Tuesday, August 28, 2007

After losing leg to speeding car, Chandler man walks tall as prosthetist

Connie Midey
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 28, 2007 12:00 AM

Tyler Ritchey sits to take a closer look at Kirsten Witbeck's new right leg. "That's amazing," he says. "It looks just like your other leg. How are you doing with it?"
Witbeck, 26, of Tempe, has been fitted with several artificial legs since being diagnosed with bone cancer and getting an above-the-knee amputation at age 12. This one, with a rechargeable-microprocessor knee and a button for rotating the leg, is a technological marvel.
Better still, one of Ritchey's colleagues at Pongratz Orthotics & Prosthetics in Phoenix recently covered the leg's working parts. Now, its color and the curve of her ankle and calf, visible where Witbeck's capri pants end, mimic those of her left leg.
"I don't think I've ever had a cover that looks this good," she says.
Ritchey asks her about the fit, weight and resistance of the leg when she walks on it, the questions instinctively coming to him.
In one moment seven years ago, a car speeding 80 mph turned him into both a prosthetic user and a prosthetics and orthotics health-care professional.
Many people find work designing and customizing artificial limbs and orthopedic braces by chance, the Chandler man says: An uncle who is an amputee or a classmate who wears a wrist brace opens the possibility of careers not previously imagined.
Ritchey's career route was more direct. In the last month of a two-year church mission in Mexico, he was struck and carried about 300 feet while attempting to cross a winding road on foot after his car broke down.
The driver who hit him swerved hard to fling Ritchey from the hood of the car and kept going, leaving Ritchey with broken bones and injuries to his stomach, lungs, shoulders and knees.
"My leg was the least of my problems," Ritchey says.
His parents were beside him when he emerged from a coma after several days on life support. But there was no one like the Ritchey of today at his bedside in Mexico, no person who had been through a similar experience and was equipped to reassure and educate him about life without a leg.
"It was a shock to wake up and find that my left leg below the knee was gone," he says. "It didn't look good for me to be this active person anymore, the one who played basketball and was always busy."
Phoenix vascular surgeon Jeromy Brink says people who undergo an amputation - about 135,000 are performed each year in the United States - face not just the obvious physical challenges, but emotional ones as well.
"Learning to use a new prosthesis is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical," he says. "It's (dealing with) the loss of an entire part of their lives and getting accustomed to the way things are now."
For patients who lose a limb because of an accident, the emotional loss may be worse than for those with a chronic illness that eventually makes amputation necessary, he says.
"A lot of patients I deal with are long-standing diabetics who have known the score for many years and are facing amputation as a last resort," Brink says.
Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, accidents and cancer are responsible for most amputations.
Ritchey had unstinting support from family, friends and the medical community. For him, adjusting psychologically to the loss of a leg turned out to be easier than adjusting to the demands of therapy and recovery.
Back in the Valley a month after the accident, he came face to face with an unfamiliar frailty. There were daily rehab sessions for a year, 27 surgeries, mending bones, and metal rods and steel plates placed throughout his body.
Still, says Ritchey, 27, "the toughest day I ever had was the first day I was fitted with a prosthetic leg. I thought I'd get the leg and walk out of here, but it required a lot more work."
Even with the lightweight leg he uses on most occasions, walking expends more energy than it did when the legs he was born with propelled him.
Ritchey was fitted with his first artificial leg by the man who later hired him, company owner Joe Pongratz.
Pongratz began calling on Ritchey, who is fluent in Spanish and English, to talk with patients, and he created a paid position for him as amputee liaison when the calls became increasingly frequent.
"I would see Tyler in the lobby before his appointment, and he would talk with the people sitting next to him," Pongratz says. "He was affecting them in such a positive manner. They'd see him walk in, cheery as always, and hear his story and think, 'I can deal with this.' "
Recalling the uncertainty of those early days of recovery, Ritchey decided to take the job. He had survived what he now saw new amputees facing, still in shock emotionally and drained physically from the loss of a limb. He could answer questions from people resisting the surgery their doctor told them they needed.
He enrolled in peer-support counseling classes to improve his job skills, was mentored by Pongratz and other co-workers and quickly learned how rewarding the new job could be.
"You work with people who wheel in here, and you see them walk back out," Ritchey says. "You're giving them back something a lot of them haven't had in a long time."
He and Pongratz organized a support group, Limbs 2 Life, to give new and longer-term amputees further opportunities to share stories.
During informal gatherings, members talk about technical advances that allow them to make a jump shot on the basketball court, wear high heels of varying heights or grasp a gardening tool.
Witbeck, for example, shared with Ritchey that she recently danced at a wedding reception, and she is soon to go camping with friends, a first for her.
"The alignment's good," she says of her prosthetic leg, "and there's a smooth transition from the ankle to the foot. This knee is great, so much more stable. I feel like I can trust it."
Ritchey, married now and the father of two, need not have worried about remaining active. Since the accident, he has earned a bachelor's degree in marketing and made his first parachute jump, his artificial leg proving up to the challenge of absorbing the landing's impact.
He is completing a master's degree in business administration and just began an eight-month prosthetics-certification course through Northwestern University, to be completed online and at the school's Chicago campus.
"Far more doors have opened for me since the accident than have closed," Ritchey says. "With a good family and good doctors and a good company behind you, you can't fail. They keep you up when you're about to fall."

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