Both men said regardless of how many years it's been, they can still remember the day of their accidents in complete detail: sounds, sights, smells — everything.
George and his wife Lorna have been married for more than 50 years. She literally beams when she talks about him. A retired teacher, Lorna told me that when she met George at MSU she didn't know he wore prosthesis. She said he's always been proud of his gait.
The Lombards have a long history of being very generous in their support of others in our community dealing with limb loss. George and Lorna looked at Randy's robotic ankle as they shared a story about George making his first prosthesis out of wood. At the end of the presentation, Randy and George removed their shoes and socks and took a side by side photo of their prostheses. I overheard Randy say that there are over 300 different types of feet people can select.
Randy's given many presentations and said a common question children ask him is whether he showers and sleeps with his prosthesis on. The answer is no.
As I said goodbye to George, Lorna and Randy, I thought of the 26-year-old Iraqi veteran in the news who just had a double-arm transplant operation at John Hopkins Hospital. I wondered how this person with quadriplegia would get along with his new limbs and the irony of science and technology expanding during war times.
I remembered my beloved high school driver's education teacher who used a hook for one of his hands and all of the folks without arms who manage to do everything with their feet. I reflected on other people I have known who have experienced limb loss and struggled with grieving and hardship and the stares and comments of the public.
My mind also wandered to the times one medical person or another told me that I might be better off having my legs removed. After all, they'd say, they don't work and you don't use them anyway.
Placing the copy of the book Randy gave me for my friend in my backpack, I left the store in search of her.
There was a lot to talk about.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 25 years, has used a wheelchair for 36 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.