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Joe Olvera: Luckiest Man in the World


by Joe Olvera, El Paso, TX

It's ironic. Even though my right leg was recently amputated below the knee, I feel I'm a very lucky man. Mostly I feel lucky because after surgery my employer stuck with me by not forcing me to stop working and enroll to receive disability benefits, even though he very well could have.

I guess my 10 years of service at Aliviane NO-AD, Inc. was the deciding factor. Aliviane is Texas' largest, most comprehensive and experienced drug treatment, prevention, education and intervention agency. I also consider myself lucky because I know other recent amputees who didn't fare as well. Acquiring a disability mid-life can carry many negative results.

Straight out of the hospital, I got the news I would be placed on disability until I could return to work - if ever. This meant I would be getting about $200 per week. Panic set in because I knew there was no way I would be able to support my wife, Julieta, and our three almost-grown children. I have two sons, 21 and 17-years-old. I also have a 14-year-old daughter. How was I going to pay the rent and living expenses for a family of five off disability payments?

Working From Home
I appealed to my boss, CEO Chilo Madrid, to allow me to work from home. At first he hesitated, not sure if he could trust me to actually work from home. I kept hounding him until he said yes. No sooner had he given his approval, then I sent my wife rushing to my office to bring home the computer I use in my daily activities as Deputy Director for Prevention & Rural Services - in which I direct and supervise four prevention programs for the agency. I wanted to get the computer before Chilo changed his mind.
 
Being allowed to work from home did a lot to speed my recovery. My wife and kids were also very instrumental in my being able to adjust to missing a limb. At first, of course, it was horrible. I had a large cast on my amputated leg and had only a walker to help me move around the house. This wasn't a real problem, because I mostly sat at my computer working away. However, walking to other locations in the house proved extremely difficult. I had difficulty balancing and was very weak after losing 20 pounds while in the hospital.

Finally, the day arrived when the cast would be removed. I went to the doctor's office with excitement but also with trepidation. After all, I had not yet seen my amputated leg. I imagined horrible things like the stitches not holding and the meat and blood from my leg spilling out. Of course, nothing of the sort happened and the cast was removed without incident.

Phase 2: Prosthesis
With that over and done with, I entered phase two of my recovery. I was going to be fitted for a prosthesis. Going to a prosthetist was scary because I didn't know what to expect. Nobody prepared me for this new thing. My prosthetist - a young man named David - told me I was a Level 3 candidate. This meant I would most likely be strong enough to walk, drive, and do almost all the things I was able to do prior to the amputation. I, however, was doubtful.
 
First, David measured the stump to see how much swelling had to reduce before he fitted me for a socket. He said I had to lose about two inches, and fitted me with a shrink sock. This is a very tight fitting apparatus that helps to reduce the swelling that remains after an amputation. I wore the shrink sock for three weeks before David said I was ready to be measured for my new leg.

While I welcomed this bit of news, I was very scared and nervous because I'd read dozens of articles about the changes I would undergo. I read about the pain and the inconvenience endured by those who use prosthetic legs. I was scared but knew I had to try. So I gritted my teeth and waited for the results. Finally my prosthesis was ready - "mi pata de palo" (my wood paw), as I call it. Although, of course, it's not made of wood. At first the pain was terrible. At the same time it was great. Here I was, finally, standing on what amounted to two legs.

When one has a below-the-knee amputation, the most notable change is that you only have one leg with which to support yourself while standing. When you think about balancing yourself on your other leg, you suddenly realize that there's nothing there. That's the scariest part, not being able to use your other leg because it is not there anymore. When I stood on my prosthesis, however, the change was evident immediately.

Finally, I could stand on two legs. One of the legs is made out of plastic and titanium steel but it's a leg. It hurts a little when I first put it on and attempt to walk but the pain soon dissipates and I'm able to walk almost normally. Besides the prosthesis, I also use a crutch to get around. This helps me maintain my balance and helps me avoid putting too much pressure on my bad leg. It's a tough go but nobody ever said it was going to be easy.