During one of his first physical therapy sessions as an inpatient at Mary Free Bed, Nathan Wolford was tossing a weighted ball back and forth with his physical therapist.
“That’s the day I first realized it was going to be OK,” said Nathan, 20, whose legs were amputated above the knee after a car crashed into him, causing extensive damage to both limbs. “It’s the day I learned I’ll still be able to do all the things I did before. I just might have to get a little creative.”
On a sunny September morning in 2017, Nathan was cleaning up brush left by Fremont residents on monthly pickup day as part of his seasonal job with the city where he lives. As he was feeding it into a wood chipper, Nathan was struck from behind by a car and pinned. Trapped for more than an hour, emergency crews freed Nathan, and he was flown by helicopter to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
During the next several weeks, Nathan underwent 18 surgeries to repair damaged tissue and broken bones, and faced complications that included a blood clot in his lungs and fast-growing infections in his legs. Despite aggressive treatment, it became necessary to amputate both of Nathan’s legs above his knees.
When he was ready to begin rehabilitation, he chose Mary Free Bed.
“When I first lost my legs, all I could think about were all the things I was never going to be able to do again … like play drums, go to a concert and hang out with my friends,” Nathan said. “So, when I started doing therapy, I thought ‘I can do this.’”
He spent a little over three weeks in the inpatient Amputee program, graduating in November 2017.
“At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything anymore. Then I learned how to get dressed, take a shower … I lost a lot of strength, so we worked to get that back and prepare my body for prosthetics,” he said. “I felt confident. Everyone here knows what they’re doing, and the technology is cutting edge.”
It wasn’t long before Nathan began outpatient therapy. A few weeks later, he was fit for prosthetics.
Physical therapist Janna Pittman has been working with Nathan throughout his recovery, progressing from “stubbies,” or foreshortened prostheses, to full-length prosthetics with knee components. With each new prosthetic, Nathan learned to walk with a walker, then a cane, then without assistance. He hasn’t used his wheelchair for mobility since September.
“Along the way, we’ve worked on stretching and leg-strengthening, transferring from chairs and cars, stepping over objects and mastering ramps, curbs, stairs and hills,” Janna said. “He pursues every opportunity and never complains. It takes super strength and determination to achieve everything he’s accomplished.”
That includes running. Nathan recently received running blades and plans to run in a 5K event next summer. He trained with a harness system for three sessions and quickly progressed to running outdoors. His next goal is to build endurance in preparation for the 5K.
“He is someone who gives me hope,” Janna said. “I’m so proud of him – he always looks forward to the next activity he wants to accomplish, and he will help so many others. I am really fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Nathan.”
His rehabilitation plan also included recreational therapy to get back to activities he enjoyed before the accident.
“When Rachel (Morse) asked what I like to do, I said ‘I like to go to concerts’,” Nathan said. “I was worried – it’s a lot of standing for four or five hours in tightly packed groups of people. I was so afraid to have a problem.”
Rachel found out one of Nathan’s favorite bands, Memphis May Fire, was playing a November show at the Majestic in Detroit. She got tickets and even arranged for Nathan to meet the band backstage.
“I was definitely put to the test,” he said. “I had to walk a couple of blocks to the venue and go up and down curbs, and up and down steps. I had to walk through thick crowds of people.
“Going to that concert gave me confidence in my abilities and made me realize I’m going to be able to do stuff I enjoy. I’m not scared anymore. I know I can do it.”
Nathan’s recovery has been “incredible,” said Dr. Benjamin Bruinsma, director of Mary Free Bed’s Amputee Program.
“He has a fantastic attitude that, in combination with our therapists’ expertise, has helped his outcome significantly,” Bruinsma said. “He’s taking a very difficult situation and making it a positive one by living his life to the fullest and helping others with limb differences.”
Nathan is serving as a mentor at Camp No Limits, first traveling to Texas in April. He heads to Maine and Connecticut in July as a role model at the camps for kids affected by limb loss and differences. It’s not surprising, considering his career plan is to become a youth pastor. He begins classes this fall at Cornerstone University.