Loss of a Limb Isn’t the End
LANCASTER -- This is not the story of the head-on collision between a car and a tractor-trailer truck that happened one dark October morning 20 years ago, or of the woman beaten so badly by her husband that the doctors had to remove her leg.
This isn’t about the bacterial infection that took all four of another woman’s limbs, or the dozens of people forced into choosing to have a part of themselves amputated rather than put themselves though a lifetime of painful surgeries.
This is the story of what came next.
A few years after losing the lower half of her left leg in a car accident, Rose Bissonnette was attending a national conference for amputees in Boston when she started talking about how hard it had been readjusting her life around her injury. There were no support groups for her to go to and no advocate at the hospital who could have coached her through her surgery.
“I was telling everyone how there’s no support. There’s nothing,” she recalled saying. “They looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
What Bissonnette did was found the Lancaster-based nonprofit New England Amputee Association.
In the 15 years the group has existed, Bissonnette has encountered people by the hundreds. She estimated that about 90 percent of the people referred to her have lost the lower half of one of their legs due to diabetes, though she said there are still cases of serious trauma an injury.
The association functions largely as a monthly support group. It also serves as an informational resource for people considering amputation as an option for medical issues like diabetes or bacterial infections and offers one-on-one mentors for recent amputees.
Peer mentors serve as emotional supports, but more often they become the go-to person for every question or concern a new group member might have. Everyday tasks like taking a shower or being able to stand still for extended periods of time suddenly become unfamiliar tasks now requiring new muscle groups to work more in the absence of others.
In many cases, these volunteers’ biggest responsibility is literally helping people get back on their feet.
“What I’ve discovered in doing these peer visits is no one can do it for you. You have to get yourself up and go,” said Richard Carraher, a volunteer mentor from Worcester who underwent a below-knee amputation on his left leg four years ago. “You can really do whatever you used to do before, you just have to find a new way to do it.”
Bissonnette recalled one female group member, who she declined to name, who underwent amputations of both her arms and her legs. She now has four prosthetic limbs, but is still able to drive her own car.
“That’s the big thing people ask us. ‘Am I going to be able to drive?’” she said.
That inspirational can-do attitude is a big part of what makes the New England Amputee Association work. It’s not just about overcoming odds to return people to the lives they once knew, but also helping them push beyond it. Their motto is “By helping each other, we can go from ‘limb loss’ to ‘limitless’!”
Having relearned how to walk, Carraher said he soon graduated to teaching himself how to swim and play golf again. He’s since moved on to hobbies he’d never had before like surfing.
“For me to go in the water, I had to take my leg off, because I have an electronic ankle, but I would definitely do it again,” he said of the group surfing trip organized by the New England Amputee Association two summers ago.
Bissonnette described another unnamed group member who she said had been very athletic prior to losing her leg, but became even more so after getting used to her prosthetic.
“She tried to get me to do a tandem jump out of an airplane once,” she said, adding that she politely declined the offer. “I don’t like getting up on a step stool, there’s no way I’m jumping out of a plane.”
Though group members come and go, many remain for years. Some volunteer or organize group outings to baseball games or days at the beach. Bissonnette described it as a passing of the torch. She said people who come to their first meetings in-need frequently become confident enough to one day help someone else through the process.
“With family and friends, as much as they say they understand, no one understands like another amputee does,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d meet the people I’ve met. And I probably never would.”
Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53