Skills for Life 5: Live, Give, Grow

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Exclusive live coverage from The O&P EDGE.

Billy Parker, Louisville, Kentucky, was one of 75 people with bilateral upper-limb loss who attended the conference. Photographs by Betta Ferrendelli.

Billy Parker, Louisville, Kentucky, was one of 75 people with bilateral
upper-limb loss who attended the conference.

Photographs by Betta Ferrendelli.

More than 250 people from as far away as Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Haiti, and as young as four years old attended the Skills for Life 5 (SFL) conference in Houston October 18-21, a four-day workshop specifically designed for people with bilateral upper-limb loss.

SFL is hosted by the U.S. Member Society of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (US ISPO). The worldwide event brings people with bilateral upper-limb loss together to help them learn and adapt to living without their hands and arms, Shawn Johnson, OTR/L, coordinator for the conference, told the audience during welcoming ceremonies on Friday, October 19. "These individuals and their family members and caregivers face a unique set of circumstances," she said. "Our attendees come from all over the globe to share and learn from one another."

Aside from the target population and their families and caregivers, attendees included prosthetists, physical and occupational therapists, and other medical professionals. Participation from all segments of SFL attendees has grown since the first conference was held in Denver in 2002, Johnson said. Of the 75 people who attended that conference, 25 were people with bilateral upper-limb amputations. About 175 people attended the 2008 SFL conference, and 35 had upper-limb loss. Of the 115 people attending SFL in 2011, 30 were individuals with upper-limb amputations. In 2015, SFL moved to Houston, where 200 people attended the conference from around the world, including 54 with upper-limb loss. Of the 250 or so who attended SFL this year, 75 were people with upper-limb loss.

People were determined not to let outside obstacles—including traffic, weather, illness, or lost luggage and adaptive equipment—get in the way of attending the conference, Johnson said. "They want to be here," she said. "Face-to-face interaction here is undeniably the best part of the meeting and leads to life-changing experiences."

From left, Joseph Jolissaint, Cedieu Fortilus, and Emmanuel Valcin traveled from Haiti to attend SFL5 in Houston in October.

From left, Joseph Jolissaint, Cedieu Fortilus, and Emmanuel Valcin
traveled from Haiti to attend SFL5 in Houston in October.

Leading up to the 2015 event, SFL started a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $30,000 in donations to provide attendee scholarships, which helped at least 35 people attend SFL this year, Johnson told the audience.

Johnson said one of the strengths of this year's SFL came from the "overwhelming response to the call for papers, with abstracts that came as far away as Australia and Japan." Panels and presentations given by people with upper-limb loss and limb absence, therapists, prosthetists, physicians, and case managers, among others, were spread out over the four-day conference. Topics of discussion included driving adaptions, home automation, sexuality and intimacy, surgical considerations, sepsis, hobbies including adaptive video games and sports, travel tips, and how to complete ADLs, from applying makeup to bathing.

Cynthia Dusel-Bacon's presentation centered on hints about using body-powered devices. Dusel-Bacon, a former geologist with the United States Geological Service, was mauled by a black bear while she worked in mapping in Alaska in 1977. She lost both arms following the attack, but continued fieldwork in Alaska until she retired in 2014. Also having used myoelectric devices, body-powered hooks remain her preference, she told the audience. "I had such pretty hands that it bummed me out to look down and not see them," she said.