Harry Torbert didn’t think anything about the extra heel pain he was feeling two years ago. He wasn’t in the habit of letting anything get in the way of his regular routine, which included puttering around the house, taking walks and doing errands with his wife. But when the pain resulted in a sore that would not heal, he followed his wife’s recommendation and saw his doctor.
“The doctor said he couldn’t believe I had let the pain go on for so long,” said the 87-year-old. “Unknown to me, the infection had gotten so bad it involved gangrene down to the bone.”
Surgery to remove Torbert’s left leg below the knee was the only option.
“I was in the hospital thinking that I’d never walk again,” he said. “And I probably wouldn’t be doing as well as I am now if it hadn’t been for the Christiana Care Visiting Nurse Association.”
Early on, Christiana Care VNA staff came to Torbert’s home to help him heal from the surgery and support him with personal care.
‘”It was such a sad time for him, right out of the hospital,” said Alice Blackwell, HHA, who has been a Christiana Care VNA nurse’s assistant for 26 years. “This amputation was just devastating to him, and it is my job to support him and get him to live again. I helped him with all his personal care and was a listening ear. I just wanted to see him do well.”
Blackwell teamed up with Melissa Wilcox, OT, his Christiana Care VNA occupational therapist, and together they helped Torbert see beyond the bed.
“When I met Harry, he was just out of the hospital for less than a month, and he was completely dependent upon his wife and upon Alice for all his care. It was even difficult for him get himself into a sitting position in bed,” said Wilcox.
Changes in routines associated with aging — and, in this case, with a major medical event — can result in anxiety and a decline in well-being and health. Patients like Torbert who have had a limb amputated often feel nervous about getting out of bed, for fear of falling or incurring pain. Occupational therapy helped Torbert learn to transfer confidently to a sitting position in bed, and from there to his wheelchair.
“One of the benefits of having occupational therapy in the home is that we can help our patients heal and overcome real-world physical challenges in the environment where they spend most of their time,” said Wilcox, who worked with Torbert to identify his goals, which supported the plan for his therapy.
“I really wanted to be able to take a shower and put on my clothes by myself, and that seemed like an impossible goal,” said Torbert. “But Melissa and Alice exercised me real good, and I still remember how great it felt that first time I was able to transfer from the wheelchair to the bench in the tub by myself.”
Wilcox also remembers a high point for Torbert — the day he went out into the back yard.
“He was so determined, and I watched him transfer into his chair, wheel to the back door, open it and cruise down the ramp into the sunshine. He was ecstatic,” she said.
With a new-found confidence, Torbert decided on his next goal: walking.
“Harry said he wanted to walk, so I helped him follow through on the exercises that Melissa taught him,” said Blackwell. “We often need to be assumptive and persistent in order to help patients achieve their goals. If Harry wanted to walk, I was going to make sure that he did.”
“I think back to after the surgery and the sad shape I was in. I had given up,” said Torbert. “Then, we got the VNA nurses in here, and they made this all possible. That day I stood up, well, I can tell you, I felt the best I had in years.”
For Blackwell and Wilcox, the only sad part about their jobs is that, at some point, their services are no longer needed. But knowing their patients are living fuller lives, thanks to their support, helps make that transition easier.
“It wasn’t too long ago that I was out shopping and saw Harry and his wife,” said Wilcox. “Harry was using his walker and looked happy and healthy. That just made my day!”