Taming the Pain: Jon Wilkins

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Retired construction worker regains mobility after his elected amputation and develops a creative approach to combating chronic pain.

Sherry Metzger
Sherry Metzger

Jon Wilkins understands that one of his sources for pain relief might seem a bit unusual , but he's not about to turn his back on progress. "It may seem funny, but I've learned to use Lamaze techniques to control my pain," Wilkins says.

Pain has been a part of Wilkins' story since a dislodged boulder crushed his left foot while laying pipe on the job in 1990. He lived with excruciating pain and was restricted to a wheelchair for two years following the accident. The decision to amputate his left leg mid-tibia may not have saved Wilkins' life, but it certainly changed it.

"I was stuck in a wheelchair and became addicted to painkillers," Wilkins says of the two years between his injury and the elected amputation. "It wasn't a difficult decision to make at that point. Doctors told me that I would be able to walk again if I amputated my foot and got a prosthesis." However, after traveling from his hometown of Missoula, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, to discuss amputation with a specialist, Wilkins wasn't immediately convinced that it was the right option. He received a second opinion in Salt Lake City, Utah, and became hopeful of regaining an active lifestyle after his amputation.

"They amputated my left leg seven inches above my ankle," he says. "Right after the surgery I began wearing a prosthesis and bearing weight on it. I had a great therapist [who] helped me learn to walk again." The process of learning to walk all over again after spending two years in a wheelchair was no easy task. Wilkins' muscles, especially on his left side, had weakened, and the weight of his new prosthetic foot would cause him to fatigue quickly. "A prosthetic foot weighs a lot, and walking with one takes so much effort," Wilkins says.

Wilkins persevered despite suffering from reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) and shooting pains that would surge through his back when he walked, particularly up stairs. RSD, also known as complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), is a progressive disease brought on by damage or trauma to the sympathetic nervous system and causes a burning sensation in the extremities. Wilkins is one of an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people affected by RSD/CRPS in the United States.

Jon Wilkins has discovered his own methods to combat his chronic pain.
Jon Wilkins has discovered his own methods to combat his chronic pain.

"I still deal with pain issues from RSD. However, I'm no longer dependent on painkillers like I once was," says Wilkins, referring to his use of Lamaze and other pain-relieving techniques. "I focus on something else, and that helps me deal with it."

Wilkins, 59, used a basic prosthesis for many years before being fitted with Ossur's PROPRIO FOOT™ in April. The foot was one of just 100 available on the market at Western Montana Orthotics & Prosthetics, Missoula. Wilkins was fitted by his prosthetist, Doug Turner, CP, along with help from Ossur prosthetist Cara Negri, CP, who traveled to Missoula to assist and advise on proper usage. An amputee himself, Turner raves about the energy-saving foot.

"I haven't been an advocate of all this high-technology stuff," Turner says. "But I'm quickly becoming an advocate.... It's microprocessor controlled and quite user-friendly. This technology allows amputees to do more things on different types of terrain."

Wilkins, who wore out four prostheses during the 20 years since his amputation, agrees with Turner. "I don't get as fatigued as a I used to, and I can go straight up and down a hill rather than side-stepping," he says. "I don't have to worry so much about catching my toe on the lip of a stair or on a raised sidewalk. The PROPRIO FOOT is a big improvement over my old prosthesis. I can walk further than before and can be more active."

After 22 years in the construction industry, Wilkins is now retired and serves as a member of the Missoula City Council. With the use of his new foot, Wilkins dreams of climbing the steep slope of his hometown's Mount Sentinel up to the concrete M, a nearly 100-year-old landmark representing the symbol of the University of Montana. "It's a wish of mine, but I don't know when it will happen," Wilkins says. "There are some other members of our city council that I'd like to see make the trek up first!"

If Wilkins were still lugging around his old prosthesis, a journey up Mount Sentinel might not be possible. But the PROPRIO FOOT could change that. Wilkins asked Turner about the foot after reading an article in Popular Science, in which the foot was lauded as one of the top 100 new products or technologies of 2006. He feels fortunate that workers' compensation covered the price tag and regrets that such an improvement is out of financial reach for many people with limb loss or limb difference. "It really improves life," he says. "I think it's important to get the message out that there is something different available on the market that can help people walk better. I hope that with more people requesting this foot it will bring the cost down."

Named for its ability to provide the user with better proprioception, the PROPRIO FOOT responds automatically to a wide-range of terrain. The added range of motion at the ankle appears more organic when sitting and walking. "I can relax the foot when I sit down so I look more natural," explains Wilkins. "A regular prosthetic ankle is so stiff. This foot senses what my next step will be, so I don't have to think about walking so much. The toe will lift up far enough to keep me from tripping and falling."

While the prosthesis offers Wilkins more and better mobility, he still has plenty of other projects to keep him busy, and those projects double as pain relievers. The meticulous construction of birdhouses, complete with stone chimneys, paned windows, and tiled rooftops, is another way for Wilkins to take his mind off the pain. A single birdhouse can take more than 40 hours to complete, which certainly keeps Wilkins occupied. "I'm always doing something. Hopefully it's something constructive," he says.

Wilkins still makes time to camp, fish, and boat, and he really enjoys coaching Little League soccer and baseball. "I'm a great one-legged soccer coach," Wilkins says, laughing. "It's great to be around kids because they ask the most direct questions. They're curious about my prosthetic leg, and they talk to me about it rather than ignoring it. I just tell them, Everybody is different. My differences are just a little more obvious.'"

It's that type of attitude that makes Wilkins so well-liked, especially by the children in Missoula. He even plays along with the kids who think he lives in a pirate cave near the M on the side of Mount Sentinel. "I love to use my old prosthetic legs as Halloween decorations and sort of feed their fun."

Wilkins also receives a great deal of support from his wife and family, which includes a 27-year-old son, 18-year-old daughter, 14-year-old foster child, a dog, and four cats. "My dog has helped to take my mind off the pain too," he says.

Armed with an arsenal of pain-coping techniques as well as his new foot, Wilkins is active and joyful despite living with chronic pain and limb loss. "An amputee always has an eye on the ground," he says, remarking on the thought and care that each step requires. Today, with more secure footing, Wilkins is optimistically looking straight ahead at his future.

Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and can be reached at  sherry@opedge.com

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