Skills for Life Conference Offers Tips, Support for Those with Bilateral Upper-Limb Loss

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About 100 people from as far away as Sweden, Austria, and Madagascar attended the United States National Member Society of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (US ISPO) Skills for Life 3 conference in Denver, Colorado, October 12-16.

Though the conference featured workshops, breakout sessions, and lectures devoted specifically to issues faced by those living with bilateral upper-limb loss, an underlying theme permeated the event, now in its tenth year. It came in the intimate interaction among the amputees, between those workshops and lectures. The conference brought this small group of people living with such limitations together and gave them a chance to get personal.

Conference attendees participate in a variety of activities from bike riding to swimming. Photographs courtesy of Earl Fogler, CP.

Ross Maguire, OTR/L, MBA/HCM, an occupational therapist with the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System (VAAAHS) in Michigan, said it was speakers like Mike St. Onge who made the conference a success. Maguire said St. Onge was a "great speaker," who by sharing his instruction and wisdom, tips and techniques about his limb loss helped make the event "impactful."

St. Onge, a 46-year-old Arizona resident, has spent the last 12 years of his life learning to live without his hands and feet. He lost all four limbs in January 2000 after coming down with pneumococcal pneumonia, septicemia, and gangrene. St. Onge also attended the Skills for Life 2 conference in 2008.

"I enjoyed Skills for Life 2, but there were more papers and less personal stories and interaction," said St. Onge, who on the day he spoke this year, wore a white T-shirt that said, "Why does everyone ask me if I need a hand?"

St. Onge said some of his most powerful memories at the second conference were the interactions with other amputees during lunch and dinner, and after hours in the lounge when "we are acting in the 'real' world and either adapting well or watching how others interacted with a ham sandwich and a bag of chips."

St. Onge said amputees learn a lot from each other, such as, "Why do you hold your hook that way? I hold mine this way."

Mike St. Onge offers conference participants tips that make personal grooming easier.

That's why the 2011 conference stood out, he said.

"There was more interaction between amputees...," St. Onge said. "Clinical settings and therapy don't lend themselves to critical learning as well as one meal or cocktail with another amputee can." For a group of eight from the Arm Prosthesis Unit at the Red Cross Hospital in Solna, Sweden, the event was particularly welcome and useful. Maria Nilseryd, OTR, an occupational therapist for the hospital, said it was a long trip but well worth the journey.

"There is no such gathering in Europe, which is why we come all the way to the U.S.A.," Nilseryd said. "A great experience was the people at the conference who shared their experiences and sometimes very personal ones. It was valuable to us."

Her unit works primarily with unilateral amputees. The tips and techniques some of the amputees used to solve different issues in their daily lives, as well as the various aids, adaptations, and prosthesis they used would be very helpful to those at the hospital in Sweden, Nilseryd said. She added the professionals from the United States who spoke at the conference were also beneficial. It showed her group that the thinking between them and professionals in the United States was "very similar."

This was Samoana Matagi's first conference. He lost both arms below the elbow a few days before Christmas 2010. Matagi, an apprentice lineman, was working in Kremmling, Colorado, when he was electrocuted by a power line.

"The conference was great. I wish I could have attended it early on in my recovery. A lot of the tips would have been extremely helpful then," he said.

Dates for ISPO's Skills for Life 4 conference are still being determined.

For more information, visit the US ISPO website, www.usispo.org

-Betta Ferrendelli