Amputee turns misfortune into chance to aid others HOWARD COUNTY HEALTH

March 16, 1993|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

It was a gorgeous, sunny day in 1978 when the accident happened.

Sykesville resident John Erwin was mowing a neighbor's five-acre lot with his Ford tractor when he hit a soft patch of soil hidden by weeds. The tractor sank, threw Mr. Erwin forward, then rolled over his right leg. One of the machine's 22-inch blades cut through his heel.

Mr. Erwin managed to hop 50 feet down River Road using his left foot until he collapsed. Four youngsters discovered him by the roadside.

Eventually, part of his leg was amputated.

"I don't see it in a negative sense," Mr. Erwin, 47, says of his disability. "It's a new beginning."

Mr. Erwin is president and founding member of the Amputee Association of Maryland, a 1,200-member organization that includes Orioles public address announcer Rex Barney.

The 6-year-old support group meets once a month at James Lawrence Kernan Hospital in Baltimore. Upon request, new amputees and their families can receive private counseling from group members.

Organizing the group helped Mr. Erwin overcome his own loss, says his wife, Deborah.

"Out of a tragedy like that, he started something that's helped people over the years," Mrs. Erwin says. "It got his mind off his problems . . . and let him get on with his life."

But it didn't work out that way at first.

For 2 1/2 years after the accident, Mr. Erwin was deeply depressed. While doctors experimented with skin grafts, he hobbled on crutches and wore clumsy orthopedic shoes.

He lost interest in his usual activities: hiking, bowling and golf.

"I started losing my role in life," Mr. Erwin says. "I became more sort of hopeless. My outlook on life was bleak."

Mr. Erwin's activities were restricted by crutches.

"You can't hold a cup of coffee. You can't hold an umbrella," he said.

Mr. Erwin hadn't considered amputation until he met a Vietnam veteran at the Social Security Administration, where he works as a program evaluation manager.

The veteran, also an amputee, encouraged Mr. Erwin to have his foot surgically removed.

"The guy really hit home," says Mr. Erwin, who underwent amputation in 1980. He walked out of the hospital after 4 1/2 days with the help of a prosthesis.

"I was in heaven," he said. "I was living again. I was hiking all over the place."

Before his operation, Mr. Erwin says he had a "long list of questions" about amputation.

"A million things popped into my mind," Mr. Erwin says. "That's when the kernel of an idea popped into my head." The Amputee Association of Maryland was born seven years later.

In the first year, more than 200 members joined.

"It was almost like they were waiting in the wings for something like this to happen," he said.

Terri Laubach, whose 6-year-old daughter, Kristine, is an amputee, says the association is a great resource.

"It would be a lot tougher to provide information to people without it," says Ms. Laubach.

She discovered that group volunteers can make a doll with reattachable limbs.

"The idea of dolls provides a really good resource for me to help my daughter," says Ms. Laubach, who works as a nurse at Kernan Hospital.

The group got a jump start when Mr. Erwin and vice president Nina Roelke attended the Academy of Orthotics and Prosthetics Annual Scientific Symposium in Newport Beach, Calif.

"We came back with tons of information," Mr. Erwin says. "We came back with 90 percent of what we needed to become self-sufficient."

He also returned with an interest in skiing. The symposium included representatives from Ski 52, a national skiing organization for amputees.

The group is named for 52 businessmen who founded the organization after returning injured from World War II.

Although he had grown up within sight of Mount Hood in Portland, Ore., Mr. Erwin had never tried skiing.

"After the first day, I was hooked," he says.

He learned how to ski with the help of outriggers -- specially adapted skiing poles equipped with skis and brakes. "By the end of the week, I was having a ball."

Now Mr. Erwin and his family visit Denver four times a year where they ski at the National Sports Center for the Disabled. When he retires, Mr. Erwin said he hopes to become a certified ski instructor for amputees like himself.

During the summer he mountain climbs with his wife and 21-year-old daughter, Kristine.

Mr. Erwin no longer regrets his accident. "My life's better today than it was then," he says.

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