A few weeks before Christmas, Dave McGill went out into the middle of the road to help a stranded motorist. Suddenly, a car hit him from behind. He woke from unconsciousness in the hospital, but something was missing. His leg.
That was in 1996 and McGill, who lives in New York, works in the prosthetic industry now.
Over a week after the Boston Marathon bombings left three people dead and more than 100 people injured; some of those recovering are facing a future without a limb.
“The first thought that comes to your head is, ‘Oh my God, it’s not there anymore,’ said McGill, former chair on the Amputee Coalition board. “It’s very hard to get through the concept. There’s no easy way to describe what that experience is like.”
McGill, and those who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombings are among approximately 1.7 million people living without a limb in the United States, according to the Amputee Coalition.
Some amputations occur in traumatic situations, such as the Boston bombings, where bone, arteries and nerves are deemed unsalvageable, said Dr. Anish Kadakia, an orthopedic surgeon and a fellow in foot and ankle trauma teaching at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
While doctors try hard to save a limb, Kadakia said the first priority is what is best for the patient, and that may include an amputation.
“It’s about giving patients their lives back,” said Kadakia. “Just because you saved the limb doesn’t mean they’re happier. It’s not a failure operation.”
Technological advances in prosthetic limbs are improving the movement and feel of prosthetics, said Jack Richmond, director of sales at Fillauer LLC, an orthotics and prosthetics manufacturer in Tennessee.
Richmond, who said he lost his right leg beneath the knee in 1987, has experienced prosthetic advancement first hand. After using a prosthetic with basic function for some time, he tried out a prosthetic with microprocessor technology.
The microprocessor increases range of motion and that includes running.
“I wore it for a month straight before I went back to my old one and I almost had to teach myself to walk again. My brain went to, ‘Oh, I thought I had an ankle on both sides,’” Richmond said.
He wears his more advanced leg all the time now, even while playing golf. “I am a believer in the fact that technology applied in the right way makes a huge difference in an amputee’s life,” he said.
Regardless of new innovations in prosthetic limbs, both McGill and Richmond said dealing with the psychological aspects of the trauma are just as important as the physical ones.
McGill got through it, with a network of support. "I learned so much about myself and my family and my friends that it would have taken me 50 years to learn otherwise," he said.
“The best technology in the world is not going to help someone get over and deal with what they’ve experienced,” said Richmond who compared the loss of a limb to the loss of a family member. “Now you’ve lost them and you have to figure out how to go on without that member of your body.”
But both Richmond and McGill would not take back the series of events that led to the loss of their legs.
“I wouldn’t trade what I’ve learned about myself and others and what’s important in my life for my leg,” McGill said.
“Whatever you’re feeling now, it’s ok to feel that,” said McGill. “But there will come a day when you wake up and you put on your prosthetics and you’re not thinking about that anymore.”
In 2001, Richmond ran the Boston Marathon, and won third place in his division.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different, everyone’s level of injury is different,” said Richmond. “The way they approach it may be different. Life does go on. There’s technology out there and people out there that are willing to help you to run a marathon again or swim or cycle or anything you want to do.”
For more information on amputation, call the National Limb Loss Resource Center at 888.267.5669