Physical, Social, and Emotional Recovery Following Traumatic Injury: An Intimate Patient Perspective
Two and a half years ago, Dave Cummings, an Occupational Therapist and athlete who “lived for the outdoors,” endured a devastating traumatic injury while skateboarding in Colorado. Dave was one of six speakers who presented in a Stepping Strong Symposium panel that highlighted various aspects of recovery following traumatic injury. After the symposium, Donna Woonteiler caught up with Dave and his wife, Wendie, to learn more about the couple’s physical, social, and emotional journey toward rehabilitation.
DW: Thank you, Dave and Wendie, for speaking with me today. Let’s begin with your recollection of the accident on that fateful day in Winter Park, Colorado.
DC: Wendie and I were on vacation when I suffered a horrific knee injury while skateboarding. I shattered my tibial plateau and dislocated my knee—tearing all four ligaments, meniscus, cartilage, and my patellar tendon. I felt my bone break and I also felt my knee dislocate. The pain was overwhelming. I remember thinking, I will never be the same again.
While we were waiting for the paramedics to arrive, my leg was throbbing, and the spasms were almost unbearable. I said to Wendie, “I hope I don’t lose my leg.”
WC: Dave made an other-worldly sound when it happened. I’ve never heard any human being make that sound before and it’s stuck in my head. I should mention that being a healthcare worker and a life-long athlete—as well as someone who had previously broken some bones—Dave is not your average Joe. He works with physicians, understands how to navigate the healthcare system, and knows about the anatomy of bones. It was immediately clear to him that this was no ordinary accident.
DW: In order to grasp the full picture of what happened after the accident, please set a context for us. I know you both have a passion for the outdoors. How has that defined your lives?
DC: We love to travel to the mountains for vacations: hiking, trail running, and riding. I raced bikes for the last 20 years and was the Missouri state road race champion three times. I’ve also been a skateboarder since my teens.
WC: We don’t like to sit on a beach relaxing for vacations. We seek out adventurous and challenging endurance activities. I’m a competitive runner and since I met and married Dave, I also now love to ride my bike up and over steep mountains.
DW: Now take us through the events that occurred over the next two-and-a-half years. What decisions did you have to make along the way?
“I had nine reconstructive surgeries to salvage my leg. It was a cycle of surgery, recovery, rehab. I lost my job, my ability to be physical, and to a certain extent my sense of self.”
DC: I had nine reconstructive surgeries to salvage my leg. It was a cycle of surgery, recovery, rehab. I lost my job, my ability to be physical, and to a certain extent, my sense of self. The surgeries were slowly repairing the structural problems, but it almost always ended up one step forward and two steps back.
Through it all, Wendie has been my rock. She is now helping me in the same way I used to help my patients.
WC: We finally came to realize that, despite all the surgeries and rehabilitation efforts, Dave was never going to have a functional leg. After a lot of difficult discussion, he chose to have an above-the-knee amputation.
DC: I did not take this decision lightly. Compared to an able-bodied person, someone with an above-the-knee amputation needs 40-60 percent more energy just to walk. There is a high likelihood of ending up in a wheelchair earlier in life. Still, it was the clearest path forward.
DW: How did you come to learn about Dr. Matt Carty’s clinical trial?
DC: At the time I heard about Dr. Carty’s trial—nearly two years after the accident—I had already scheduled an amputation with a trusted specialist in Columbia, Missouri. It just so happened that one of the guys who raced with me dropped a magazine at my house that included an article about increasing functional outcomes for amputees through the AMI (agonist-antagonist myoneural interface) procedure. I read the article over the weekend, researched AMI, found out about Dr. Carty’s clinical trial, and then called him on Monday morning.
WC: Dave is a great candidate for the trial, so we cancelled the surgery in Missouri and headed to Boston. We met with the entire team at Spaulding, MIT Media Lab, and the prosthetist. Everyone is awesome.
DW: Now that you’ve undergone the AMI procedure, what’s life like these days?
DC: This is very strange to say, but I was excited to have my leg amputated. Before the amputation one big concern was looking down and seeing my leg really was gone. I wondered how people would look at me post-surgery. But I am ready to move forward with my new normal. I had my surgery on July 7th of this year.
“The good news is the surgery was a success. Dr. Carty came in the day after and told us, “You 100% you made the right choice. Dave would’ve never bent his knee again on his own.”
WC: The good news is the surgery was a success. Dr. Carty came in the day after and told us, “You 100% you made the right choice. Dave would’ve never bent his knee again on his own.”
DW: Back in 2014, Dr. Carty was the inaugural recipient of Stepping Strong Innovator Award for a project called “Recovering Limb Function: A New Surgical Approach For the 21st Century.” So much has happened since then to give hope to trauma patients like you, Dave.
DC: Dr. Carty is amazing. He’s dynamic and charismatic.
WC: And he’s accessible. We live more than 1,000 miles away but Dr. Carty always texts Dave back when he’s having issues. He’s also hilarious. He’s like family. That’s pretty awesome.
DW: Any last things you guys want to share with Stepping Strong Center readers?
“I got my leg on Friday the 13th of August . By September 14th, I walked 5.3 miles in one day. It was unbelievable. It’s been a long 2.5 years, but thanks to Dr. Carty and the folks at the Stepping Strong Center I’m happy to be where I am.”
DC: Just that this has been an awesome but hard journey. After the surgery I was accepted into the BOOST program at Spaulding Rehab and started two weeks of intensive therapy—five days a week for 1.5 hours a day. I was so ready to test the limits. I got my leg on Friday the 13th of August. By September 14th, I walked 5.3 miles in one day. It was unbelievable. It’s been a long 2.5 years, but thanks to Dr. Carty and the folks at the Stepping Strong Center I’m happy to be where I am.