From Tragedy to Triumph
After losing his hand in a farming accident, Austin Meyers did more than move on with life. He teamed up with his wife, Stephanie, to help create a support system for central Iowans affected by amputation.
Austin Meyers works full time in Environmental Services at Mary Greeley Medical Center. He tends to a 2,700 square-foot garden, where he grows a laundry list of vegetables. He and his wife, Stephanie, chase around two toddlers, Hallie and Janae, while caring for newborn twins. And he does it all with just one hand.
Adapting to Amputation
On May 16, 2006, Austin said goodbye to his seven-month-pregnant wife and drove to work on a farm near State Center. He was grinding hay bales when loose hay began building up on the machine’s fork lift. As Austin pushed away loose hay, the bale’s plastic wrap wound around a hammer bar and yanked his right hand into the machine.
“I was lucky that a coworker was on site,” Austin says. “I wasn’t on the main farm, and usually I’d be out there by myself.”
Austin was rushed to Story County Medical Center and then life-flighted to Iowa Methodist Medical Center, where he underwent four surgeries in just 10 days, resulting in the amputation of his right hand. Two days after returning home, Austin was back in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
“Initially, Austin had a positive attitude,” Stephanie says. “He said, ‘That’s the way it is, I’ll make things work.’ In reality, though, people looked at him differently, and there were things he couldn’t do.”
A few months after the accident, Austin eased back into his job, where post-traumatic stress settled in. He had a hard time focusing, and his prosthetic hand was not conducive to the manual labor, so he quit his job.
“I was a new mom when he quit,” Stephanie says. “We went from two incomes to none, which added stress to the changes already going on. I loved having him at home, but I pushed him to find a regular job.”
Because his work experience was all hands-on, Austin started the job search from scratch. He previously wrote right-handed so he relied on Stephanie to help him. Together, they completed an application for a valet position at Mary Greeley Medical Center. Soon after, Austin was employed with steady hours and a stable paycheck.
Finding the Perfect Fit
Austin equates medical center valets to soldiers on the front lines of battle. They are the first staff to come in contact with patients and visitors.
“I connected with people as they entered the hospital,” Austin says. “They saw I was an amputee and naturally connected with my situation. I talked to them about what they were going through, too.”
He enjoyed swapping stories with patients and visitors, but valet work was far from the manual labor he was accustomed to. Each vehicle takes approximately three minutes to park or retrieve, and valet staff tracks the drop-off and pick-up time of each vehicle.
“My job required me to constantly look at the clock, so time crawled by, even if we were getting a steady flow of cars,” Austin says. “It just wasn’t as challenging as the hands-on work I was used to.”
When a position with Mary Greeley Medical Center’s Environmental Services opened up, Austin immediately applied. Similar to farm work, Environmental Services duties vary daily. There are no restrictions on Austin’s tasks, but some present challenges.
“Working in Environmental Services is similar to the farm, so I’m comfortable with the manual work,” Austin says. “The challenge is I have just one hand to hold on to a rag or mop. We’re working with a prosthetist to custom-make a prosthesis to accommodate my job.”
The majority of amputations involve lower limbs (due to diabetes and other vascular diseases), and those involving upper extremities usually occur above or below the wrist. Austin’s situation is unique because his thumb was salvaged during amputation. Although insurance supports the cost of a new prosthesis every three years, Austin’s high level of activity causes him to wear through one every two years.
“The guy who custom-fits my prosthesis is very inventive,” Austin says. “My situation may be unique, but this guy is up for the challenge.”
Four years after the amputation, the family continues to cope with their changed lives. “Losing a limb is like losing a family member, but instead of burying it, I have a constant reminder of my loss,” Austin says. “It’s with me every morning when I crawl out of bed.”
Stephanie agrees. “Even after four years, I’ll go to grab his hand and it’s just not there anymore,” she says.
But Austin and Stephanie know they’re not the only ones experiencing these life changes, which is why they helped to start the Central Iowa Amputee Support Group. The group provides networking, education and advocacy for people who have experienced amputations and their supporters.
“The first year after amputation, it’s hard to talk about it,” Austin says. “But sharing stories and connecting with other amputees relieves a huge burden.”
Networking benefits supporters, too. “We’re changed by the circumstances, but not in the physical way they are,” Stephanie says. “We need to be willing to be patient, listen and advocate.” The support group provides an opportunity for them to create a community in a world where people often give them a second, and sometimes, a third look.
“People stare, sometimes too long,” Stephanie says. “We were out one night and Austin’s prosthesis was hurting him, so he took it off and I carried it. People stared, but we’re at a point where that’s part of life. We just laugh about it.”
They may be accustomed to the extra stares, but each day presents new challenges and obstacles. “Every day is an adventure and a learning experience,” Stephanie says. “Austin’s finding new ways to do
normal activities, whether it’s mopping the floors or changing diapers.”
Austin laughs, “Not even this can get me out of changing diapers.”
Central Iowa Amputee Support Group
When Austin and Stephanie approached Mary Greeley Medical Center Rehabilitation and Wellness Director Kevin Rippey about creating an amputee support group, he recognized the need for networking among people who have experienced amputation.
“There’s a huge need for support for people who undergo the trauma of amputation. It is very important for their spouses and children as well,” Rippey says. “I admire the tenacity I see in these people who have had such a major life event. They just want to get back to a fairly normal life. This group gives them a chance to meet with people who have had similar experiences, get support and share stories.”
With Rippey volunteering as the support group’s facilitator, Austin and Stephanie helped to start the Central Iowa Amputee Support Group, which meets at 6 p.m. on the third Monday of every month at the Northwest Community Center in Des Moines. The first half of each meeting features a structured program, with the second half open for socializing and networking. Program topics vary from phantom limb pain treatment to prosthesis maintenance to insurance reimbursement to peer mentoring.
“Our speakers include physicians, occupational therapists, prosthetists, psychologists and more,” Rippey says. “Sometimes we have an amputee who shares their story with the rest of the group. Our mission is to provide networking, education and advocacy.”
Group members vary from those who have recently undergone amputation to people who had the procedure more than 30 years ago. Some are seeking support, while others hope to offer stories of struggle and success. Spouses and supporters are encouraged to attend as well.
For more information visit Central Iowa Amputee Support Group’s website, www.orgsites.com/ia/ciasg, or call 641-864-2257.