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Elective Amputation: Navigating the Emotions and Making the Decision

Posted by Bryan Potok, CPO on

It's part of the conversation now—elective amputation surgery. And you’ve been thinking about it for some time or you're in the process of doing your homework. Taking the next step and deciding to go through with an amputation is undoubtedly an emotional one. In this article, we can only begin to skim the surface on elective amputation.

Elective amputation is an emotional and difficult decision.

The decision to amputate can either be medically necessary or matter of improved function and quality of life. This is a tough emotional decision, and considering the probability that you either are in discomfort or under heavy medication from infection makes it all the more critical.

Your decision to amputate may boil down to either medical necessity (i.e., to prevent the spread of an infection) or improving quality of life. Patients who are confronted with the former often— along with their physicians—choose to amputate immediately. Their decision—driven by the need to protect the rest of the body from the infection—is usually swift. However, for those whom amputation is a matter of improving quality of life, the decision can drag on for years.  

Deciding whether to save or amputate a limb comes with a flood of emotions and questions, and there is no doubt that some will be more challenging than others. 

If this is you, you can start your process by talking to your prosthetist. Ask him or her to present the entire picture to you, such as what level of functionality can you expect if you choose to save your limb, what level of pain can you expect after the surgery if you decide to amputate, and what your "new normal" will look like if you choose to save your limb vs. post-amputation. 

You can also call Amputee Coalition and ask to speak to a Peer Visitor. They will then match you with someone whose background and lifestyle closely matches yours. This way, you can talk to someone who has gone through almost the same experiences as you.

Not the Same for Everyone

However, it’s also important to consider how you perceive “normal” can be different from how another person defines it. So, listen to your prosthetist and peer visitor and spend as much time in research as you want. Then collate all this information and try to see which situation is better for you. 

Also, take into account the fact that the grieving process can start even before you decide to amputate your limb. This can make the decision process difficult. However, the great thing about talking to your prosthetist or a peer visitor is that it sets you up for realistic expectations. When you have an idea of what to expect and what your options are post-amputation, the emotional part of the healing process will be a bit easier. In reality, the emotional healing and acceptance process can take upwards of 5 years on average.

Lastly, focus on the long-term benefits—not the short-term—of choosing to amputate vs. saving a limb. The path towards amputation is not going to be easy, but it’s undoubtedly a well-traveled path. So, you will never be alone on your journey to adapt to your new lifestyle. Many amputees quickly adapt to their new normal. Many of them also find that they can do a lot of things they did and enjoyed before amputation, such as working out and participating in sports.  

Did you have the option to elect to amputate? What was your process like? Please share your experience with us in the comments section below. 
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  • I elected to have my right foot amputated at the age of 12, after having suffered a lawn mowing accident at the age of three. I’ve been a bka for 30 years and have had my ups and downs. For the most part being an amputee has enriched my life. I enjoy jogging in 5K’s, trail walking, riding my bike…. My biggest struggle now is skin break down, not sure but most likely due to my age and the elasticity or lack of in my stump skin.

    Remembering back as a teen, I would say emotional challenges were my biggest struggles. I feared that I would never get married (nonsense) I have a wonderful husband and three beautiful kids. I ran several 5K’s with them as kids and still do. Staying at a healthy weight is a must. Also my faith has kept my mind healthy.

    For myself, I personally swear to the vacuum system(less movement) so less breakdowns for me. I’ve tried several other systems and the vacuum is the best especially if your active. The blade foot is the best for jogging and a nice sport foot for everyday use. I have two legs, my jogging leg and my every thing else leg both are vacuum systems.

    I do have to remind my family sometimes that I do get tired and my leg does hurt at times because they don’t see me as an amputee or someone with a handicap. When your active like myself people forget and there are times I need to slow down or stay out of the leg.

    Everybody’s skin is different and everybody will have different abilities and other health conditions that led to the amputation, so be patient and realistic to yourself. I’m fortunate to have great blood circulation and overall I would consider myself to be healthy. I’ve never smoked and don’t drink and I’m not over weight, I believe in keeping my body healthy so that I can enjoy life to its fullest. Good luck and stay mentally, spiritually and physically healthy to the best of your ability

    Ethel Rawlings on

  • I fractured my ankle in December 2015. My body rejected the screws to repair my ankle four months later. I was given the choice of an ankle fusion (four screws) or a below the knee amputation which I had in June 2016. The only pain I have now is phantom pain. I work and volunteer.

    Greita J. Gibbs on

  • Yes, my btk amputation was my decision (the hardest decision of my life). I had over 25 surgeries on my left foot, and was getting scheduled for another to try and reduce my ever increasing pain! At this time, I’ve been taking heavy opioids for at least the last 8 years. After hearing from my Orthopedic doctor about what he wanted to do, including more hardware, and having a plastic surgeon taking fat from one area of my body and adding it to the bottom of my foot, (something not done before and not guaranteed to work or last a long time), I made the decision to forego this procedure and instead elected to amputate the foot. Unfortunately I did not do enough research to find a peer person or group to help me manage the days leading up to surgery, nor help me cope after the surgery. I did have my wife, kids, parents, & siblings that were there for me and as I of coarse appreciated their help and support, they didn’t always know what to say or do, like a peer volunteer or Amputee group would, for obvious reasons. It was a very difficult transition and I’m still dealing with a lot! My surgery was November 15, 2017. I’m currently going through the process of switching from a pin lock prosthetic to a vacuum seal prosthetic, changing prosthesis companies in the process. I definitely can’t express enough how important it is to find out everything you can about the prosthetic company and prosthetist that you will be working with! Do your homework, don’t rely on your doctor to set this up for you! Call your insurance, get a list of approved prosthetic companies, and then investigate thoroughly which one is best for you. Ask experts who they recommend, doing this would have saved me money, but more importantly…pain & suffering, emotional stress, and a better start to being an amputee! I’ve really struggled with depression, anxiety, etc., since my surgery due to not having the proper support system in place, enough information after amputation, and other injuries (surgery on other body parts from waiting so long), that significantly slowed my recovery, and positivity moving forward. It’s also very important to share information, thoughts, & experiences with loved ones, the more they know, the more they can help and UNDERSTAND what your dealing with and going through! I hope this information is helpful, even if it’s only for 1 person!

    Paul A Blaha on

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