A cutting-edge program to save the limbs of wounded soldiers now helps some civilian patients avoid amputations and return to their favorite activities.

News, Your Health | 6 months ago

A Program Created to Heal Soldiers Helped This Man Return to his Mission: Being Dad

A cutting-edge program to save the limbs of wounded soldiers now helps some civilian patients avoid amputations and return to their favorite activities.

Alan Friedl accepted a hard fact: His foot needed to be amputated.

This realization would be hard for anyone to accept, but it was especially hard for Alan. This lifelong athlete had recently begun a new favorite sport: being a dad.

But an injury sidelined him. An injury from his college days – an ankle misalignment in 1997 – resurfaced in 2010 and brought increasing pain with each step. Over the next several years, he saw six doctors and went through several surgeries and procedures – all unsuccessful. He gave up hope that his foot could heal, and he preferred to sacrifice his foot rather than to sacrifice his dreams of being an active dad to a little girl.

“I was slowly, one by one, losing the ability to do things that I’d always loved to do. I suffered a loss of everything I ever wanted to do with sports. Forget tennis, forget basketball, softball,” Alan says. Soon, any step became painful, and it became more than sports that he missed: It was playing with his daughter, too. “It felt like standing on an escalator that was just taking me down, down. I had no fight anymore; I had no way to climb up. Mentally, I was in a dark place.”

Alan, who works with Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute as technical operations manager, shifted his medical care to Atrium Health in order to have Joseph Hsu, MD – an orthopedic trauma surgeon and the Vice Chair of Quality at Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute – perform his amputation. After listening to Alan, Dr. Hsu didn’t accept that an amputation was his best option. He told Alan about a program that could save his foot and allow him to return to his favorite activities. Alan decided to give the program – Return to Performance – a shot.

The Motivations to Heal

As a surgeon in the U.S. Army, Dr. Hsu devoted much of his career to salvaging the limbs of wounded soldiers. He was part of a team that built Return to Run, a cutting-edge military program that helped soldiers recover from limb-threatening injuries to return to peak performance on the battlefield.

Now Dr. Hsu is part of a team that’s adapted the program to civilians at Atrium Health. Just as he did for his Army patients, Dr. Hsu listens to his Atrium Health patients to understand their motivations for healing. For one of his patients, the goal was to climb Mount Everest. For another, it was to dance the shag again. For another, it was a return to competitive Motocross. Their missions became Dr. Hsu’s missions, too – and all three were successful.

“Every meeting I had with Dr. Hsu, my wife went with me. And we were both amazed by him,” Alan says. “He always takes his time. He never rushes anyone. He just sits down and talks with you, looks at you, and seeks to understand instead of just being understood.”

For Alan, his goal was to be an active dad. During his first appointment, Alan brought pictures of his daughter and told Dr. Hsu about the activities he wanted to do with her. He wanted to be the dad who could teach his daughter to ride a bike, to keep up with her as she grew up. Due to his current pain, however, he could barely walk.

“To me, the goal to teach your daughter to ride a bike is no less important than to go back to war,” Dr. Hsu says. “Self-efficacy is about getting back to your life's chief activities, so it's different for every person.”

‘I Wasn’t in Pain Anymore’

The Return to Performance Pathway, offered exclusively at Atrium Health, is the only one of its kind in the region, and it attracts patients from all over the country. Dr. Hsu makes it as easy as possible for people to travel here – even incorporating virtual visits when possible – but he’s also committed to spreading the program to other areas so that as many patients have access to it as possible.

The program has two main elements: an intensified rehabilitation program and an orthopedic device. The rehabilitation program looks different for each patient, as its personalized to each patient’s needs and goals. The device isn’t the usual orthopedic device but one designed exclusively for use in this program: It stores energy, and then it returns that energy to the patient. It isn’t meant to merely allow the patient to walk again, but to empower them to run or to perform high-level activities.

For Alan, the transition to use his new device to begin rehabilitation came naturally. “It was easy because I wasn’t in pain anymore,” Alan says.

At first, Alan learned to walk with the device. Then he learned to run with it. Eventually he could run without wearing the device at all – he even ran a marathon without it. But his biggest achievement happened just outside his door.

One afternoon during his recovery, his daughter took off on a wobbly bike with her dad running alongside her and supporting her. Alan admits he was more nervous for his daughter at that moment than she was for herself, but he let the bike go. She kept pedaling. He kept running. In one moment, two people met two very special goals.

“Oh man, I thought I was going to miss being there to teach her to ride a bike. That’s just one of those things I wanted to go through with her,” he says. “It felt fantastic.”

Now, Alan also has a three-year-old son as well. And when his son is ready to ride his bike, too, he’s got a dad who’ll be ready to run alongside him.

Learn more about the Return to Performance Pathway and Atrium Health’s Global Healthcare Services. If you would like to make an appointment, please call 888-327-3915.

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