Wednesday, March 03, 1999

Easing life without limbs

Family wants to start support group to share what they've learned

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sandy and Rich Friend turned to the Internet for coping information after his leg was amputated.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Ask Rich Friend of Symmes Township how he's getting along, and he's likely to wisecrack, “One step at a time.”

        Humor, he's found, is a necessary companion when dealing with life's challenges. When doctors had to remove his right leg and most of his right hip in 1995 because of cancer, he and his wife, Sandy, were launched into an on-going challenge.

        Because they weren't e prepared for the impact of the amputation, , the Friends had to learn gradually how to cope with everything from the mighty to the trivial.

        Such as dealing with the stubborn wound infection Mr. Friend battled for 12 weeks after surgery.

        Or figuring out how to travel, one of their favorite pastimes, when Mr. Friend can't pack the van or carry heavy luggage through the airport.

        Or learning how to carry a coffee cup from the kitchen to the recliner without spilling a drop — while on crutches.

        Or trying to find an exercise program tailored to an amputee.

        “By living through this, we've got a fair amount of information to share,” says Mr. Friend, 54, a self-employed businessman who, with his wife, hopes to start a Tristate support group this month for amputees. “We've had kind of a good time learning this information, and we'd like to help other people by getting this information across.”

        The effort hasn't always been easy.

        High school sweethearts who reunited 25 years after first marriages, the couple were married in 1992 and looked forward to new lives together.

        Three years later, Mr. Friend was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer. His leg was amputated in May 1995 at the Cleveland Clinic. Because of the lingering infection, it was months before he was able to get up and around and look for services, information, physical therapy and help.

        The problem was, the couple couldn't find much. Eventually, they turned to an Internet mailing list and found information and resources through members of the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA).

        They shared online information and later e traveled with other amputees, sharing tips about exercise, artificial limbs, benefits, insurance bills, medical care, everyday problems and other issues.

        “I would have given my eye teeth to have someone to talk to while Rich was going through surgery and after he came home,” says Sandy, 53. “It would have been marvelous. If somebody had said to me, there's a gang of people out there who knows what you're going through and who will be your best friends, I might not have believed them, but I would have liked to have heard that.”

        Even now, four years after the surgery, Mr. Friend is figuring new ways to do certain tasks, such as balance a bowl of ice cream while on crutches, rake leaves or carry items in the grocery store.

        “You're very much on your own, and you just have to make this stuff up as you go,” he says.

        The goal of the support group is to share everyday, practical information with other amputees.

        Topics they hope to tackle include pain management, artificial limbs, daily coping tips and strategies, travel, insurance, government programs and accessibility topics, care-giving, exercise, physical and occupational therapy, driving, Internet resources and special services for amputees, such as a national shoe exchange program for people with one leg.

        Mr. Friend has an artificial leg but finds it uncomfortable and confining, especially because most of his hip was removed and the upper edge of the prosthetic juts into his torso, making it hard to breathe and move easily (“It's like lugging around a bar stool,” he says.) Most of the time, he relies on his crutches, although he knows he eventually will have to use the artificial leg more.

        Through the ACA, the couple found amputees who can provide information as varied as dealing with neck/shoulder pain from constant crutch use to sky-diving and rock-climbing for amputees.

        “You learn so much just from being around other amputees, watching them do this or that,” Mr. Friend says. “It's much more than you'll ever learn from a physical therapist or a specialist.”

        It's especially helpful, Mrs. Friend says, because family members and friends often don't know what to do.

        “They don't know what to say,” she says. “They don't know what we're dealing with, and sometimes they back away. We've realized there are probably a lot of people out there who come out of the hospital with very little information whatsoever.”

        The Friends hope to reach out to amputees who have lost limbs for any number of reasons — accidents, injury, cancer, birth defects, complications of diabetes, bone diseases and more.

        Mrs. Friend would like to establish a peer visitation program where amputees would visit amputation patients in the hospital to provide information, support and friendship before they're sent home.

        She says she watches her husband tackle simple chores with new respect for what amputees face.

        “These people to me are an inspiration,” she says. “There are a lot of people who get through adversity, and they humble me.”

        What: First meeting of the Tristate Amputee Group (TAG) for amputees and family members/caregivers.

        When: 6-8:30 p.m. March 11.

        Where: Church of the Savior United Methodist, 8005 Pfeiffer Road, Montgomery.

        Information: Sandy Friend, 677-0048.


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