A year after amputation, Morgan working to encourage others with humor, positivity

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 16, 2014

SALISBURY — It was December 2012.
Richard Morgan had already battled heart disease, his wife, Shirley, said. He’d been fighting type 2 diabetes for almost a decade, treating it with insulin.
“And I had a history of diabetic ulcers on my legs,” he said.
When an ulcer appeared on his foot just before Christmas, Morgan went to his doctor and got antibiotics.
Things got worse after the first of the year … much worse.
By the start of February, much of his foot was raw and inflamed.
“I went into the emergency room on a Monday,” Morgan said, sitting in the living room of his Salisbury apartment.
“And by Wednesday, they had amputated. It was gangrene.”
There was no choice. If Morgan didn’t lose his leg, he would lose his life.
“I didn’t hesitate, because I like to live,” Morgan said, with a small smile.
In the weeks that followed, Morgan said, he fought a battle that many other amputees fight.
He had to learn to navigate in a wheelchair. He had to learn new ways to do the simplest things — use the restroom, get in and out of a car, move from his wheelchair to the recliner.
And, he said, most of the time there was no guide to help him.
Last month, Morgan celebrated the first anniversary since his amputation.
“Celebrated” is the right word. He calls it his “ampuversary,” and even had a cake.
Because, Morgan said, humor and positivity are two of the keys to getting your life back after something so traumatic.
Over the past year, he’s documented his journey in articles on a website for amputees and their families.
Morgan has also published a book that tells his story.
The message he’s trying to deliver is simple: Amputees are not alone, and they don’t have to work through their problems by themselves.
Today, Morgan is a contributor to the website of Abled Amputees of America, a non-profit that helps provide education and support for amputees and loved ones.
He’s also a member of the Facebook group Amputee Peer Support, moderated by fellow amputee Jeffrey Cooke, of Kannapolis.
The group has 1,495 followers, and provides a forum for amputees to ask questions and share their experiences.
Abled Amputees of America estimates that one in 200 Americans has undergone an amputation.
Despite the large number of people who face a different kind of life following the loss of a limb, there are still many questions, Morgan said.
What kinds of prosthetics are out there?
How do you treat phantom pain — the pains, or tingling, of the nerves in a body that doesn’t realize the limb is gone?
How do you adjust a prosthetic leg yourself, if you can’t afford a visit to a doctor to have it done for you?
Here in Salisbury, “you don’t encounter that many amputees,” Morgan said. “I wondered, does Salisbury have a secret group for amputees? Because you don’t see many.”
Without a local support group, and with no knowledge of the resources out there online, the weeks following Morgan’s amputation were a struggle.
He had worked in information technology before losing his job in 2012 due to the recession. He enjoyed cycling and being outdoors.
After the operation, there were weeks of healing. Morgan had physical therapy to rebuild muscles and help his body cope with the stress it had been under.
Other than that, Morgan said, “you’re on your own.”
With his wife working to support the two of them, he was alone the day a week after the amputation when he fell from his chair.
“I landed on the stump,” Morgan said. “I had to go back to the emergency room.”
Back at the hospital, doctors found that he’d had a mild heart attack.
Shirley said she had already been worried about her husband.
“My main concern was, would be he able to pull through it, with his already having heart disease,” Shirley Morgan said.
Richard had been a writer. At age 41, when he went back to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to earn a degree, he started writing poetry.
In the aftermath of losing his leg, he turned to writing as an outlet.
“I wanted to tell people what it was like, what I was going through,” Morgan said. “It was very therapeutic for me, because it was written like a journal.”
It was a difficult time for the Morgans. “There was a time, for two months, that we had to go on government assistance,” he said.
Today, he’s on disability, and with his wife’s income they’re able to have “a better standard of living,” he said.
But, like many amputees, Richard still doesn’t drive. He could do so, with his prosthetic leg, but he says he hasn’t built up enough trust yet.
That, and other frustrations, could have built up and left him depressed, he said.
It’s a common problem among amputees, said Cooke, the Kannapolis man who formed the Facebook group Amputee Peer Support.
In a phone interview Thursday, Cooke said his experiences after a traumatic double leg amputation in 1995 left him looking for answers, also.
With the help of his doctor, Cooke said, he was able to attend a convention for amputees and prosthetics suppliers.
“So I started asking them a lot of questions,” he said.
With the growth of the Internet, more support started to be available. Cooke’s Facebook group has been running for two years, and he also facilitates support groups in the area.
“But I think the main problem is getting amputees motivated to be there,” Cooke said.
