- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. (AP) - Her lower left leg has been gone for more than three years now, but sometimes Paula Free can still feel it.

It usually happens at night, when she first crawls into bed. The foot that is no longer there might feel like it’s falling asleep; or she might feel a sharp, stabbing pain in the toes or the arch.

“I couldn’t even begin to explain it,” the 61-year-old Springfield woman says. “Your brain is telling you your foot is still there.”

It’s a phenomenon known as phantom pain, a common symptom for those who have lost a limb to amputation.

After years of surgeries to try to save it, she made the gut-wrenching decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, seven years after her left foot was crushed in a May 16, 2004, motorcycle accident on Territorial Road near Veneta.

For Free, the presence of pain in an absent limb is something she can live with.

What she cannot live with, though, is inaction.

“Here I am, and I am so charged up,” Free says. “I need to keep moving. I try to do a couple hundred sit-ups a day.”

She is also - along with other amputees she has bonded with including Michelle Torkelson of Springfield and Greg Dauntless of Eugene - doing what was once unthinkable: running and walking in local 5-kilometer events.

Free also is offering help to others who have experienced limb loss. She recently became a certified peer adviser through a national support program called Amputee Empowerment Partners.

And she is trying to build a team, along with Torkelson, 47, and Dauntless, 64, and a few others, in the hopes of reaching out to new amputees and to organize events that could raise awareness and provide support for those who have lost limbs.

“Everybody, whether they realize it or not, goes through a huge challenge,” Free says of amputees. “You go through depression and … when you become an amputee, it’s almost like your life just stopped. I’m trying to keep myself inspired and trying to help other people.”

Almost 2 million Americans have experienced amputations or were born with missing or deformed limbs, and another 28 million are at risk of amputation, according to the Amputee Coalition, a national advocacy group.

The majority of amputations, about 54 percent, stem from vascular disease caused by diabetes and peripheral arterial disease, according to the coalition.

Most of the rest, about 45 percent, are the result of injuries such as the ones Free, Torkelson and Dauntless sustained. Like Free, Torkelson and Dauntless were injured in motorcycle crashes.

Free and Torkelson met two years ago through their connection to the Hanger Clinic in Springfield, where both received their prosthetic limbs. They couldn’t believe how much they had in common: Besides their below-the-knee amputations, both are hairdressers; their husbands - Rod Free and Lance Hay - work for Blue Star Gas and Northwest Natural Gas, respectively; and both were married on July 4 in Nevada. (The Frees in Reno in 2003 and Torkelson and Hay in Las Vegas in 2004).

Amputee Empowerment Partners is an offshoot of the Hanger Clinic, an Austin, Texas-based provider of orthotic and prosthetic solutions with more than 700 clinics nationwide.

Carrie Davis, a Hanger employee who was born without a lower left arm, started the program to provide support, information and resources for people preparing for life after limb loss, according to the company’s website.

The Hanger Clinic was founded in 1861 by J.E. Hanger, who lost a leg when shot with a cannonball in the first land battle of the Civil War at age 18. He was one of the war’s first amputees. He returned to his hometown in Virginia and made an artificial leg from whittled barrel staves, according to the company’s history.

He then went on to make what became known as the “Hanger Limb,” which he later patented, for other amputees of the Confederate States Army.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 Civil War soldiers had limbs amputated, according to various online reports. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in more than 1,500 soldiers receiving amputations, according to The New York Times.

Those recent soldiers have received the same sort of modern prosthetics as Free, Torkelson and Dauntless: prosthetics made of titanium and aluminum pylons and lightweight carbon-fiber feet.

Dauntless’ left leg was amputated in a Boise hospital following his collision with a truck on Highway 7 west of Baker City on June 13, 2010. He was riding back from the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally in Baker City with a group of five people on four motorcycles when he became worried about his wife, Susan, who was following in a car.

Dauntless had lost sight of her in his rearview mirror, so he circled back and waited on the right side of the highway until he saw her approaching. When he did, he pulled out to lead the way and didn’t see the eastbound truck coming the other direction.

The crash left him severely injured and clinging to life.

“The last thing I remember is seeing her, and then I woke up three days later,” Dauntless recalls.

In addition to the mangled left leg, he broke both his arms, hands and several ribs, and his internal organs required extensive surgery.

It took 45 minutes for medics to arrive from John Day, and then he was airlifted to Boise, where he was put into an induced coma. When he awoke, the leg was gone.

After a week, he was transferred to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield, then did weeks of rehab at Oregon Rehabilitation Center on Sacred Heart’s Eugene campus.

