By Drew Armstrong | Bloomberg | bloomberg.com | April 23, 2013
B.J. Ganem lost a leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq while serving in the Marines. Bobby Donnelly lost his after a high-altitude parachute jump.
When the explosions went off in Boston last week, ripping through the crowd and injuring more than 260 people, the two ex- soldiers and three other veterans quickly flew to Boston to meet with the victims who lost limbs. Their goal: To bring a message of hope to the survivors, showing them how active they could be despite their injuries, Ganem said in an interview.
"A couple of the girls are big dancers," Ganem said of the patients he visited for about 30 minutes each in their rooms at the hospital. "I told them, 'I play the Kinect with my daughter and scored pretty high, and you already know how to dance. I don't have any rhythm, so you guys can score amazing.'
"They were laughing," he said yesterday. "It was good, the families really appreciated that."
Ganem and Donnelly work with the Semper Fi Fund, a charity set up to help ex-military personnel who've been wounded, which often means a lost limb. The fund has given away $74 million to help soldiers with their lives post-injury, adapting their homes, getting prosthetics and providing support.
The Semper Fi Fund veterans came to Boston, they said, because the aftermath of the bombing, "looked exactly like something we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan," Ganem said. "America responded for us, and it's our time to give it back to the civilians."
Joe Blansfield, a nurse practitioner at Boston Medical Center's trauma practice who is also an Army reserve colonel and served in Iraq, said the two veterans made a strong impression on the patients they visited.
"When they got to the area where the patients were, it was magic," Blansfield said in a telephone interview. "The message is that 'Hey, it's going to be alright. Life goes on.' These guys were even saying they're doing things now that they didn't do before they were injured and lost a limb."
It also gave patients a chance to see what prosthetic technology can do with sport and mobility focused limbs made of carbon fiber and titanium, he said.
A week after the attack, 48 people were still hospitalized citywide, according to figures provided yesterday by six Boston hospitals that dealt with most of the seriously injured. At least 13 survivors lost a limb, including some who had multiple amputations, said the hospitals, which include Brigham & Women's Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Tufts Medical Center, and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Five people lost seven limbs at Boston Medical Center, medical officials said yesterday in a news conference. Already, though, they are undergoing rehabilitation that includes some walking and exercises to make them more mobile, doctors said. They lauded the veterans for volunteering their time.
The veterans "walked through the halls and showed these patients their life isn't over," Jeffrey Kalish, Boston Medical Center's director of endovascular surgery said at a press briefing.
The next phase for the Boston victims will be temporary prostheses, which can be fitted two to three months after the injury followed by permanent ones about a year later, said Simona Manasian, a rehabilitation doctor at Boston Medical.
After that, a more permanent prosthesis will be made, or multiple ones like Ganem and Donnelly have.
"They know that part of you better than anyone else," Ganem said of his prosthetic specialist. "Outside of your marriage or your close family, it's one of the closest relationships you have."
The Semper Fi Fund expanded its mission after the Boston explosions – it will now give the same support it gives to wounded soldiers to victims of terrorism in the U.S. It has started a separate fund to help raise resources.
"It's my ninth year, and I still have bad days," Ganem said. "But I can call Bobby, or I can call hundreds of other guys and gals. We're there to pull each other through the dark places and push each other."
The fund will do the same for the Boston victims they met with, he said.
"We gave them our cards and our numbers, and told them, 'It doesn't matter what time it is. If it's 2 a.m. and you need some support, or you just want to bitch about something and you don't want to bitch at the person you're with because they're taking care of you'" that they could call, said Ganem.
Both ex-soldiers said that being physically active has been a help in their recoveries, in part with the phantom pains that are common in those who've had amputations. Patients who've lost limbs can feel a burning or itching sensation that's no longer there. Or painful jolts can shoot up the body from the damaged leg or arm.
"I tried some of the medicine in the beginning, I never liked it," Ganem said. "Staying active does help keep the phantom pain away."
Some of the artificial legs owned by the two men are built for comfort, others for action, they said.
Ganem has broken several of them while weight lifting, he said, and uses an older one to get wet – like when he's competing in the Tough Mudder, an obstacle course endurance race. Donnelly had one made for the triathlons he competes in – a carbon fiber arc that has a running tread built into the bottom, with a cut-out for cleat to attach the prosthetic to his road bicycle. He also sails.
During an interview, Donnelly took off his prosthetic leg and handed it to a reporter.
"It's a running foot with a heel, so you can wear a shoe," he said. "It's all carbon – so light – it's great."
The legs attach to the limb using a sleeve that holds a pin in place. That pin then slots into a carbon fiber shell, connected to a leg that can be designed for running, heavy weight bearing, comfort, cycling or just about anything. Ganem even has one he uses to play golf, and has taken others to extreme conditions like ice climbing in Wyoming or dog sledding.
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