For those who cannot drive, transportation is a big issue — especially when transportation providers for the disabled don’t consider an amputee support group meeting as “medical,” Cooke said.
“It’s not a doctor, it’s not a pharmacy, so they won’t take you,” Cooke said.
On Facebook, Cooke said, questions come in from amputees coping with the loss of one or more limbs, each person with his or her own circumstances.
Cooke said Morgan is a frequent commenter, and provides a unique perspective.
“There’s plenty of us, but being able to reach (other amputees) is difficult,” Cooke said. “I connect them together, or put their question on my page, and within 20 minutes they’ll have answers.
“There’s all kinds of questions they can’t call their doctor and ask. The only one who can answer is another amputee like them … who’s been there, done that.”
There’s also the problem that many amputees live in poverty. Both Cooke and Morgan discussed the limitations of Medicaid and disability, which provide only limited support following an amputation.
“Medicaid gives you three physical therapy (visits) a year,” Cooke said. “You can’t even learn to put a leg on in three (visits).”
“There are a lot of doors, they’re not locked, but they’re shut,” Cooke said.
Having resources such as these “inspires them not to give up, not to sit home watching TV,” Cooke said.
There’s also a lot for family members and friends to learn.
At his apartment, Morgan talks about some of the advice he shares with non-amputees, such as etiquette for talking to people in wheelchairs.
To be polite, he said, an able-bodied person should bend down to be on the same level as the individual in a wheelchair.
Not only is it more humane, it keeps the person in the wheelchair from having to bend at an awkward angle to look someone in the eye.
“It’s something that a normal person wouldn’t think about,” Richard said.
He’s also learned to defuse awkward social situations with humor.
“Amputees have a problem, really, with getting out in public and going around. People tend to stare,” Morgan said. “And normally, people don’t realize they’re doing it.”
On a shopping trip one day, a girl about 8 years old asked what had happened to his leg.
“I told her, ‘The Tooth Fairy took it!’ ” Morgan said. That got the girl to smile, he said.
His journey has included getting his apartment modified to accommodate his wheelchair, and learning a lot of the small lifestyle changes that come with an amputation.
He’s written about these experiences, “just to offer inspiration,” he said.
For February, his article on Abled Amputees of America’s site is entitled “Positivity: The Nectar of Life.”
Since he’s still a poet at heart, the piece combines a prose reflection with some verses Morgan wrote.
One memory stands out as the moment Morgan chose to embrace positive living.
“With me, it was the moment the doctor goes, ‘Listen, we either take your leg or you’re going to die,’” he said. “That clicked inside my head, and I said, ‘I’m not going to die.’”
“And I kept that attitude. I got frustrated, but I never got depressed,” Morgan said.
Still, Richard said he can understand how others would get depressed. “When you’re sitting, looking at four walls, day after day, you’ve got to have something.”
Shirley, his wife, has been his lifeline — and that’s something else amputees have to learn, Richard said.
“The thing I didn’t understand at the time was how overwhelming it was for her,” Richard said.
They had been married for 11 years when Richard lost part of his leg. In the months that followed, he had to depend on her to be the breadwinner, and to help take care of him.
“I had to change my attitude,” Richard said. “For one thing, I realized that we had to help each other out.”
“I depended on her for day-by-day, ordinary-living type of stuff. She depended on me to be there for her emotionally,” Morgan said.
Today, in addition to his essays and poems, Morgan is trying to share some of what he and his wife have learned with others who find themselves in the same situation.
“To encourage and teach,” he said. “Teaching is the big thing.”
He’s thought about starting a Salisbury support group for amputees, much as his friend Jeffrey Cooke has done.
“I’m thinking about people in nursing homes, people just getting out of the hospital, where they and their families are dealing with these issues,” he said.
With some 1.7 million amputees in the U.S., as of 2013, Richard said he’s surprised there’s not more local support.
In the meantime, Richard and Shirley are enjoying life. They still get outdoors as much as they can, Shirley said.
At Christmas, for a laugh, Richard took a Santa Claus doll and modified it so it held a human foot.
His prosthetic leg has a goat’s head painted on it — a reference to his online persona.
Both say that their struggle this past year has made their marriage stronger.
“My main thing is, anybody who has to go through the same situation we went through, stick it out,” Shirley said. “Work with it. It takes time to get used to, that’s the way it did with us.”
They hope that their experiences will help inspire others not to see their loss of limb as a reason to lose hope altogether.
Contact Richard Morgan at nekidgoat@carolina.rr.com or 704-267-2218.