Leg amputation surgery a positive, transformative experience 


Patrick BensonOn November 18, 2017, Patrick Benson was in a car accident that would change his life.

On his way home from a friend’s house, he ran off the road and wrapped his car around a tree. He sustained life threatening injuries and had to be airlifted from Cedar Hill, MO, to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Patrick had a broken rib which caused a collapsed lung, a broken sternum and swelling of the brain due to a head injury. He also had a fractured pelvis, a broken thighbone just above the knee joint extending into his knee, and an open fracture of his heel bone with complete dislocation of his foot.

Patrick was in a coma for two months and had to undergo several surgeries to repair the extensive damage to his leg and ankle.

After three months in the hospital, Patrick was moved to a rehabilitation center. He was still in a cast on his right leg and had to relearn to walk.

Patrick says it was a very difficult time for him. “I was a carpenter by trade and was not able to work. I lost my job, and therefore lost my insurance. I stopped seeing my doctor because I couldn’t afford it. After the rehab center I moved in with my mom. I was depressed and I started drinking a lot. I was looking at limited mobility for the rest of my life. My right leg was three inches shorter than my left leg and since my gait was messed up, I had to shuffle everywhere. It was extremely painful to walk because of the way my ankle healed.”

In late 2019, Patrick decided he had to turn his life around. “I stopped drinking and applied for Medicaid and decided I needed to have my leg amputated in order to walk and function pain-free.”

Patrick made an appointment with Jeffrey Johnson, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in foot and ankle surgery with Washington University Orthopedics at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “I prepared an argument to convince the doctor to remove the lower part of my right leg from the knee down, but it was not necessary. I was so relieved that Dr. Johnson was in agreement.”

Dr. Johnson says, “When I met Patrick in the office for the first time, he seemed extremely anxious. Once I examined him and we began talking about the options for surgery on his leg, including an amputation, his demeanor immediately changed. A calmness seemed to come over him as he relaxed and began to discuss the goals he had for himself and how he was convinced that a leg amputation was the only way he was going to achieve these goals. He confided in me that he was afraid that I would not agree to perform his amputation, and that he would be forced to live with his disability for the rest of his life.“

“Before my surgery, I told Dr. Johnson that I did not want to go home with pain pills because of my sobriety. I was okay with a nurse giving me pain medication while I was in the hospital.” Dr. Johnson reassured Patrick that he wouldn’t have to send Patrick home with narcotics and would be able to use a block that would last 24-48 hours. Patrick only had narcotics while he was in recovery at the hospital.

Dr. Johnson says, “I have never had a patient that was more focused and eager to have an amputation. Patrick’s surgery was a standard below-the-knee amputation performed at about the middle of the tibial leg bone. I used the soft tissues and muscle that extend down the back of the leg to fold over the end of the bone to create a stable, hardy covering over the new end of his leg. The amputation was through a normal area of his leg, well above the damaged, painful tissues that he had around his foot and ankle region. At the conclusion of the surgery, he was treated in a special type of healing cast that was applied to the entire leg in the operating room to allow for optimal healing of his limb. He maintained his positive attitude and did well after surgery. He was up and out of the hospital very quickly.”

Patrick learning to walk after leg amputation surgeryAfter surgery, Patrick spent a few days in the hospital and in therapy relearning to walk with his temporary “check” socket. It’s a sleeve made out of thermal-responsive plastic, allowing the shape to be molded as Patrick’s residual limb shrank. Patrick was supposed to finish his recovery at a rehabilitation center, but due to the spread of COVID at the time, the center was no longer taking new patients.

As businesses were shutting down and stay-at-home orders were put in place, Patrick was sent home to recover alone. He says his neighbors were very helpful because they helped with shopping and delivered his groceries.

The first week at home Patrick had to use a walker, but by the following week he only needed a cane. By the third week, he was walking without any assistance.

Patrick says, “Every so often I have phantom pain or a feeling of cold where my leg used to be, but the day-to-day extreme pain is gone. “

By July, Patrick was in the gym working out. “I used to be an MMA fighter and believe that is what has helped me with my balance after the surgery. I am now training fighters. I am not contending, but I joke with my trainees that I’ll use my prosthetic to whip them into shape.” With the increased activity, Patrick’s prosthetist, Mark Wilson, worried that the amount of stress on the temporary socket would cause it to break. So, ahead of schedule, Mark made Patrick a new and more durable socket/sleeve.

“This surgery changed my life and made my life better. Dr. Johnson and his team are on my gratitude list.”

Patrick is going back to school to get his masters in social work. He wants to use his story to help people. He says when he looks his pictures from his wreck, he truly believes it was God that kept him here for a purpose. “I can’t work with my hands anymore, but I can tell my story. I can help others. I want to work with disabled veterans.”

Recently, by sheer chance, a firefighter friend was describing Patrick’s prosthetic to a co-worker, Chris, and telling Patrick’s story. Turns out that Chris had actually taken the call for Patrick’s accident and was at the scene. He remembered Patrick’s accident because of how awful it was.

Patrick says, “The last time that guy saw me, they were putting my in a helicopter and didn’t know if I would live. It was relayed to me that it was the closest they’ve ever come to doing a field amputation because my leg was trapped.”

Patrick plans to have a face-to-face meeting with the firefighters and crew who saved his life. “I am extremely excited to meet the first responders who rescued me that night. I look forward to thanking them for saving my life. It will be meaningful to me, but I hope it will be meaningful to them as well. I was once a paramedic, and I’ve been on the scene of terrible accidents. I know first-hand what it is like to run a patient to the hospital and turn them over to the ER and not know what became of them. My rescuers will have the answer to at least one, and this one has a good ending.”

Dr. Johnson retired from Washington University Orthopedics in the fall of 2020. If you have a foot or ankle concern, please contact our board-certified, fellowship-trained foot and ankle specialists at 314-514-3500.

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