Thanks to advances in technology, using prosthetics to improve the mobility of amputees is becoming the norm. But without proper physical therapy, adjusting to a new artificial limb can be just as frustrating and traumatic as the loss of the limb itself.
Bethany Nelson, PT, DPT of ProHealth Physical Fitness and Pilates Studio in Peachtree City, is passionate about helping clients with prosthetic limbs.
“The first amputee I knew was a friend in 8th grade who ran track with me,” Nelson recalls. “I’ve always been curious about amputees and looked at them as bionic people.”
Nelson got drawn into providing physical therapy to amputees quite by chance. She had recently transferred from a hospital care situation to outpatient rehab when the head of that unit left.
“I took it over, not knowing anything about prosthetic gait,” she says. “I quickly realized I had to learn what to do with these folks.”
Nelson initially worked with a prosthetist to get up to speed on the procedure and has since gone on to lecture other physical therapy students in programs at both Georgia State and Mercer Universities.
“My first patient was a 74 year old woman,” she says. “I fell in love with her and the process. Coming in with a leg that is totally foreign and then seeing them get their life back was so rewarding.”
That patient suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. With several failed knee replacements and vascular problems, her doctors recommended amputating her right leg above the knee. A stroke caused further weakness on her right side that made her at risk of buckling.
“I had to rig up a platform rolling walker,” Nelson recalls. “We worked together for a year to get her independent with the walker.
“Her ultimate goal was to return to bowling, so one day I took her across the street to a bowling alley. Her first roll she hit a strike.”
Nelson recalls another client named Ed, who was in his late 40s and had a below the knee, or transtibial, amputation.
“He came to me with phantom limb pain in his missing foot which was getting in the way of bearing weight on the prosthesis,” Nelson says. “We did a lot of soft tissue work on his limb and he eventually got to the point where he no longer had the phantom pain.
Interestingly, Ed told Nelson that she was the first physical therapist he’d worked with since his amputation who actually touched his leg.
“We worked on gait training to the point where he didn’t need an assistive device,” Nelson says. “Typically we start out with use of a bar that’s attached to the wall — a stable device to support the body weight and help you balance. Then we progress from a bar to a rolling walker or crutches. Then we progress to one crutch or a cane. My goal is for everyone to return to what they had.”
Ed is now a peer support group leader for other amputees and volunteers to help teach physical therapists about prosthetics.
Nelson considers herself a “gait specialist,” meaning that the physical therapy she gives to amputees can be applied to anyone who’s had joint surgery on the hips, knees or ankles.
“Any gait disturbance, I can treat it,” she says. “My goal is not just to get them walking, but to get them walking well. I don’t want any nasty limps that are going to make them develop spinal conditions or other problems.”
Nelson also incorporates a lot of social wellness training into the lives of her patients, because there’s still a lot of stigma attached to amputees.
“I let them know it’s ok if people are staring at you and obviously curious, and to just say ‘Hey, you want to hear my story?’ They should have a lot of pride because it’s amazing what they do. It’s the most rewarding population They get their life back, and I love it!”
ProHealth Physical Therapy and Pilates Studio is located at 1401 Georgian Park, Suite 120 in Peachtree City.
To schedule a physical therapy session or consult with Dr. Bethany Nelson, call ProHealth at 770-487-1931.