Admittedly, the world of prosthetic limbs and devices is foreign to most people. Unless someone is personally affected by the loss of a limb, or is connected with someone who is an amputee, it can be hard to understand the physical, mental, and emotional challenges that a new amputee faces. These challenges are amplified when the individual in question is an active and athletic 13-year-old boy.In 2011, Jason Garstkiewicz of New Jersey was energetically involved in both individual and team sports. An enthusiastic surfer and an engaged member of local basketball, football, and lacrosse teams, athletics was a big part of young Jason’s life. Following one fateful basketball practice, Jason began to experience severe pain in his right ankle. Initial assumptions that Jason had suffered a hairline bone fracture were eventually supplanted by the confirmation that a malignant tumor at his ankle was the source of his pain.
Although doctors could have removed the cancerous tumor, and performed reconstructive surgery on Jason’s ankle, the repairs would have permanently fused his ankle. A fused ankle would eliminate any range of motion at the joint, effectively halting Jason’s ability to play the sports that he loved. Further, the option of tumor removal also presented the real possibility of subsequent infection, which if unresponsive to treatment, could eventually necessitate amputation.
The alternate treatment option presented to Jason and his family was that of upfront amputation. Removing Jason’s right leg several inches below the knee would allow for “clean margins” with respect to removing the cancer, and in conjunction with chemotherapy, presented the best possibility that Jason would be cancer-free.
Often, the circumstances associated with the loss of a limb, such as an accident or injury, occur without forewarning. Consequently, the sense of urgency in deciding to amputate in order to save or extend a life can overshadow the post-surgery impact on the amputee’s daily life. The Garstkiewicz’s were fortunate in the sense that they had a window of time to make the best treatment choice for Jason. Although complete eradication of the cancer was the family’s top priority, quality of life considerations after the cancer was removed played a major role in the treatment choice that Jason would ultimately select.
A Life-Changing Decision
As part of the decision process, Jason came to Prosthetic Orthotic Solutions International (or POSI) to educate himself about prosthetics, and to learn about the range of available devices that would allow a still-growing young man to maintain his active lifestyle. Board Certified Prosthetist Kevin Towers took Jason under his wing on that first visit, displaying the compassion, knowledge, and technical skill that only years of designing, fitting, and constructing prosthetics could give. Jason recalls being impressed by the range of prosthetic options available that would allow him to continue his athletic pursuits. He was further pleased to learn that his made-to-measure prosthetic devices would be constructed in-house and on-site by Kevin and the POSI team, simplifying any modifications and adjustments to his finished device.
The advance visit to POSI and consultation with Kevin gave Jason a peace of mind about the decision that had to be made. So, shortly after his thirteenth birthday, and armed with information from surgeons, oncologists, physical therapists, and POSI, Jason alone made the decision to proceed with the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Jason’s mother Pam recalls being so proud of her son; the strength and confidence he displayed revealed a maturity that was beyond his years.
Jason’s surgery was on March 7, 2012. Despite the physical weakness and exhaustion that his required chemotherapy produced, Jason resolutely soldiered through the intensive physical therapy that followed his amputation surgery. Kevin and the POSI team fabricated Jason’s first prosthetic leg, tailoring a liner and socket to maximize fit and comfort. Four weeks following his surgery, Jason was walking and hitting a golf ball. By August 2012, Jason had returned to playing team sports.
A Proshtetic Limb, A Stronger Jason
As of this writing, Jason is four years on from his experience with cancer and the resulting amputation of his right leg. Now seventeen, Jason presents as both an average teenager, and a remarkable individual. More than just a cancer survivor, Jason has thrived. He concedes that adapting to life with an artificial limb did slow him down initially, but it also made him doubly determined. In time, his persistence paid off. Today, Jason is equal to his peers on the playing field, and believes his athletic abilities to be as good as before his surgery. He still leads with his right leg when surfing, and pushes-off with his right leg when playing basketball, as he did naturally prior to its amputation.
Jason states that he has become so accustomed to using his prosthesis that he “doesn’t really remember what is felt like to have two feet.” Case in point is his recent DMV driving test. Without the aid of hand controls for the accelerator and brake, Jason was able to proficiently and safely demonstrate to the examiner that he could control a vehicle’s speed using his right leg prosthesis. An equal to other teens, Jason not only has his driver’s license, but can drive any standard vehicle, as he requires no specialized vehicle modifications.
Challenges Unique to a Growing Boy
To ensure continued comfort, fit, functionality, and performance as Jason’s leg grew and his weight increased, POSI has regularly updated sockets and devices for him as he has progressed through his adolescent years. Jason’s Prosthetist, Kevin Towers, explains, “The human body is always changing and active amputees require frequent adjustments and replacement prostheses to maintain fit. Maintaining an appropriate socket fit is important to prevent skin breakdown and for efficient transfer of energy through the body to the prosthesis. Growing children add an additional variable to the naturally occurring change and require more frequent follow-ups and componentry replacements. Residual limb shape and size changes more rapidly. Additionally, since componentry selection is based on weight and activity level, components require more frequent replacement with growth related changes.”
In addition to his daily-use prosthesis, Jason also has an alternative blade prosthetic for running. As it does not incorporate a heel is its design, a blade prosthetic facilitates the speed and balance required for running. “Because it is not currently possible for a prosthesis to replace all functions of the human body, an active amputee who participates in multiple sports may have multiple prostheses. This enables the amputee to be most efficient in that given activity,” Towers states.
Looking back over the past four years, Jason has no regrets about the choice he made to amputate, nor about his choice to come to POSI. From his initial consultation with Kevin, to his first prosthesis following surgery, through subsequent prosthesis to accommodate his growth, and up to day, Jason couldn’t be happier with his experience at POSI. To him, the POSI staff are like family. It takes a special group of people to model the compassion and professionalism demonstrated by the POSI staff each day, and the Garstkiewicz family feels lucky to have been connected with POSI from day one.
Life After An Amputation
Through POSI, Jason’s parents have met and networked with other parents of children with prosthetic devices, enabling mutual support for and discussion of the unique challenges these families can face. Jason, too, has even had the opportunity to help a young man not unlike himself to see that there is definitely life and hope after an amputation.
In conclusion Jason and his family want others to know that the loss of a limb does not have to mean there is a loss in the quality of one’s life. If you or a loved one is facing a similar, life-changing decision, contact Prosthetic Solutions for a consultation. A diagnosis that includes amputation can be tough, but there is light and life at the other end of the journey.