Loss of limb forges former missionary's career as prosthetist
Home News Tribune Online 10/23/07
"My leg was the least of my problems," says Ritchey, who now works as a liaison for amputees.
His parents were beside him when he emerged from a coma after several days on life support. But there was no one at his bedside in Mexico 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."
Today, Ritchey's job as a health-care professional for Pongratz Orthotics & Prosthetics in Phoenix is to help others, like Kirsten Witbeck of Tempe, Ariz., adjust to a legless life.
Upon closer inspection of Witbeck's new right leg he says, "that's amazing. It looks just like your other leg. How are you doing with it?"
Witbeck, 26, 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.
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 home 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.
He and Pongratz organized a support group, Limbs 2 Life, to give new and longer-term amputees further opportunities to share stories.
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.
Protect your limbs
Practice proper foot hygiene and care, particularly if you are diabetic.
Quit smoking, or don't start.
Be careful, especially when operating machinery like lawn mowers, wood chippers, etc.
Source: The National Limb Loss Information Center.
On the Web:
Resources for amputees:
www.amputee-coalition.org, Amputee Coalition of America provides education, support, and advocacy for amputees.
www.oandp.org, American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists.
www.kidscanplay2.com, Pediatric Prosthetics, Inc., provides information on prosthetic limbs for children.