Life without limbs: Amputees bond at 'Ampuversary'


It's what they are missing that brings them together.

Every year, nearly 2,000 amputees from across the tristate area visit the JFK Johnson Institute for treatment.

About 40 of their patients who live without limbs recently gathered at the Institute for the second "Ampuversary" -- an event where in addition to sharing their struggles, amputees have the ability to meet and form bonds, according to a statement from the Institute.

"We all help each other," said Joan Myers-Norton, 58, of Edison, said of last week's gathering. "You could definitely say we love each other. We look to our strengths. We are all missing limbs, and we all are finding ways to survive and get around. It's about overcoming our environment."

The event had amputees of all ages -- from a 12-year-old to an 86-year-old. It also featured Broadway actress Rachel Handler, of Linwood, who had her leg amputated after a horrific car crash five years ago on the New Jersey Turnpike.

"Many call each other frequently on cell phones, and many have become very good friends," said Dr. Heikki Uustal, medical director of prosthetics and orthotics at the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, in an email. "They meet and communicate beyond the monthly meeting and really support each other."

Uustal said the gatherings also give amputees an opportunity to show off the latest in prosthetic limb technology.

"Most of the people with amputated limbs are happy to show off their prostheses, whether an arm or leg," Uustal said. "They all have this connection and shared experience. Some of the older people are happy when a child comes up and asks to touch their leg or asks what happened to their leg."

Edison is home to the JFK Prosthetic & Orthotic Laboratory on Talmadge Road -- a facility that produces prostheses.

Uustal said the prostheses can range from non-moveable feet to high-performance, carbon-fiber or electronic feet for active adults to higher performance, computerized or hydraulic knees for younger, active people.

"After people see me as the doctor and we agree on what is best for them they go to the laboratory where we take a model of their limb and make the socket," Uustal said. "Then we put the parts together. Once that's complete, they come back to us for physical therapy to master the skills of walking with that device."

In 2013, more than 4,300 amputations were performed in New Jersey. Though the state has seen a roughly 10-percent drop in amputations since 1997, amputations are continuing to rise throughout the country due to increasing rates of diabetes and vascular diseases, according to the Amputee Coalition of America.