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Learning to walk again: 'You think it will be easy'

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Sometimes just asking why is better than saying nothing at all.

As a single-leg, below-the-knee amputee, Matthew Morrison said he is bothered more by those who stare at his prosthetic than being asked by people of all ages how he lost his leg.

“It’s as simple as just asking,” said Morrison, a 22-year-old Marine corporal from Linwood, N.J., with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. “You don’t need to worry about being disrespectful. Just be honest and start a conversation. I’d rather people ask than assume what happened to me.”

And if you do ask, he’ll tell you about the patrol through Marjah, Afghanistan, on April 9, 2011, that changed his life. He’ll tell you about taking a knee to hold security on a compound. And he’ll tell you about the ensuing blast that severed his leg below the knee, fractured his femur, caused a traumatic brain injury and sent shrapnel throughout his body.

“Being an amputee has changed a lot — I wouldn’t say drastically, but it threw me for a loop,” he said. “Most (amputees) I know are pretty open about it. When it comes to people, the biggest reaction is kids, and they will say whatever they are thinking. It gives me a chuckle.”

Sometimes when he wakes up, Morrison forgets his lower leg is missing and falls to the ground when he tries to stand.

When he is wearing his leg, he sometimes loses his balance. In such a situation, he doesn’t mind people offering to help. Most amputees, he said, would rather get help from a stranger than fall over and hurt themselves.

“I want to be treated normal,” he said. “Life is pretty much the same except that I need to take my leg off at night and put it on in the morning. Once I got used to it, you just go on with life.”

Generally, amputees vary in their psychological and emotional responses to their injuries, according to Navy Lt. John Balsamo, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist. The loss of limb, he said, can have devastating impacts on a patient’s sense of self, body image and their ability to perform activities of daily living.

While learning how to drive with his left foot was a challenge, nothing compares to the heartache of learning to walk again, Morrison said.

“You grow up walking and you do it for years so you think it will be easy,” he said. “When I got my leg after 18 months, you would think that with that time your mind would just reset. It was extremely aggravating because you know how to walk but need to learn how to do it all again.”

But now that his physical therapy is over, he said he must deal with random phantom pains, an unexplainable symptom in which amputees feel pain or sensations where their limbs used to be.

“They suck a lot and there’s really nothing to fight it off,” Morrison said. “It feels like my toe or ankle is there and they hurt like I still have them. It’s not like the injury reoccurring but more or less just getting random pains.”

Balsamo said phantom pain is only one type of pain amputees sometimes feel. They also could experience residual pain, in which the remaining limb is in pain.

Whether he is visiting home or traveling around Jacksonville, Morrison said he has never felt awkward walking on his prosthetic, but when he was in a wheelchair or on crutches he did feel out of place and was treated differently.

“I know there’s a stigma towards amputations that we can’t be independent,” he said. “But we can. I just have to be careful how much physical activity I do. I can’t put myself in jeopardy of not being able to walk the next day.”

Balsamo said he’s never had a patient indicate that they want to be treated as though they have no injury.

“A patient with an amputation eventually sees themselves as they were prior to injury,” he said. “In short, they do not want the injury to define who they are, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

For retired Marine Sgt. Major Ray Mackey, being defined by his injury is not something he is willing to accept, he said, adding that it makes him part of who he is.

Much like Morrison, Mackey wants people to stop staring and ask how he was injured. Aside from staring, he said there is such a thing as helping too much and that part of healing is gaining your own independence.

Everybody wants to help you which is a nice gesture but it can do more harm than good,” Mackey said. “If I go to open a door and someone gets it for me while I’m in my wheelchair, they can actually pull me onto the ground. And if I’m on my prostheses they can actually knock me over.”

The most aggravating part for Mackey is being referred to as a pronoun by people, he said.

“It’s mostly parents who want their kids to get out of my way,” Mackey said. “They’ll refer to me as an it, a that or a thing rather than a person. It really gets under my skin.”

The things kids say sometimes really put a smile on Mackey’s face, he said. Many children have asked if they are robot legs or Transformer legs. One little boy, he said, actually promised to join the Army and go to Afghanistan to find Mackey’s legs.

“Making jokes about our situations are a coping mechanism,” he said. “To the people who stare – ask us what happened. To the people who ignore us and pretend we aren’t there – it’s better to acknowledge our injuries than to ignore a person. And for those who say, ‘don’t stare, it’s rude' – that’s kind of rude, too. It’s almost natural to stare and be curious.”

thomas.brennan@jdnews.com
 

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