"The limb must go." The impact of these four words and the amputation that follows is profound. A body is changed; life takes an unexpected turn. These four words often bring closure to an endless cycle of surgeries and a range of emotions - depression, grief, confusion.
The news sends a person to the operating table but countless questions remain for patients. Will I walk or be able to write again again? What will my prosthesis look like? Can I still work? These are the questions nurses are left to answer. To help with these and other questions the University of Michigan (U-M) Health Systems in Ann Arbor has developed an amputee support group.
Living With Amputation
Funded jointly by the U-M Cardiovascular Center and the U-M Orthotics and Prosthetics Center, the program's goal is to help amputees and their families cope with the initial shock of loss by helping them regain their life through compassion, education and encouragement.
It's a group formed by misfortune; the absence of an appendage is really the only tacit bond that these people have. Socioeconomic status varies tremendously and every surrounding community has a representative at this meeting. This group confirms tragedy does not care what your zip code is or how many zeros are on your paycheck.
They meet under the guidance of clinical social worker Maggie Kelly, LMSW, and limb loss coordinator Shauna Mote. An amputee herself, Mote is able to offer a unique credibility to the group. She holds the only paid position of its kind in the nation.
The goal of the amputee support group is to accompany patients through the entire process of living with an amputation. Mote prefers to work with the patient prior to surgery. "Amputation is a tough process to go through -- to realize that life has changed. There is certainly a grieving process and it is a very individual process for everybody."
At a nurse's referral, either Mote or Kelly meet with the patient in the hospital prior to their amputation to answer questions and calm fears. Some patients are very quick to connect with a support group; others "may take years before they are comfortable going to an amputee support group," said Kelly.
Facing Fear Together
To contribute a nursing perspective, Jane Sprayberry, RN, attends the monthly meetings. As a nurse at U-M's Cardiovascular Center, Sprayberry interacts with countless patients dealing with peripheral vascular disease and diabetes.
"On my unit, I see the tremendous fear patients have when facing an amputation," said Sprayberry.
Along with treating amputation patients at work, Sprayberry is also the proud owner an amputee - an amputee dog, that is. She has a three-legged therapy dog named Lefty. Sprayberry attends the meetings with her therapy dog in tow. Lefty is now the group's unofficial mascot.
Sprayberry's connection with the amputee support group has equipped her to be a better patient advocate. "When patients have questions, I know where to direct them. I can call Shauna or Maggie and let them know my patient would really benefit from a visit."
Most support meetings consist of an hour-long presentation, followed by group discussion. An important part of the support group is social and physical activities. The group has a growing peer counseling network that matches experienced amputees with new amputees in similar circumstances
A. Trevor Sutton is a freelance writer. Photos by Seth Hinz.