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Rose Marie Bissonnette
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LANCASTER —  Seven years ago, an excited but slightly nervous Rose Marie Bissonnette sat in her homey kitchen and described her new limb loss support group. The fledgling group would meet monthly at Clinton Hospital. She hoped participants would share emotional and medical experiences, point one another in the right direction, and perhaps invite a guest speaker once in a while. 

The inspiration to form such a group, the only one in Worcester County, sprang from a conference in Boston she attended the year before, hosted by the Amputee Coalition of America. Before that, Ms. Bissonnette, who lost the lower part of her left leg in a 1996 car accident, was too embarrassed to even wear shorts. 

She has come a long way, and the group, now with more than 100 members, has grown along with her. 

She dances — in a dress. She takes trips around the country. Last week, she drove to Virginia to visit her grandchildren. 

The support group — now much more than that — has expanded to the point that Ms. Bissonnette is fielding calls from all over New England, forming a partnership with a Worcester podiatrist, and has added another monthly meeting at the Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westboro. 

And now there's a new, all-encompassing name for the group: The New England Amputee Association. 

"People are calling me all the time, from all over New England, asking me about other groups — in their areas, about our programs, about peer visitors, about how to start a group. Just all kinds of questions," Ms. Bissonnette said. "And it's not only amputees. I get calls from social workers, rehabilitators and prosthetics people. We are more than a support group." 

She intends to help set up groups in other states. In the meantime, a webinar to be set up at the Clinton Hospital meeting will be available for distance viewing. 

"At least it would connect the people," she said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I think what we were would become what we are today." 

The name change will be announced at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Jillian's on Grove Street in Worcester. A a ribbon cutting will be at 5:30 p.m. The event, at which Ms. Bissonnette will also announce a partnership with Worcester-based Central Mass Podiatry, coincides with the first-ever National Limb Loss Awareness Month, declared for April by the Amputee Coalition, a national group. Gov. Deval L. Patrick proclaimed April Limb Loss Awareness Month in Massachusetts, making this one of the first states to do so. 

The local group will hold a wrap-up event April 30 at the Red Tail Golf Club at Devens. 

The "Putt and Prevent 28" will include 28 putting, driving and family activities. Ms. Bissonnette said golf clubs will be provided, and those in wheelchairs can participate. 

The day will end with a steak dinner and silent auction fundraiser for the New England Amputee Association, which is funded solely by donations and run completely by about 10 volunteers and a seven-member board. 

More volunteers are needed, Ms. Bissonnette said, especially a grant writer. 

The main reason the group is expanding, she said, is the escalating number of amputees. 

"The more time it goes on, the more I see it's needed," she said. 

The statistics are grave, she said, for several reasons. 

Two main factors are the increasing numbers of diabetics, who often have circulation problems in their feet; and a spike in patients with vascular disease, resulting in poor blood circulation. In addition, massive infections caused by virulent strains of staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria have resulted in more amputations. 

Accidents, especially those in children, are another reason limbs are amputated. Ms. Bissonnette said a lot of the childhood injuries involve lawn mowers — either by riding on them and falling under them, or being run over by a mower. 

Military limb loss also accounts for an increase, and is credited with improvements in prosthetics. Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester has a grant to study how to make a connection between the brain and an artificial limb, so it would move on its own. Ms. Bissonnette said there are lots of federal grants for improving military prosthetics. Some new, high-tech limbs are so good, she said, they allow soldiers to return to duty. 

Unfortunately, she said, computerized prosthetics, which cost $50,000 to $150,000, are generally not covered by insurance programs, including Medicare. 

A basic prosthetic limb costs $12,000 to $15,000, and most insurance companies cover 80 percent of the cost, Ms. Bissonnette said. However, they must be replaced every three to five years. 

"The average person has to depend on their insurance. That has not changed much, I hate to say," she said. 

For information or tickets to the April 30 event at Devens, visit www.centralmalimbloss.com