Community, Health & Wellness, Springfield

Conference showcases empowered amputees

SPRINGFIELD – “There is life after amputation.” A simple, yet powerful message conveyed last weekend at the Power On With Limb Loss (POWLL) Discover Conference.

It’s a phrase that compels Paula Free, POWLL founder and executive director, who had her left leg amputated below the knee in 2011 after a motorcycle accident.

“A lot of people go through grief; I found that we all grieve in different ways, and we all grieve at different times,” she said.  “I remember one of my things I thought of probably first … is that I’ll never be able to dance with my husband again.”

After her amputation, Free attended amputee events, but found that they were mostly on the east coast. Still, she found ways to volunteer at events like children’s camps, and, “that’s what opened my eyes to a whole different world of … things you can do as amputees,” Free said. “It was very expensive to go back to North Carolina for the amputee conference, so then a friend of mine just said, ‘Why don’t you start a nonprofit?’”

Free and her husband Rod — who Free said she danced with many times after her injury — started POWLL almost a decade ago.

POWLL programs include a peer visitor program for people who might have limbs amputated soon, a support meeting group, a series of group events like skiing, and the Discover Conference. The conference had adaptive sports and activities for amputees to try, like bo yoga, archery, golf, rock wall climbing, and wheelchair basketball.

Shannon Nill, POWLL advisory board member and former owner of Guaranty Chevrolet in Junction City, said the goal of the conference is to give amputees a chance to learn that there are others like them.

“We’re not alone, and that’s an important factor,” said Nill, who lost his left arm as a child. “Every one of us can touch someone else who’s new to amputation. The support we give them will be part of what gives them a chance to recover …. When I first had my one-arm life I played a lot of foosball. I won a foosball contest with one arm in high school, and I thought, well, if I could play foosball then I can do almost anything.”

Nill said he went on to try, and succeed at, deer-hunting, fishing, and cycling post–amputation. A young amputee though, Nill did push the limits once or twice.

“I went back to skateboarding right off the bat. My mom was like, ‘The heck are you skateboarding for?’ And I said, ‘Mom, I think I know what I’m doing.’ I broke my wrist the first day out,” Nill said, though he noted he passed his driving test on his first try. “There’s life after injury. There’s tons of life.”

Nill said that although some things are harder after an injury, “you’ll find every one of us in this room has a few tricks they use that others might not know about,” referencing a knork – a fork with a sharp side to use as a knife. 

Keynote speaker Jessica Cox was born without arms due to a rare congenital disorder. Despite that, Cox has accomplished incredible things in her life, like becoming the world’s first licensed armless pilot, or becoming a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo. Nill and Cox linked up because Cox found out Nill and a friend were flying planes with one arm, and without any special modifications. 

“My friend Scott Cook and I both were pilots and learned how to fly with one arm. Jessica called up our organization; we had an organization called Ability Flights to help one-armed people learn how to fly,” Nill said. “Jessica called and said she wants to fly, and I go, ‘Great. Are you right- or left-handed?’ And she said, ‘I don’t have either arm, can I try it?’ So we said absolutely, because the FAA has to grant your license if you can do the maneuvers to pass the test.”

Cox passed that test in 2008 to become a licensed pilot. Cox, now 41 and married, said her motto is “think outside the shoe,” a phrase she took from a teacher from her childhood when learning how to tie her shoes.

“I knew (the normal way) wouldn’t work for me. My toes have become my fingers and my feet had become my hands,” Cox said. “I sat down on the playground, and I took the laces over and through and pulled to tighten. I made the little bunny ear over and through and finally, after 100 tries, I tied the bow.”

Cox, who said she is “right-footed,” demonstrated some of her other tricks that help her live her daily life, like a special hook to help her get dressed or a strap to put around her waist to carry her luggage.

“Speaking up for ourselves and advocating for our needs is so important. Sometimes people who don’t have challenges can’t recognize the importance of how we maneuver through our life,” Cox said. “We have to be confident about advocating for what it is that we need. That voice wasn’t very strong in the beginning for me, but I learned after years of practice that you have to speak up.”

Free, Nill, and Cox all talked about the fact that being confident takes time, and it’s why Free started POWLL. By being part of a community of amputees, reaching confidence becomes easier. 

“If you’re laying in a hospital bed, and you’ve just had your leg amputated, or we meet for coffee prior to having your leg amputated, and I can walk in and walk very well – it just blows people’s minds sometimes” Free said. “I run, rock climb, and do all kinds of fun stuff like kayaking. It changes their whole perspective and settles them down a little bit.”



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