School boosts amputees’ quality of life

Angela Mapes Turner |  The Journal Gazette
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette

Dennis Oehler helps Kenny Gerardot on a balance board, Wednesday, in the quarterly Amputee Walking School at Turnstone Center for Children & Adults with Disabilities.

The quiet hum of conversation subsides at 7:40 p.m. when Dennis Oehler calls the room to attention.

He introduces the crowd to 62-year-old Kenny Gerardot of Bluffton, whose daughter has a wedding in May.

“He has to learn how to dance,” Oehler shouts. “So guess what tonight is? Dancing School!”

Oehler improvises a song, and Gerardot, reluctant but laughing, slightly unsteady on his prosthetic leg, waltzes along.

“Now you gotta dip me!” Oehler bellows.

“No, I don’t!”

They dip anyway.

The Amputee Walking School is self-descriptive and more – sometimes Dancing School, sometimes Running School, sometimes just Lift-Your-Spirits School.

In Fort Wayne, the quarterly, two-hour event is sponsored by SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics, a Fort Wayne company with locations in Anderson and Kokomo and Defiance and Bryan, Ohio. The event is free and open to people of all ages with lower-extremity amputations.

Founders Oehler and Todd Schaffhauser provide their expertise around the world in gaining mobility with amputations. Both are amputees and world-record setters at the Paralympic Games, the international event for athletes with physical disabilities.

A couple of decades ago, they were invited to teach a clinic for amputees who wanted to learn how to run.

What they quickly learned, Schaffhauser said, is that most of those showing up at the clinic weren’t young athletes.

They were middle-aged or senior citizens, people with medical conditions that had led to amputations. Across the board, Schaffhauser said, they weren’t getting enough physical therapy to learn how to walk with their prostheses.

“Our health care system, unfortunately, is failing us for amputees,” he said.

The walking school teaches basic techniques, tailored to the individual – who leaves with homework for the next session.

On a cold Wednesday night in late January, about 30 amputees – plus their friends, family and various volunteers – gathered in a wide room at Turnstone Center for Children & Adults with Disabilities.

As Oehler led Kenny Gerardot in his impromptu dance, his wife, Luann, watched silently nearby with a small smile.

Her husband had a foot infection in July 2009 that refused to heal.

“It all happened so fast,” she said. “He went into the hospital on a Friday; the following Tuesday, doctors removed his left foot.”

He’s maintained his independence because of willpower, therapy and a bit of urging from Luann, who encouraged him to venture out shortly after his amputation to shop for groceries and to keep up the landscaping chores he did before the amputation.

“He has fallen like anybody else,” she said. “He’s come a long, long way.”

Near the door, Bill Bailey wore a black T-shirt and red athletic shorts that skimmed the top of his artificial leg.

He looked ready for action, but he held back by the door, assessing the situation.

The goals that lure people to the walking school vary. For Bailey, 58, the thought of getting back out on the golf course at Lakeside Park drew him to his first walking school.

Bailey had more than a dozen operations over the years on his knee, which was ruined by a high school sports injury. After the last surgery, he fought a staph infection for eight months before the decision was made to have a below-the-knee amputation.

That was February 2008, but Bailey did not immediately make it back on his feet without a crutch or cane.

He wasn’t pleased with the fit of his first prosthetic, but his new one, from SRT, has been much better, he said.

He lifts his leg and the microprocessor-controlled knee of his C-Leg bends in response. The computerized leg is geared toward his walking style and anticipates his move, but most importantly, “it fits great,” Bailey said.

He holds out his hand, turns it over slowly.

“A hand becomes calloused when exposed to wear and tear. Not so for the stump of an amputated limb,” Bailey explains – “it’ll just get rubbed raw over and over again.”

That’s why fit is so important.

“If it doesn’t fit exactly right, you’re in for a miserable lifetime,” he said. “You can have the best leg in the world, it doesn’t matter.”

It takes effort

On the far side of the room, it’s jogging school for 52-year-old Mike Hall, whose leg was crushed above the knee in an industrial accident in November 2005.

Hall attended walking school fairly regularly for a couple of years but hadn’t been back in a year and a half when he came to the recent session.

Just a few minutes convinced him he needs to make a greater effort to attend.

“It’s probably the best information,” he said.

Hall, who had been active before the accident, worked hard to get back into shape.

He did office work at his old job for five months before getting his prosthesis and going back out on the mill floor. Now he has two prostheses he switches – one with a hydraulic knee that allows him to be on his feet 14 to 16 hours each day at work.

But he isn’t satisfied. When the snow melts, he plans to practice jogging on the grassy lot near his house – where there will be more cushion if he falls.

“That’s my ultimate goal,” he said. “To be able to jog.”

For Carl Didier, 54, the walking school is “Healthy-Lifestyle School.”

Didier was riding his motorcycle when a driver – talking on a cell phone – hit him. He had 11 surgeries in two-and-a-half years in an attempt to save his lower leg.

Finally, he told doctors to cut it off.

That time spent immobile and depressed took its toll, and Didier said his weight ballooned. When he first came to the walking school, his prosthetic was two days old and he wasn’t walking on his own.

“Dennis and Todd were quite an inspiration to me,” Didier said.

He joined a weight-management program at Lutheran Hospital and since August has lost 98 pounds. His goal is to lose 175.

Several inspirations are in the room, and not just the walking school’s co-founders.

Among the many volunteers at the walking school was 27-year-old Brett Freiburger of Fort Wayne, a physical therapy assistant at Byron Health Center.

A hunting accident in 2001 resulted in the loss of Freiburger’s lower leg after four months of trying to save it.

Freiburger’s lifelong passion is soccer, and he tried coaching after his accident when he could no longer play. But he missed the competition, so he took up running in 2006.

The next two years, he competed in the U.S. national finals for the Paralympics. In 2009, he qualified for the Paralympics in Manchester, England.

He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee five months before the Paralympics, keeping him from really competing, he said. But Freiburger met many athletes from around the world who provided the same inspiration he hopes to bring to attendees of the walking school.

There’s no blueprint for an amputee’s recovery. Recovery means different things for different people.

But Freiburger said those who attend the walking school often show remarkable progress in a short time.

“It’s amazing. You see some people that are like a week out of their amputations, sitting in a wheelchair,” Freiburger said. “Three months later, to see them up walking. … It’s just really touching, you know?”