Patti Valero enthusiastically greets the people surrounding "The MOSI Man" at the Museum of Science and Industry's The Amazing You exhibit.
She's bubbly in conversation as she gazes at the silver-coated mannequin that's equipped with multiple prosthetic devices. She perks up to an even higher degree when asked about losing her own leg when a car hit her while she was riding her motorcycle eight months ago.
"I'm really a better person," said Valero, 48. "I'm more outgoing. I get a lot of attention now. I show people, and they're fascinated."
Derrick Knight, 30, is no less ebullient. He lost his left hand and arm in a work-related accident. Knight said his Christian faith helped him deal with the amputation.
"They told me at the site I would probably lose my arm, so I had made my peace with the Lord before I even arrived at the hospital," said Knight, who's currently using a set of tools that attach to his prosthetic arm to work on remodeling projects at his home.
Clearly, losing a limb doesn't mean losing your zeal for life, but neither Valero nor Knight gained their positive outlooks solely through inner strength. They both included Amputees Together meetings on their road to recovery because the support group helped them with the physical and mental challenges of losing a limb.
Backed by Westcoast Brace & Limb, Amputees Together stages monthly meetings in Tampa and Largo. Jennifer Latham Robinson, who coordinates care for Westcoast Brace & Limb clients, says the meetings allow amputees to share their limb-lost sto-
ries and ask about adapting to new challenges.
"It's important that they understand they're not the first to feel this way, they're not the first to ask certain questions, they're not the first to wonder if it gets any easier," Robinson said. "We've seen people come out of the other side of the tunnel. There's a lot of hope in our success stories."
Amputees also hear from experts on a variety of issue-related topics ranging from nutrition to social services. The class also proves beneficial for spouses, relatives and caregivers whose adjustment is as important as the amputee. From time to time, Amputees Together also likes to plan social outings for the group.
That's why organizers moved the Hillsborough meeting to MOSI last week.
It provided a public activity for the members and Westcoast showcased "The MOSI Man" as part of its efforts to raise awareness of limb loss and celebrate April as Limb Loss Awareness Month.
Westcoast president Greg Bauer said the collaborative effort between his company and MOSI covered a year and a half. They performed "an operation" on the mannequin much like they would any other patient, installing a high-realism ear and nose and different types of prosthetic legs and arms.
Bauer said while some patients prefer the high realism prosthetics made of silicone and designed to match their skin tone — they can even implement freckles and hair — he's seen more patients embrace the more visible prosthetics.
"The focus is less on cosmetics and more on being functional," said Bauer, whose company is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Bauer attributes the trend to greater awareness in the wake of veterans returning home with limb loss.
Thanks to the media, the public regularly sees images of amputees cycling, swimming, running and enjoying other outdoor activities.
Westcoast offers both types of prosthetics, however, fabricating the high-realism prosthetics in house.
Its goal is to provide what patients prefer and help them with all the pre- and post- aspects of the procedure, which is why it puts so much emphasis on Amputees Together. It's telling that Robinson is among several employees at Westcoast who themselves are amputees. She's been an above-the-knee amputee most of her life because of a birth defect that affected her hips and legs.
Valero and Knight also typify the significance of the support group, not just because it helped shape their outlooks but because they continue to return to the meetings to help others become whole — physically and emotionally.
They've come full circle, from losing a piece of themselves to giving of themselves. Robinson calls it "a beautiful process," and she's so right.
That's all I'm saying.