When former City of Kingston firefighter Gina Kothe decided to have her leg amputated, the Mid-Hudson Limb Loss Group (MHLLG) helped her prepare. “Not many people know about this support group,” said Kothe. “I’m trying to get the word out.” Her gratitude for their assistance has made her an enthusiastic advocate for the amputee community, organizing a Woodstock-area gathering of people with limb loss from around the country for an array of group activities that took place September 3-7.
In December of 2010, Kothe was standing on an extension ladder, helping to suppress a four-day fire at a parochial school on Adams Street, when someone accidentally retracted the ladder, crushing her right leg. For over two years, she coped with severe pain and depression, undergoing several surgeries, until she decided she’d rather do without the leg. “If doctors can control the pain with meds, they will,” she said. “But the meds made the depression worse. When you have chronic pain, you don’t sleep for days on end. My marriage was challenged. I had a three-year-old, a four-year-old, and a seven-year-old. I couldn’t take care of them if I was drooling and limp on the couch.”
Having made the decision to go with amputation, Kothe began methodically researching what to expect. “I wanted to know what it would feel like, what to do with my home, who were the best surgeons, how soon would I be able to walk again. But there are very few resources for amputees in a rural area.” Finally she discovered MHLLG and found not only answers to her questions but also a group of people who “eased my fears, listened to me cry, and most of all, understood.”
In February of 2013, her leg was amputated at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “By the time I was discharged from the hospital,” she recalled, “I knew I had my life back.” By May, equipped with her artificial leg, she was running. Last winter she participated in Paralympic bobsledding. She has run 5K races, enjoyed ziplining, and is in training for the New York City marathon.
Tools and dedication
Kothe also joined the Amputee Coalition of America, a national group that holds a conference every two years, with smaller gatherings organized by individuals in the off years. She found the 2013 conference so nourishing that she put together a local meeting of members that included a stay at the Pinegrove Family Dude Ranch in Kerhonkson, a walking tour of Woodstock, an evening of craft-making at Fiberflame Studio in Saugerties, and a barbecue at Kothe’s home. The group also set up an information booth at Olive Day in West Shokan.
Local businesses and organizations offered donations and discounts to make the gathering affordable for people coming from as far away as Georgia and Colorado. On Saturday, for example, Shea and Christina of Fiberflame gave the group 50 percent off their session at the studio, and Dennis Ebbing of Clinical Prosthetics and Orthotics in Kingston picked up the tab. New World Home Cooking donated a dinner buffet for the evening.
Kothe credits Ebbing, a prosthetist, with giving her “the tools, dedication, and pep talk to take me where I needed to be — moving.” Ebbing was present at the Fiberflame event, as eleven amputees and several family members sat at tables, chatting as they created craft objects.
“I’m inspired by Gina and her advocacy for amputees and her help educating them,” said Ebbing. “She helps with how to navigate the health care system. She’s been the fastest to move to being active. A big hurdle is the mental challenge, how to move on when you don’t know what life’s going to be like.” Ebbing, a triathlete, understands the importance of a positive mindset in determining outcome. “Gina’s like that. It’s good for people to see that life can be okay even though there’s this traumatic experience.”
18 month reality
The attendees at Fiberflame represented a wide range of abilities. “Some people are athletic,” noted Kothe, “but some just want to be able to move around independently. Some want to be able to care for their grandchildren.”
At one of the tables sat Ed Dean of Manitoba, Canada, who lost both legs above the knees when he was standing behind a van beside the highway, and a car rammed into him. Because the doctors weren’t sure if he had a fractured vertebra as well, they induced a coma to keep Dean from moving for two months. “I woke up looking like this,” he said. “It looked foreign, but from the get-go, it never bothered me. I started coming up with plans. Reality doesn’t hit you for 18 months. I’ve talked to thousands of people. In the first 18 months, you’re running on adrenaline, trying to get your life back together, and then the adrenaline runs out. The decision comes — you pull yourself up out of it, or you die.”
Learning to walk with his prosthetic legs was like being a baby again. “You stand and wobble and fall down and get up and start walking,” he said. Because his situation as a healthy, middle-aged man with his legs missing below the knees, was so rare, rehab professionals didn’t know how to help him. “I had to figure it out myself. I believe I’m the oldest bilateral above-the-knee amputee in North America.”
Dean is also an advocate, last year sponsoring a South African girl to attend the Amputee Coalition conference in Orlando. Kothe announced through the amputee network that she wanted to go but couldn’t afford a hotel room. Since the girl was staying in a double, Dean invited Kothe to share the room and help orient her roommate. “We watched all this magic happen,” said Dean, remembering the warmth of the Orlando gathering.
When asked what has been the biggest emotional change resulting from the loss of her leg, Kothe replied, “I don’t sweat the small stuff any more. I’m just glad I’m here.”++
The Mid-Hudson Limb Loss Group meets on the last Monday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Resource Center for Accessible Living, 727 Ulster Avenue, Kingston. For more information, call 845-331-0541 or see the group’s Facebook page. For information on the Amputee Coalition of America, see https://www.amputee-coalition.org.