Marvin G. Knittel Ed.D.

How to Help a Friend

Things That Matter to an Amputee

When a limb is amputated a new image of self must be accepted.

Posted Jul 31, 2016

The Great Depression was nearly over and the nation was only two years from being plunged into World War II.  I was almost six years old and vaguely aware of the impending war and the horrific dust storms that swept across the High Plains threatening to bury our farm.

 It was a beautiful October afternoon in 1939 when I fell from my horse and in a surreal, detached way saw the exposed bone of my left wrist sink deep into the barnyard dirt.  Four days later my parents rushed me to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where an orthopedic surgeon waited to amputate my left arm in an effort to stop the gas gangrene bacteria from winning the gruesome battle between life and death.  I had no idea the events of that day would influence the rest of my life.

I joined the estimated 1.9 million amputees in the United States.  There are approximately 185,000 amputation surgeries performed each year with 82% due to Peripheral Vascular Disease and Diabetes.  It is projected that the amputee population will more than double by the year 2050 to 3.6 million.  Many of us have a friend or acquaintance with a missing limb. 

Body image becomes one of the first concerns of those with a missing limb.  Here's how it was for me.

BODY IMAGE.

An amputee quickly becomes aware that other people notice the limb loss.  In spite of recent research that shows social reaction to be more accepting than in the past, amputees fear rejection and consequently tend to be cautious with relationships.  Teenagers frequently believe the absence of a limb makes them less attractive.  I struggled with that perception when I was a teenager.  I tried to compensate for the loss by trying to excel and athletics.

I thought by being a good athlete my peers would overlook how different I looked. I was afraid being different made a difference to everybody.  It was difficult to accept myself simply for who I was and believe being different made no difference.  I discovered fairly soon that other people took their cue from me.  If I was accepting of myself other people were accepting of me.

I suggest when you meet someone with a missing limb try to remember that we are  not defined by the missing limb anymore than we are defined by our gender or ethnicity.  In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities.  I believe Equal Opportunity are the two most important words in the sentence.  I think all we want is an equal opportunity to show that we can perform without special treatment. 

"WHOLE" OR "PART-WHOLE"

Amputees frequently have difficulty getting beyond the notion of being sub-par.  Prior to an amputation the physical image is one of being "whole."  After the amputation the physical image is one of being "part whole."  There is nothing wrong with being "part whole," however, the initial reaction frequently is being "part whole" makes the amputee sub-par or of less value.

Accepting a new image of ourselves is one of the most difficult things we do.  The new image can be as simple as a man shaving his beard after having a full beard all of his adult life; or a woman changing hairstyle that has become part of her identity.  The loss of a limb represents a major adjustment.

I was able to get beyond the notion of being sub-par by risking failure and never allowing myself to use my disability as an excuse not to try something.

NO ONE CAN MAKE YOU FEEL INFERIOR WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION  (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Eleanor Roosevelt's statement has a direct application to all of us.  To those of us who initially attach a sense of inferiority to the loss of a limb, the internalization of this statement is important.  I was in the first grade when I lost my left arm.  When I walked into that one room country schoolhouse I felt inferior.  I felt I wasn't as good as anybody else.  Gradually, I began to observe that the other nine or ten children didn't care if I had one arm or not.  Before long, I also began to believe it didn't make any difference.