Back East, a neighbor and friend shared dinner with my family. Later, he entertained us with guitar, harmonica and a gravelly, two-pack-a-day voice singing country and western.
We had no idea of his musical ability. Lang, a welder by trade, was proficient with arc and oxy-acetylene. He was a study in courage, having lost his left arm at the shoulder in his early 20s.
He constructed his own prosthesis - a curved, steel base plate, sections of metal with adjustable hinges and thumbscrew locks and an end clamp to hold a welding rod. He strapped this assembly in place of his missing limb. After setting up his work, he opened the torch valves, struck a spark and adjusted the flame. He could work standing up or lying under a vehicle, controlling the rod with torso movement as he welded. Arc welding was a piece of cake. Nodding his head, the welder's mask dropped just as the rod and clamp in his right hand met the metal.
Lang clamped the harmonica above the guitar in a homemade stand. Strumming with his right hand/arm, he played the chords from foot pedals, actuating vertical pushrods to rocker arms that depressed the strings. He switched keys by changing out the rockers for another set. Simply amazing.
Extremity amputations are not a gentle subject, but they are one of life's realities and there is good and bad news.
In the first instance, arm amputations are mostly the result of injury (not disease) and are declining in frequency. The reason is not immediately clear. Increased salvage of injured arms through improved surgical techniques to restore blood vessels and nerves (lying in close proximity - the neurovascular bundle) undoubtedly has helped. Improvements in occupational safety and better crash protection in vehicles also have helped. Meanwhile, amputations for tumors have decreased, while those for congenital defects are unchanged in frequency.
For the lower extremities, the news is not so good. Amputations are increasing in developed countries. Trauma is not the leading cause; diabetes, hypertension and peripheral vascular disease are.
Diabetes compromises microcirculation in toes, then feet and legs. Smoking also destroys circulation. Add methamphetamine or cocaine use, and the damage is worse.
Extensive research has demonstrated proper foot care by qualified people (podiatry) can decrease amputation rates significantly. One study concluded that debridement (cleanup) of infected leg ulcers, which can lead to death or amputation, with maggots shortens healing times by weeks and with less antibiotic use.
The prospect of losing an extremity is a dreaded one, but human courage sometimes has no bounds. And prosthetic devices are continually improving - a far cry from a wooden leg.
Years ago, I met "Legs," self-nicknamed. Legs he was missing - bilateral above-knee amputations, subsequent to a car wreck. He moved from a wheelchair to a higher exam table in the blink of an eye. He owned and flew a light airplane. He said he was the only bilateral-amputee instrument flight instructor in the world. No question, he was.
Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.