Posted on April 6, 2022

Hope by design: Fellow amputees get creative and find friendship in the process

Bryan Donihue and Matt Schwab are friends who share an unwavering sense of hope and optimism. It’s a feeling that stems deeply from a condition they both know well.  

Bryan, a 50-year-old father of six, lives in Grand Rapids – among his many passions is game design. That is, he explained, “old school, around-the-table experiences.” He’s also an author, motivational speaker and graphic designer.  

In 2009, Bryan came to Mary Free Bed for inpatient rehabilitation following a total knee replacement. After graduation, he continued with outpatient therapy. Unfortunately, about nine years later, Bryan experienced an infection in his knee that required an above-knee amputation.  

“After that, Mary Free Bed was the natural spot for me to be,” he said. “There’s a reason I keep coming back.”  

During the process of receiving his own prosthetic, Bryan’s natural curiosity and sense of design led him to ask questions about the fabrication process. After learning about the type of fabric used and design requirements for sockets, an idea sparked – could he custom design his own socket? It turns out, he could. Leveraging his graphic design background and a close fabric vendor connection, he worked with his Mary Free Bed Orthotics & Prosthetics + Bionics prosthetist, Jim Storms, to bring an idea to life. That’s when his passion for custom lamination design took off. He’s currently on his fifth leg and fifth custom socket design.  

Making a creative connection 

Matt, 32, is a professional gamer – the more “high-tech version,” he said. He’s also passionate about drawing, spending time with his family – notably his dogs – and is looking forward to his newest adventure: He’s recently been measured for a new, adapted TerraTrike Rambler recumbent bike. 

Matt’s left arm was amputated above the elbow after he was struck by a car in a crosswalk. After recovering at Mercy Health St. Mary’s Hospital following the 2017 incident, he came to Mary Free Bed. He spent three months recovering and preparing for his shoulder disarticulation prosthesis.  

Matt and Bryan first met at a bowling event hosted by the Great Lakes Amputee Network, Mary Free Bed’s support group for people with limb loss or limb differences. Matt was fascinated by Bryan’s artwork, and they connected over “taking a negative and turning it positive.” That’s when Mary Free Bed board-eligible prosthetist, Cisco Breazile, played matchmaker and asked Bryan if he’d be willing to help a fellow amputee.   

“In addition to getting a fully functional prosthesis,” Cisco explained, “We needed to give Matt something he could be proud of, and Bryan was happy to help. Watching amputees collaborate and take charge of their prosthetic care is very inspiring and I hope to see more situations like this arise in the future.” 

Exceeding expectations 

After Bryan and Matt met, their creative wheels started spinning. The concepts started with a simple tribal design and evolved into the final, full-color design of a dragon. Matt chose the dragon because “it felt fearless.”  

“It symbolizes how I look at each day,” he said. “Dragons don’t live with fear – the day is theirs to embrace.” 

Matt also wanted a design so magnificent that people would be drawn to the artwork, rather than see him as an amputee.  

“Bryan did a phenomenal job. He completely exceeded my expectations,” Matt said. “I hope his design encourages people to come up to me and ask me about the artwork, rather than my condition.”   

Matt and Bryan continue their outpatient therapy at Mary Free Bed. They bond over custom design ideas, their love of games and their individual experiences with amputation.  

“Support is everything,” said Bryan, who serves as a mentor for new amputees at Mary Free Bed. “People who have experienced amputation give each other new levels of hope – and permission to hope.”  

A blank canvas for others 

Inspired by their collaboration, Bryan has launched a new initiative to provide customized prosthetic lamination design services for any Mary Free Bed patient, and hopefully beyond.  

“I know how important it is to have your personality shine through on a prosthetic,” said Bryan, who’s also the author of “Smile Like a Pirate: Finding Hope in Loss.” “I want to make sure everyone can have that – from little kids to adults, regardless of their ability to pay.”  

Bryan and Matt have goals to complete the rest of Matt’s prosthesis. Ideas are still in the works, but dragon scales are under consideration.  

“Bryan’s artwork is a reminder that blank canvases come in every shape and size,” Matt said. “Our friendship reminds me that hope is such an important part of recovery.”