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MUNSTER — The woman picked up a piece of cantaloupe with her robotic arm. She moved it toward her mouth. The fruit fell to the floor.

She tried again, with a slice of watermelon. Her mechanical hand squeezed it uncontrollably, juice dripping all over her. She opened her mouth wide but couldn't reach all the way there. Resigned, she set the watermelon on her shoulder and grabbed the piece of fruit with her teeth.

Someone tried to put a fork in her hand. It took about five minutes for them to get the grip and utensil positioning just right. She successfully got a blueberry into her mouth.

"Will I ever be able to eat by myself?" asked Suzie Wodrich, of Starke County, who lost a leg and both arms from a severe infection.

She was in a room with people who could relate.

One talked about phantom limb syndrome. Another gave tips for getting dressed with a prosthetic leg. Another, recently amputated above the right knee, said he missed being able to dance.

"This is done," Wodrich said, lifting up her arms, the right one a stump, the left one bionic. "You've got to go forward."

"Onward and upward," said Nancy Mackrola, a Crown Point woman whose left leg was amputated after falling down the stairs.

Onward and Upward Northwest Indiana meets monthly at a Munster prosthetic practice. Mackrola founded the group to give Region amputees a place to share frustrations, advice and encouragement.

"Anyone at anytime can become an amputee," she said.

More than 500 amputations occur every day in the United States, about 21 per hour, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The main causes are vascular conditions, such as diabetes and peripheral artery disease (54 percent), and trauma (45 percent), a study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found.

While many of those amputees are treated physically, their emotional needs often go unaddressed.

"I go into a room and fit them for prosthetics, but you bypass all the feelings that are behind it," said Vikram Choudhary, a prosthetist and orthotist who provides the space for the group to meet. "Psychological counseling should be part of every amputation."

The group members say it's especially helpful to hear from fellow amputees, who experience the same struggles they do. They even have their own lingo: an "AK" is someone amputated above the knee; a "BK" is a person whose leg was removed above the joint.

"I mostly come in case somebody says something I never thought of and go 'Hey, I can try that,'" Rich Flores, of Highland, said at Tuesday's meeting. He fell from a ladder while doing housework, causing him to lose his left leg.

That reminded Mackrola.

"If you put a plastic bag on your shoe, you can put your pants on more easily. They slip right over it," she said.

Mackrola acts as the groups' moderator and chief encourager.

"You walked in here today," she said at one point. "That's something we have to pat ourselves on the back for."

The half-dozen amputees at Tuesday's meeting were at different stages at what Mackrola calls the "grieving process." Some had lost their limbs years ago; some just months earlier. The newbies were facing challenges the others had already been through.

The members start each group by telling their amputation stories.

Wodrich, an exuberant redhead, remembered the time her sister visited her in the hospital, not knowing she had had her limbs amputated.

"She started crying," Wodrich recalled. "I said, 'No, we can't have that. That's not going to get us anywhere.'"

"Never give up," she said. "In my situation the doctors gave up and the nurses gave up. I didn't give up."

She encouraged the man who worried he'd never dance again by noting that an amputee once competed on "Dancing with the Stars."

"I want to drive," she said. Two other members who recently started driving again said she ought to try.

"They didn't take my gas-pedal foot off," she said. "I still have it."

Onward and upward.


Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.