For the people who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing April 15, 2013, this story is about the Veterans, who are also amputees, came to their aid. It is also a story about coping with a traumatic injury that can change your life forever…
In the Boston Marathon bombing, most of the trauma was to the lower extremities or the legs, yet people who’ve also had some sort of illness, or injury, or war injury that’s taken the arms as well, are often so much more challenged with getting back to normal life than someone who lost a leg. What does it really take for these people to adapt?
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In an article written by Oren Dorell for USA Today, veterans who lost their limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, went on a trip to Boston to provide support and information to those who were injured in the Boston bombings. These veterans showed up in Boston to talk to these patients and they found them all just sitting there, looking so dejected, and feeling like their whole world, their whole lives, had been turned upside down; but within a half an hour later, many of them were laughing and didn’t want the veterans to leave. They were there to give the kind of support you can only get from those who’ve been through exactly what they’re (the Boston bombing amputees) experiencing right now?
The Veterans said that some common questions these patients had were, “How do you shower? How are you able to get back to doing the things that you love or like doing? How are we going to go on the beach or ride a bicycle? How about driving a car or going to work?” Their biggest concerns are always going to be about not being able to live their life the way they want after this traumatic injury. One of the servicemen was quoted as saying, “Accepting the injury and moving on is crucial. You figure out what you need to do to get back to a normal life and you do it.”
These war veterans traveled to Boston representing the Semper Fi fund, which was raising money for these victims. They wanted to help them with these prosthetic devices, which I was shocked to hear, can run as high as $100,000 dollars. What you need to realize is that the prosthetic devices are unique to the types of activities you do. You may need one to go back to being a jogger. You may need a different one for something related to your specific work. There are specialized prosthetics for swimming and all types of activities. If just one of those costs $100,000 dollars, you can imagine the challenges these amputees have ahead of them, not to mention the emotional trauma they’re going through.
I’d like to bring this closer to home and put out some information on the realities of what it’s like to have an amputation and to rehabilitate from that.
Right after being carted off the streets of Boston from this bombing these victims probably very soon woke up after having surgery to amputate their legs, and most of these, again, were lower leg amputations. They’d wake up and have a big bandage on, they’d have a cast on, and they’d have a drainage tube in. When you read stories about people who’ve had this and they just wake up to that realization that, “I don’t have my leg anymore” or “I don’t have my legs anymore…”
One of the surgeons interviewed right after the bombing said, “We weren’t really amputating. We were just finishing what the bombs started…” meaning that the amputations were pretty much complete. They were just cleaning them up and making the limb more usable to fit with a prosthetic later on. While it but it takes about 3 to 4 weeks for these wounds to heal, the internal healing takes another year to a year and a half.
So what do these victims have to look forward to in that time? First of all, they do have a lot of trouble with pain, as we can imagine, from any surgery or any traumatic injury. They’re going to have a lot of trouble with swelling, so they have to wear a compression bandage to keep the swelling down. In this situation too, it helps to mold their limb so that it will fit better into the prosthesis. That’s a very big part of the immediately postoperative weeks after this traumatic amputation.
As healing progresses, the wound and missing limb is going to feel odd. Amputees say it can really feel supersensitive and we’ve also heard of that thing called, “phantom pain”, where they can feel a residual pain from the fresh wound. There’s been immense trauma to the bones and the nerves, so they are going to have a phantom pain sometimes where, even though the foot is gone, they may feel like they’re having pain in their foot.
It takes a good 10 days before the wound is ready for them to try, what they call, an “interim prosthetic.” This is a temporary prosthetic that can help them begin to get back on their feet. Think about it… you lose a leg above the knee or even below the knee and you’ve lost a lot of tissue, a lot of muscle, a lot of weight. You’re going to have a lot of balance problems. One other thing that people talk about is how you’re going to have to put almost 80% of the workload on your surviving leg, if you have a surviving leg, to make up for the one that you lost.
The prosthetic will help an amputee balance, but they first have to learn to stand, then walk. They have to learn how to sit and how to get back up again. They have to learn how to do stairs; how to go up a ramp, down the ramp… things that we don’t even think about it.
Amputees can go back to swimming and jogging, even mountain climbing. With a special type of prosthesis, they can do almost unlimited things. But, the truth of it is, this doesn’t happen overnight and it takes many, many months and sometimes, even years for them to get comfortable enough with their prosthetic to where they can get back to that full life. The rule of thumb is that it’s going to take these amputees about six months to become really independent, not only with caring for their prosthesis, but of course with all the mobility that they need to be trained, once again, to do.
Emotional recovery from this kind of traumatic accident or amputation is also a factor. As you can imagine, there’s a huge grieving process that goes on. An amputee will grieve the loss of life as they knew it, they grieve the loss of independence. Imagine needing to ask someone for help to take a shower or get dressed or all those little things that we take for granted. Then there are the feelings that would come along with feeling inadequate. I’m sure these people worry if they’re in a relationship, will they be rejected for this? How will they be treated? How will the people on the streets look at them? Will they be treated differently at work?
Some amputees have said that what carries them through this trauma is their faith, the hope they have, and the caring and loving people they surround themselves with. Most especially, they say, when they had this traumatic amputation they decided that they need to go on and find their life purpose, so that they can live the life they are meant to live.