He had to use a wheelchair for months and learn how to get around on one leg until receiving his prosthetic leg from Barnhart Prosthetic & Orthotic Services in Springfield in November 2010.

Dauntless estimates that his prosthesis cost more than $40,000, most of which was covered by his health insurance through his former employer, SierraPine in Springfield, where he was a longtime machine operator in the particle-board industry.

But the injury left him unable to work.

Today, Dauntless is a volunteer for the Lane Blood Center and at the intensive-care unit at RiverBend, where he acts as a liaison between medical staff and patients.

He became involved with the city of Eugene’s Adaptive Recreation Services and initially learned to ride a bicycle again on a three-wheeler.

Today, he’s on his second road bike, custom built by Collins Cycle Shop in Eugene, and joined Free, Torkelson and a couple of other local amputees for the 5K Dirty Duck run on Sept. 27 in Eugene.

“I wanted to recover,” Dauntless says. “Mentally, I think I fought off a lot of the depression. I wanted to be back in society instead of home and in bed.”

Dauntless has not become a peer adviser but is considering it. He has told his story, though, by giving talks on behalf of the Lane Blood Center (he required 30 blood transfusions to survive his 2010 accident).

“Just giving people that encouragement and belief that life does go on. And I think that’s pretty much my journey. It’s one of those spiritual things,” says Dauntless, a longtime member of Eugene’s St. Paul Catholic Church. “I guess God wasn’t done with me.”

Like Free, Torkelson has gotten all of her prostheses through the Hanger Clinic. In fact, she has four prosthetics, each costing about $15,000. She has two for working out, an everyday one for her work as a hairdresser, that she can wear either high heels or flip-flops with, and a “peg leg” just for fun on Halloween.

Torkelson’s lower left leg was amputated immediately after her Aug. 25, 2006, motorcycle crash near Marcola. She had just received her motorcycle permit two days earlier and was on a ride with her uncle.

“And I turned my head to look at a gal feeding a horse and hit a guardrail.”

Torkelson’s best advice to other amputees is that “you have to stay in shape. If you’re not in shape, you have to get in shape. To even try to walk or run with a (prosthesis) … it’s scary. There’s no trust there.”

Lisa Smith, 54, of Eugene, knows what Torkelson is talking about. Smith is the local coordinator for Amputee Empowerment Partners. John Robert, the manager of the Springfield Hanger Clinic and a certified prosthetist/orthotist, suggested she take on that role.

Robert identified about eight local amputees, including Free and Torkelson, who he thought could start a local chapter of the volunteer program, says Smith, operations manager at HealthFirst Financial in Springfield.

Smith’s right leg was badly broken as a passenger in a Feb. 14, 1986, head-on auto crash on an icy Missouri highway. But it wasn’t until after eight unsuccessful surgeries and 21 years that she decided to have Dr. Donald Jones, the same Eugene orthopedic surgeon who performed Free’s amputation, remove her leg below the knee in 2007.

“And I can honestly tell you, I didn’t know another female amputee,” Smith says.

Would she be able to wear a high heel with a prosthesis? Sure, a doctor or a prosthetist could tell her yes, but talking with another woman who’s actually been through it would have been helpful.

That’s why Smith and the others went through the peer adviser training last spring.

Since then, Smith has counseled three new amputees, including two who had limbs amputated because of complications from diabetes, and one who, like her, had been living for years with an injury that never healed.

As the local coordinator, Smith will receive calls from doctors, prosthetists and assisted-living facilities when a new amputee needs help, then visits with them or refers them to another peer adviser. If possible, new amputees are matched with someone of similar circumstances (such as age, gender or reason for amputation).

Smith has had to learn how to drive an automatic transmission using her left foot on the gas pedal, since a prosthetic foot obviously has no feeling.

She ran her first road race as an amputee when she did the Dirty Duck on Sept. 27.

Robert, 51, the Hanger Clinic prosthetist, has encouraged Smith and the others to stay active.

In fact, he was there on June 28 at Mount Pisgah when Free and Torkelson did the annual Dirty Dash.

Part of that 5K run includes belly flopping in mud and climbing over a 30-foot rope wall. When Free got to the top of the wall and seemed stuck, a concerned Robert climbed up to help her over.

And when it was all done, he took her prosthesis back to the office and cleaned the mud off it.

“It’s great because, for us, we don’t want to come across as just doing it for sales,” Robert says about what Free and the others are doing for new amputees.

“We want them to have someone to talk to. It carries a little more weight and validity. So when they can hear that from someone personally, it’s awesome.

“You’re dealing with a lot of questions. I can answer them as a certified prosthetist, but I haven’t been through it.”

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