BY DENISE WILLIAMS, Tribune Staff Writer
When Sam Burnett was 35 years old, the gas truck he was driving turned over and traveled 796 feet down an embankment in North Carolina. Seriously injured, he laid there for 16 hours before he was found. His left leg was mangled in the crash and doctors in three states worked for a year attempting to save the leg. Ultimately, the leg was amputated below the knee and 13 or 14 prosthetic limbs later, few people even know Burnett has an artificial leg. Following his accident, Burnett was told he’d never drive a truck again. But 13 months later, he was back behind the wheel.
Today, he does all the things he loved to do before losing his leg.
“I ride horses,” he said. “I do it just a little bit different, but I do it.“
Burnett still rides motorcycles and even wondered if he could water ski with one leg.
In fact, Burnett’s wife, Angela, said he’s so wide open, she often worries he might hurt his “good” leg.
Of the things Burnett considers himself, the one word he doesn’t use is handicapped.
“The word I hate is handicapped,” said David Cloud, Licensed Proshtetist/Orthotist at Southern Orthocare in Morristown. “They’re (our patients) are not handicapped. They have the ability to do what’s in their heart to do. It’s challenging, but it’s not a handicap.”
Few people know that better than Billy Love, Southern Orthocare Amputee Advocate and Certified BOC Prosthetist, as well as Hamblen County Deputy Coroner.
Love is a bilateral, below-the-knee amputee who got his first set of prosthetic legs when he was 5 years old. Back then, he said, artificial legs were still made of wood. Love said getting used to new limbs was a challenge because the residual limbs had to conform to the old time sockets in the artificial limbs.
Today’s amputees have it easier with custom-made sockets and lighter compounds used to construct the limbs.
While having artificial limbs for the majority of his life presented Love with challenges, he didn’t allow it to hold him back.
“I had fun with it,” he said, adding that he played football at the University of Tennessee.
As a lifelong amputee, Love is able to offer his patients a new perspective – he’s actually walked a lot more than a mile in their shoes.
“We see a lot of different people who are in different shape,” he said. “We want them to leave to leave here in better shape than when they came in.”
Joe Huntsman, owner and chief executive officer of Southern Orthocare, said, “What we do every day is to enable our patients to walk at their greatest potential. We’re honored to be on the journey with them. Our patients, they’re our heroes. They have faced odds in life that many of us can’t imagine.”
One of the most severe challenges any of their patients has endured lately was faced by Justin McCracken, who lost both legs above the knee after he was hit by a train. “They didn’t expect Justin to live through the first night,” said McCracken’s wife, Paige. “It was traumatic.”
Love agreed. He saw McCracken in the hospital that first night. “I left him in the hands of the good Lord because I didn’t know,” Love said. “I had my questions whether Justin would bounce back from this.”
“It was hard to get used to,” McCracken said. “It seems like I’m doing OK.” McCracken said the hardest thing to get used to is balance.
During his recovery, the prosthetists started him out with stubbies, a one-piece knee with rocker bottoms used to help patients learn to walk again. As the patients gain balance, they are started off with shorter-than-normal legs, which increase in length as the patient’s balance gets better.
Prior to his accident, McCracken was six-feet, two-inches tall. With his current legs, he’s up to five-feet, five inches tall.
“Every time he gets a little bit taller, I cry,” his wife said, adding that she’s anxious for the day when she can once again look up at her husband.
McCracken’s determination to walk again has kept the couple going.“Ninety percent of wearing a prosthesis is determination,” Walker said. As much as McCracken has been a determination for the team at Southern Orthocare, Love said he believes bigger things are in store for him, as well.
“Justin won’t know what kind of inspiration he is to other people. He’s going to be a big inspiration to somebody else,” Love said. “He’s a young man and he has a lot of life ahead of him.”Huntsman said caring for amputees is a long-term relationship. “They become part of our family,” he said. “What we do every day to enable our patients to walk at their greatest potential. We’re honored to be on the journey with them.” For Love, working with amputees has given him a new lease on life.
He had taught science and biology and worked as a football coach at East High for 18 years before having a heart attack and bypass surgery. He was retired when one day he got a call from Huntsman, a long-time family friend.
“Let me take you out to eat,” Huntsman said in that phone conversation. “He just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Love said he had searched for years looking to find his place on Earth. When he realized what he brought to the table for other amputees, “it dawned on me the Lord had a place for me.
“I’m thankful to be here for all my heroes,“ Love said.
One part of the job involves acting a guinea pig for new technology. Love said he keeps abreast of the latest gadgets and devices. If something seems promising, he orders it and tries it out on himself. If he incorporates the technology into a limb for one of his patients, he can tell them firsthand what to expect.
While the initial days following the loss of a limb can seem dark, Burnett, McCracken and Love agree on one thing.
“The big message is hope,” Huntsman said. “For someone’s who suffered limb loss, there’s hope.”
“People are about as handicapped as they want to be,” Love said.