Help after limb loss
New organization aims to support North State amputees
Shelly Baxter-Wetmore’s life changed unexpectedly two years ago.
The retired businesswoman developed pneumonia while suffering a bout of the flu. She was sick for several several weeks, she said, and matters were complicated when she stubbed her toe.
It wasn’t a hard hit, but it caused her foot to go numb. Her toes, she said, felt like stones.
During an emergency visit to a hospital, a nurse attempted to place a blanket over Baxter-Wetmore’s lower body before she was to undergo an MRI-type scan, she said. The pain caused by the blanket touching her foot became excruciating.
“I mean, it was stratospheric,” Baxter-Wetmore told the CN&R. “You know how they say, ‘Pain, one through 10?’ There is no number for this. It was worse than anything I’ve ever been through.”
The bottom of her right foot was black, she said. The foot was dying. Physicians were beckoned, and Baxter-Wetmore spent the next several foggy days in intensive care. After regaining her faculties, she began to come to terms with what had happened. Surgeons amputated her right leg below the knee.
“I experienced an amputation for what they call idiopathic reasons,” she said. “They’re really not sure what prompted it, because I’m not the usual candidate that has diabetes or heart problems or other types of health issues.”
Baxter-Wetmore spent the next few days managing the pain and trying to wrap her mind around her new life. So much of what she knew now took extraordinary effort. Getting in and our of bed. Going to the restroom. Putting on clothes. Making it to the kitchen. All harder.
But something clicked over the first several months after undergoing the amputation. Baxter-Wetmore realized she wanted to offer help and knowledge to other people who’ve lost limbs. Help that could mean emotional and practical support. Help that she said was lacking in the North State.
For the past year and a half she has worked as a certified peer support counselor through an Enloe Medical Center volunteer program. She’s also organized monthly amputee support group meetings in Chico. Now, Baxter-Wetmore is establishing Amputee Outreach, which she said recently obtained nonprofit status. The organization, she said, will build upon the activities of which she’s already been a part.
“I want to reach as many amputees, their families, their caregivers and their situations, [which] I might be able to find solutions for,” Baxter-Wetmore told the CN&R. “Especially depression, isolation and not having peers, because I didn’t know anybody with an amputation before [I had mine]. Not a soul.”
About 2 million people are living with the loss of a limb in the U.S., with that number projected to rise to 3.6 million by 2050, according to an aggregation of studies compiled by the Amputee Coalition, an advocacy organization. Yearly amputations total about 185,000 nationwide, and the main causes are vascular disease—including diabetes—and trauma.
According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report, produced periodically by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.4 percent of the country’s population—or 30.3 million people—had diabetes in 2015, the most recent data available. New cases total 1.5 million every year. The prevalence of diabetes has become a national crisis, Baxter-Wetmore said, adding, “More and more of the population is going to have diabetes.”
Amputee Outreach will attempt to connect with and support those living with limb loss in the North State, which she said is underserved in terms of support services for amputees. The efforts could take the shape of the continuation and bolstering of peer counseling services, monthly support meetings and the lending of equipment, such as bathroom grab bars and portable ramps, to name a few.
To be clear, Amputee Outreach is starting from scratch. Currently, it comprises a staff of one—Baxter-Wetmore. She said she is seeking three volunteers—preferably community leaders—to serve on the organization’s board. She’s also seeking fundraising, legal and accounting advice, and she’s put out a call for donations.
“If this community can help me with gas cards, gift certificates—everything from a haircut to lunch somewhere—because I want to take people … and get them out, you know? A coffee.”
Brenda Logan, manager of inpatient rehabilitation services at Enloe Medical Center, said Baxter-Wetmore has a passion for supporting people who undergo amputations. The hospital, Logan said, has worked with her to set up support group services, offering meeting space and guest speakers for four months out of the year.
There is a strong need in Butte County for peer support counseling for not only amputees, but also people who have suffered strokes or other life-altering events, Logan said. The shared experience between counselor and patient can help to foster a comfortable space to ask questions and confront challenges. Clinical experts are trained to help patients overcome physical and societal barriers but may not be as well versed in addressing psychological and emotional ones.
“It takes a village,” Logan said. “We keep abreast of new techniques and things available to our patients, but that heart to heart is vital, and having somebody in your corner is really important.”
The needs of those living with limb loss are myriad, Baxter-Wetmore said. Some patients isolate themselves in their homes and may benefit from speaking with someone who also is living with limb loss. Others may not have insurance policies that will cover certain equipment, such as prosthetic limbs. Baxter-Wetmore’s prosthetic leg, she said, cost $38,000, and she had to convince her insurance company to get it covered.
The Camp Fire has also complicated matters. One fire survivor she knows recently underwent a leg amputation and is living in a motorhome in Paradise. Making such homes accessible, she said, could prove challenging for lower-income residents.
Baxter-Wetmore said she is aiming to serve as an advocate for her fellow amputees, offering help or pointing them toward the appropriate resources.
“It’s a little bit of a different life, but I want people to know it’s a good life,” she said. “You can have a good life.”