Lancaster amputee helps others handle the challenge
LANCASTER — Rose-Marie Bissonnette should have been preparing for retirement in the fall of 1996, but instead she was contemplating life as an amputee.
On the eve of her ninth wedding anniversary, on Oct. 19, 1996, the car Mrs. Bissonnette was driving collided with a truck on Route 13 in Brookline, New Hampshire. The car was crushed under the truck, with her inside. Practically every bone in the left side of her body was broken. She wasn't expected to survive.
"I was so badly crushed, I was literally bleeding out from all of my broken bones. I had a broken pelvis, broken ribs, a severed right ankle, broken arm, broken wrist," Mrs. Bissonnette recalled. "I had multiple, multiple injuries and they tried to save my left leg. I had either years of reconstructive surgery ahead of me with no guarantee that I would walk again, or amputation."
As she considered her options, she asked to speak with someone about what life is like as amputee. To her surprise, there were no resources available.
But Mrs. Bissonnette, 69, whose left leg was amputated below the knee, has changed that. In 2004, she founded what is known today as the New England Amputee Association, a nonprofit organization that is a resource for amputees and caregivers looking for support and information.
To date, the New England Amputee Association, which was originally called Central Mass Limb Loss Support Group, has 250 on its rolls, and receives requests for information from families, patients, doctors and hospitals across the region. Mrs. Bissonnette has met with Boston Marathon survivors to help them as they deal with limb loss.
Mrs. Bissonnette fields the phone calls herself from her Lancaster home, and most requests usually fall into two categories: a spouse or child who is looking for help because they've noticed a change in their loved one's personality after an amputation; or a new amputee who is having trouble adjusting physically or emotionally.
The New England Amputee Association just started a new branch at Kent Hospital in Rhode Island and is working to have at least one branch in every New England state.
The impetus for Mrs. Bissonnette to start the association was not just her accident, but the tragedy that followed three months after her amputation — the unexpected death of her husband from undiagnosed cancer.
"I wanted to give back," Mrs. Bissonnette said. "I was having difficulty dealing with how I had lost my husband, but I lived through this accident. He took care of me for the last six months of his life, and I had a lot of guilt."
Mrs. Bissonnette attended the Amputee Coalition's annual conference in Boston in 2003, and registered to be a peer visitor. As a peer visitor, she had to go to a local support group, but there weren't any. She began working with the Lancaster Commission on Disability, Clinton Hospital and prosthetists in the area.
The hospital allowed her to use a conference room the second Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. There are speakers or themes each month. Mrs. Bissonnette wants the association to be there not only as a resource, but a reminder that there is still fun in life. For instance, the association has held a pizza and prosthetic party, announcing "We supply the pizza, you bring the prosthetic." There are dances and barbecues and fundraisers, including one in the works to raise money to send a child with an amputation to Camp No Limits, a camp in Maine for children and families dealing with limb loss.
Charles Milewski a former Douglas resident who now lives in Dayville, Connecticut, had his right leg amputated in May 2010.
"I had a diabetic problem that caused me to end up in the hospital with the choice of dying or having my right leg cut off. I chose to live," said Mr. Milewski, 70. "Every morning I wake up, I look at my prosthetic and say, 'Some assembly required.' "
As he recovered, his podiatrist, Dr. Donald Pelto of Central Mass Podiatry in Worcester, suggested he connect with Mrs. Bissonnette and the New England Amputee Association. He served as treasurer of the organization for two years before stepping down so he could move to Connecticut.
"The people who come to us for the first time may be in a wheelchair and they don't know what's down the road," Mr. Milewski said, adding that his limb loss has not prevented him from enjoying life with his family. He still plays with his grandkids, he shovels snow, he travels, he even had a scene as an extra in the HBO show "Boardwalk Empire." "We offer a lot of life experience, and we are here to help."
Mrs. Bissonnette has stepped down as president of the organization and is now focusing on working with doctors and other medical professionals on what happens after amputees are discharged from the hospital.
"The health care community is very good at what they do," Mrs. Bissonnette said. "But once a patient leaves their care, that patient is now facing real life. It is not unusual for depression to set in. You don't get a new limb and have a fairy tale ending when you leave the hospital."
"I think a lot of new amputees think life is over," Mr. Milewski said. "Your life is not over. Your whole body and living is controlled from the neck up, not if you lose an arm or a leg. It's how you mentally figure it out."
For information on the New England Amputee Association, go to www.newenglandamputeeassociation.com/