Small steps, big gains: Northeast Mississippians reclaim their lives after amputations

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Jose Rodriguez of Fulton and Mollie Vannado of Pontotoc are missing a few pieces, but they are determined to reassemble their lives.
Rodriguez lost the lower part of his left leg in an April motorcycle accident. Vannado lost part of her right foot in the aftermath of a life-threatening pneumonia last fall.
Both are working their way back to an independent life with the help of prosthetics.
“You have to fight to keep a positive attitude,” said Rodriguez, 45. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by what you can’t do. “Focus on what you can do … that’s what lifts people up.”
Little steps can add up.
“I can’t run yet, but I’m going to start working out again,” said Vannado, 63, who has returned to work as a nurse at NMMC-Tupelo.
The recovery from an amputation isn’t easy or quick, but people like Vannado and Rodriguez are making it happen.
“It will be different, but it’s not the end of the road,” said Dr. Brian Condit, a rehabilitation specialist who serves as the medical director of the NMMC Rehabilitation Institute. “You can get up and pursue life.”
Stepping up
People lose limbs to accidents, cancer and medical problems that compromise circulation. In this region, diabetes and severe peripheral vascular disease are among the most common reason for amputations in Northeast Mississippi, Condit said.
“It’s a huge contributor to amputations here,” he said.
Getting fitted for a prosthesis isn’t like buying a pair of shoes, where you decide on a style, open a box, try on for size and check out. It’s a process that starts long before the person puts on an artificial limb, Condit said.
People have to heal emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, in the aftermath of an amputation.
“It is a loss,” Condit said.
They have to learn how to get around without their limb. Especially for people who have lost a foot or leg, they have to build up their strength and endurance.
“It does require more energy,” to walk with a prosthesis than your original leg, Condit said.
Currently, there’s an explosion in the options for people with amputations.
“Prosthetics have come so far in the last 15 years,” Condit said. “When I started in 1995, I had patients wearing wooden legs.”
Now prosthetic specialists have high-tech materials like silicon sleeves, carbon fibers and computerized joints.
“A lot of science goes into suspension systems and making sure (the materials) are friendly to the skin,” Condit said.
Getting a prosthesis to fit correctly is part science, part art. It takes time, adjustment and hard work.
“We try to find the best match to the kinds of activities that a person wants to do,” Condit said.
Specialized legs are designed for sports, for maneuvering over uneven ground and water sports.
The size of the remaining leg can shift from day to day because of changes in swelling. It can take a lot of trial and error with socks and suction liners to get the best possible fit.
“It’s not always easy and fast,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez attends a monthly multi-disciplinary amputee clinic where he sees doctors and rehab specialists who evaluate how his recovery is coming along.
“Mainly we upgrade what he’s got,” said Shay Hall, a physical therapist with NMMC Outpatient Rehabilitation.
Vannado had to have the contours of the foot prosthesis she wears shaved to better fit the contours of her foot.
“They say this is one of the hardest ones to fix,” Vannado said.
Fighting to live
Last September, Vannado, 63, had no warning that she was in for the fight of her life. One day the NMMC nurse was teaching her teen how to two-step. The next day, she didn’t get up. Her children realized something wasn’t right, got her up and to the hospital. She was diagnosed with necrotizing pneumonia and MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection.
“It hit me really fast,” Vannado said. “I didn’t have any symptoms.”
Vannado had to be revived in the ER, and doctors told the family the odds were against her survival. But Vannado surprised them all.
“I woke up in ICU a couple of weeks later,” Vannado said.
In its battle against the deadly germs, Vannado’s body had sacrificed circulation to her feet. When she woke up, much of her right foot was black and had no feeling.
“I knew they were dead when I saw them,” Vannado said.
Vannado had to gain strength before a surgeon could remove the damaged tissue. She spent time as a patient in Intermediate Care, the floor on which she works.
“I was so weak, I couldn’t hold a cracker,” Vannado said.
During Vannado’s first stint at NMMC Rehabilitation Institute, therapists worked with her on walking with only the aid of her right heel and other tasks.
“They had to teach me to walk,” Vannado said. “The toes were dead and really stiff.”
After surgery on Nov. 5, Vannado came back to learn more and prepare to get a prosthesis.
The process requires patience and persistence.
“It was hard to let others do for me,” Vannado said. “I was used to being so independent. My kids came through for me.”
Vannado was determined to get back to her work as a registered nurse working 12 hour shifts on the intermediate care wing at NMMC-Tupelo.
“If God’s willing and he’s brought me this far, I’m not going to give up,” Vannado said.
Then as she got stronger and more proficient with the prosthesis, she had to gently reclaim her independence. For one appointment, her daughter tried to get her a wheelchair.
“I’ve got my foot; I can walk,” Vannado remembers telling her.
At the beginning of May, she was released to go back to work. Condit gave her strict instructions to change her socks halfway through the shift.
“I pulled it off,” said Vannado, who admits her foot hurt when she returned. “Now it’s just tender.”
Nine lives
Jose Rodriguez firmly believes he has angels watching over him. In the past 10 years, he’s survived a 2003 construction accident where he was electrocuted and a 2010 wreck during an ice storm where his truck rolled over. On March 31, as he and a group of friends were getting ready to participate in a toy run, the motorcycle he and his wife Tammy were riding collided with a vehicle pulling a trailer.
“To me, it’s normal” to fight back after a life-threatening accident, Rodriguez said. “This time it hurt me because my wife was with me.”
He spent weeks in a Memphis hospital as doctors tried to save his left leg and fight blood clots that were threatening to kill him, while his wife fought her own battle at the Tupelo hospital. In the end, there was too much damage to save his leg.
Doctors were able to save Tammy Rodriguez’s leg; she was released from the hospital the day before Rodriguez was transferred to Tupelo, and she is continuing to recover.
“I was determined to keep pushing,” Rodriguez said. “I knew I had someone at home.”
Friends and family have been incredibly supportive during their recovery.
“They were here constantly,” Rodriguez said.
Now, Rodriguez is more confident with the prosthetic leg, but it’s still tough. Without the prosthetic leg, he has no balance or control. But because his body is still trying to heal fractures in his upper leg, the pressure from the prosthetic leg can be painful.
“It kind of hurts either way,” Rodriguez said. “It’s getting better because it’s healing.”
When Rodriguez feels the weight of what he can’t do, he finds strength in prayer and his friends and family.
“You have to focus on the light, the future,” Rodriguez said. “This is just a test of faith. You can’t be afraid all your life.”
michaela.morris@journalinc.com