Tony Sobony: Amputation Helps Cancer Survivor Regain Quality of Life

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Tony Sobony was 19 years old in 1966 and on the fifth day of his new job as a milkman when he was in a car accident in Cleveland that resulted in a badly broken right leg. 

"I sustained a severely injured right leg with a broken femur, a limited mobile knee, a foot flap, and most of my calf area was gone. I was in traction for three and a half months," says Sobony, who had 11 successful surgeries after the accident before having a transfemoral amputation in November 2012.

During one surgery, his femur was rebroken in an unsuccessful attempt to repair it. A rod was put in place to secure the mending bone. His knee remained stiff with only about 15 percent movement, and arthritis was especially evident in his knee, he says. Roughly one year after the accident, his physicians determined that his leg didn't need to be amputated, he says. "The surgeons fused the ankle and transferred the Achilles tendon in the back of the ankle to the front, which enabled me to lift my ankle and walk," says Sobony, who prior to that surgery used an orthosis to help him walk.

Sobony earned a college degree paid by the milk company's insurance and went on to a successful teaching and coaching career in Columbus, Ohio. However, he was plagued with constant pain and immobility from a leg that would not heal.

When he developed a stubborn infection in his leg in 2010, he spent the next two years on heavy antibiotics. "The antibiotics were slow dripping, 24/7, intravenously," he says. "I had to walk around attached to an IV pole."

Amputation: Best Possible Decision

Sobony says his wife of 45 years, Sally, was a registered nurse at the time with the Grant Bone and Joint Center in Columbus and knew some of the best orthopedic surgeons. Sobony met with Bruce French, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who performed the amputation, which included repositioning Sobony's kneecap at the end of his residual limb.

During Sobony's consultations with French, they discussed how the amputation should lead to less pain, improved balance, and increased mobility, Sobony says. Before the surgery, French asked John Hays, CP, with Ace Prosthetics, Columbus, to speak with Sobony. "He asked me to discuss above-knee prosthetics and what to expect once his amputation was performed," says Hays, who has been Sobony's practitioner since 2012.

Hays once happened to be at the same physician's office as Sobony when he came in for care in July 2012. "I was waiting in the reception area and hadn't met Tony yet," Hays remembers. "I watched him walk into the office to sign in. Tony was using a crutch and wearing shorts, and his right leg, the one to eventually be amputated, was very thin and I could see he was struggling significantly to walk."

Watching Sobony rely heavily on his support, Hays says, "I remember thinking how it appeared that pain was taking a toll on this person."

Hays and Sobony met formally a few weeks later. "Tony and I discussed prosthetics, what to expect during and after surgery, healing times," says Hays, who also told Sobony the decision to have an amputation was completely his to make. "I'm just there to show the patient what their life may be like if they decide to amputate," Hays says.

Armed with the knowledge from Hays and the orthopedic surgeon, as well as support from his family, Sobony says his decision to amputate his leg was easy.

"Yes, we put off the amputation as long as we could," he says. "However, the medication for the continuous intravenous had been going on for six months, and I had time to think about it and made the easy decision. Many amputees have sudden limb loss and have difficulty adjusting to the life change. I was almost looking forward to it. I put my faith in God and knew everything was going to be all right." (Sobony also had a heart attack about four months before his amputation, requiring a stent and additional medication.)

Sobony was initially fitted with a prosthetic device constructed with a mechanical knee unit, a 3R60 by Ottobock, Duderstadt, Germany, and an energy-storing prosthetic foot, the Highlander by Freedom Innovations, Irvine, California. Since Sobony's residual limb is long, amputated proximal to the knee joint, his prosthesis includes suction suspension, which is achieved with the Seal-in Socket by Össur, Reykjavik, Iceland, Hays says.

In 2015, Sobony was fitted with his second prosthesis, a microprocessor knee unit, the Össur Rheo Knee 3, and a new energy-storing foot, the Össur Talux, Hays says. Sobony says he still keeps his first prosthesis by his bedside. Sobony also continues to use the suction suspension in conjunction with the Seal-in Socket inserts, Hays says.

Sobony is happy with his prosthesis. "I like it," says Sobony, who retired from teaching in 2001. "Because the boot has a patriotic flair, it helps to brand the American Pie Party [a nonprofit he formed in 1980]. The Rheo knee's computer helps to timely kick and hold when necessary."

Sobony says Hays was key in helping him recover from the amputation. "John visited me while I was still in the hospital, and I was impressed with his kind and gentle manner. He was crucial in the gradual process of walking again."

A Pie in the Face

In 1979, Sobony says he was frustrated with his career as an educator and didn't want to spend the rest of his professional life teaching. A colleague told him to specialize in something. "That night I went home and watched Johnny Carson analyze humor by saying ‘humor is often the extreme of something.'"

After watching that episode, Sobony says God gave him the concept for the American Pie Party to fight cancer with humor. "A pie in the face is the extreme physical comedy act, and cancer is the extreme physical tragedy," says Sobony, who was diagnosed with throat cancer in February 2018. His father died of cancer when Sobony was a child. "You can't get more extreme than that."

The American Pie Party raises philanthropic support for cancer agencies by orchestrating an "environment of healing" through quintessential humor and the physical act of throwing a pie in the face of a willing participant.

In an effort to bring attention to the American Pie Party, Sobony celebrates National Cancer Survivor Day each year on the first Sunday in June. This year, Sobony was hit in the face with 602 pies in 65 seconds. That brought his total to 69,971 pies in the face over 40 years to benefit cancer charities.

Sobony was declared cancer free in May and says he'll continue to focus on the American Pie Party TAG—where participants use whipped cream on paper plates to tag another pie pal participant.

Hays says Sobony's positive attitude has helped him through the difficulties of amputation and cancer. "He's had significant struggles, like a lot of people do, but he's a fighter and a survivor," Hays says. "He also has great support from his family, his church and is very involved in his endeavor, the Pie Party. Those things have also helped keep him focused on what's important in his life."

Betta Ferrendelli can be contacted at betta@opedge.com.