Seventeen years ago Blaine Drysdale was riding his motorcycle home at night when he saw two sets of headlights coming his way.
He says he remembers little after that – the two cars were racing, and caused him to wreck – but the experience had a profound impact on both his professional and personal life.
Drysdale lost his leg in the crash, and said, like many amputees, he immediately noticed that while some support mechanisms were in place during his recovery, there was no single organization that could answer his questions as well as bolster his spirits.
After months of healing, the former art major began volunteering in the rehabilitation department at Shriners Hospital in Springfield to offer that support to others, and later studied physical therapy in hopes of continuing those interactions professionally.
Now a physical therapist, orthotist, and prosthetist at Orthotics and Prosthetics Labs in Springfield, Drysdale and five clients of the lab have embarked on a new venture to offer ongoing support to amputees and their families and friends. They have become certified peer counselors through a program sponsored by the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA).
The certificate program is a unique one, and the six local students are the first group in Western Mass. to parlay their new certification into an independent counseling group for those dealing with amputation.
Taking steps to create a formal group of certified counselors through the ACA is one way, Drysdale said, to not only address the various needs of those individuals coping with limb loss, but to also bring more people in similar situations together, creating a support network.
“When I lost my leg, I didn’t really have any one place or person to go to for help,” he said, adding that he thinks the breadth of services to be provided by the group of newly-certified peer counselors will be a valuable addition to the Pioneer Valley’s medical community. “We don’t want to lock into any one medical center or limit ourselves in any way. We just want to be available to anyone and everyone that needs help.”
Plans in Motion
The ACA sponsors training seminars for amputees nationwide, in order to cover the relevant topics and skills they need to work with other people facing amputation, or coping with the loss of a limb.
Those skills include everything from bedside manner – how to best communicate with someone during a hospital stay – to the most recent HIPAA regulations and requirements.
Drysdale said the recent training, held at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn., also included a number of role-playing exercises to examine the effects of common scenarios amputees may find themselves in: interactions with a curious child, a rude teenager, or a concerned adult, for instance.
He added that the six delegates from Western Mass. who took part in the ACA training are all active within their own communities, but have all taken a particular interest in working with others experiencing limb loss, as well.
The Western Mass. group found many like-minded individuals at the training from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Drysdale said it underscored the fact that most individuals who have lost limbs experience a common set of challenges that only they can truly understand, making them ideal counselors for others facing the same issues.
For most, he said, there is a major adjustment period following amputation, and talking to someone in the same situation can lessen the fear of cosmetic and lifestyle changes, and also facilitate the process of coming to terms with the loss.
“There are many different levels of emotions associated with the loss of a limb,” Drysdale explained, “ranging from anger to sadness to eventual acceptance.”
There is also still a powerful stigma associated with amputation, he continued, and too often people will hold onto a limb longer than they should, for fear of living life without it.
“People get really wound up in the idea that they’ll be less of a person without their arm or their leg, when in reality they could live a much fuller, healthier life without the unhealthy limb. I’ve seen people stay in wheelchairs for years, when they could have been up and about with a prosthesis.”
Emotional aspects aside, though, there are a myriad of other, day-to-day challenges that amputees encounter. The stories alone surrounding the loss of an arm or leg create a common bond among amputees – often, there are similarities in regard to what led to the loss. Drysdale referenced two of his fellow peer counseling students, a married couple, who each lost a limb in a motorcycle accident much like his own.
But regardless of how someone lost their limb, the outcome is the same, creating countless shared experiences after the fact.
Stephen Pluta of Chicopee, who lost his leg due to a vascular condition several years ago, said support groups can serve as a place to share information that helps make life easier.
Pluta represents the largest group of amputees in the nation – 85% of the individuals who undergo amputation lose their limb due to vascular issues brought on by diabetes or other disorders.
As he adjusted the fabric pad that helps keep his prosthetic leg in place, Pluta said that, like other groups with shared health concerns, support systems often form spontaneously among amputees, simply because of the mutual understanding of problems large and small.
Because people gain and lose weight or muscle, for example, the fit of a prosthesis must be constantly monitored, Pluta said. Depending on their level of activity in a given period of time, that could mean adding another layer of padding around where the prosthetis meets the body, or making a trip to the prosthetist for tweaking.
“We keep an eye on each other to make sure someone doesn’t have five layers of socks keeping their leg in place,” he joked, adding on a more serious note that those adjustments are usually needed about every seven months. “And that’s a medical expense every seven months.”
Pluta was calling attention to one of the largest issues facing those who wear prosthetics: cost.
Drysdale said prosthetic limbs can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $60,000, depending on the complexity of the limb; they are created from a variety of materials, some must include substitute mechanisms for knees or elbows, and some are computerized. Insurance rarely covers the total cost of a prosthetic limb, though some providers do cover a substantial amount, he said. The onus lies with patients to scrutinize several policies to find the best fit for their needs.
“It’s another thing we deal with,” he said. “Not everyone would scan their insurance policy for a prosthetic clause. But I sure do.”
Drysdale and Pluta agreed that their wide understanding of life without a limb makes them ideal counselors for other amputees. Both have adjusted to their situations in their own ways – Drysdale’s journey is perhaps best viewed through his career choices, and Pluta doesn’t try to hide his prosthesis; in fact, he calls attention to it by heat-fusing brightly patterned cloth to the area that represents the shin. He said he’s tried a number of designs in the past, but now sports a pack of wolves that grin back at anyone who might find themselves staring.
Both men said they have long had an affinity for working with others in similar situations as theirs, but the ACA training added some validity to their goal of becoming part of a premiere support system for amputees in Western Mass.
“A lot of us have offered support in the past,” Drysdale said, “but we thought certification from the ACA was important in order to add some credentials to the work we wanted to do more of.”
He explained that the group will begin by working with area hospitals to offer counseling and support services for patients undergoing amputation procedures or recovering from recent surgeries, and will also offer home-based services for amputees of all ages. In addition, he said he hopes to begin a support group for area residents living with the loss of a limb.
Taking it in Stride
Those two services are Drysdale’s primary goal, but he hopes to offer more group-oriented activities, such as hiking groups.
Support and education are key, he explained, but those services create new friendships as well, that should be cultivated. “
training prepared us to be helpful in many situations,” he said, “and to be of assistance in hospital environments or during home visits. But sometimes, all people need is to sit and talk.”