Helping amputees thrive

Beverly Connell of Ladson tries her hand at cornhole during the regular meeting of Limbs Without Limits. Connell says, “I’m 70 years old, but I’m not going to give up living my life.”

Ronnie Flowers didn’t quite know what he was getting into.

Fellow amputees and avid triathletes Jeff Nolan and Ricky Miller coaxed him into doing a triathlon relay at the Tom Hoskins Memorial Triathlon in Irmo in July.

Nolan would do the run and Miller the swim. All Flowers had to do was use a hand-cycle to do the 13-mile bike leg.

The easygoing, 31-year-old Flowers, who lost his left leg in a work accident in 2009, went on a few training rides with the guys to make sure he could do it. No big deal.

But what none of the three men realized was that the Hoskins Triathlon was extremely hilly.

“They threw me under the bus,” accuses Flowers of Nolan and Miller, with a big grin on his face.

Yet Flowers came out of the experience wanting to do more. Perhaps a full triathlon, and more.

The men are part of new amputee support group, Limbs Without Limits, which was started by Nolan and his wife, Emily, to encourage local amputees to be more active, whether it’s vigorous exercise or social activities such as bowling or playing cornhole.

The group received its nonprofit status a few weeks ago and is ready to expand its efforts.

The Nolans admit, however, that they face obstacles in the form of perceptions. Both work for Floyd Brace, one of about a half-dozen orthotic and prosthetic companies in the greater Charleston area.

Limbs Without Limits is not affiliated with Floyd Brace, though company president Larry Wiley serves on its board, but some think it is. The Nolans want to break down the walls of business competition and build a community of active amputees.

“We just want to give all amputees avenues to reach their dreams,” says Emily.

The Nolans can personally attest to the power of helping amputees move on with their lives after losing a limb.

In 2003, a 3,000-pound piece of machinery landed on both of Jeff’s legs. Over the next seven years, he wore braces and orthotic devices and had 17 different surgeries that eventually led to the amputation of his left leg.

But after the amputation and getting a new leg, life got better not only for Jeff but his whole family.

Inspired by Richard Blalock, a local runner who had a leg amputated after chronic issues with an ankle, Nolan started participating in triathlons and became a part of Floyd Brace’s Phoenix Athletes program.

On Nov. 2, Nolan and Wiley will participate in Ironman Florida, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

While the popular 1970’s TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man” and its spin-off “The Bionic Woman,” gave their amputee characters superhuman powers, the shows did somewhat forecast the future, a more whole future, for those who have lost limbs.

Bionic is a fancy term for lifelike prosthetics with custom skins, motors and microchips that replicate human motions.

While ultra-sophisticated artificial limbs are expensive, advances in prosthetics and the higher profile of amputees who lost limbs while serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have combined to make this century a new dawn for amputees.

National organizations such as Wounded Warriors and Amputees Active Again Foundation are not only helping them lead full, happy lives but is providing inspiration to amputees, many of whom suffer from obesity and depression from lack of activity.

Floyd Brace’s Wiley is familiar with those side-effects and hopes that Limbs Without Limits will help create a new lifestyle for local amputees.

“A lot of people just look down one day and say to themselves, ‘My God, I’m an amputee. What’s next? What am I going to do?’ We encourage people to get up and get moving.”

Sometimes that can involve expensive equipment, and Wiley hopes his group eventually can fund those purchases.

For now, the group can serve as a conduit for donated equipment, as well as to connect people with other programs.

“Limbs Without Limits isn’t just about helping the amputee to recover, but their spouse and kids to recover. Life can improve after getting an amputation,” says Wiley. “But it’s all up here (in the mind). It’s all up here. I can make the leg for anyone, but if I can’t unlock the mind, there’s nothing I can do.”