Imagine losing both your fiancée and your leg in a horrendous motorcycle crash. Imagine having clumps of your waist-long hair falling out in your hands after starting chemotherapy. Imagine trying to cope with chronic, debilitating sinus pain that limits your ability to work or enjoy life.
For three Topeka individuals, these stories are all too real. Fortunately, their lives have been changed for the better by services offered right here in Topeka.
Mark Uhlrig understands that the difference between a good prosthetic experience and a bad one can be life changing. Working with Michael Schultz, owner of Horizon Orthotic & Prosthetic Experience, Inc. (H.O.P.E), Uhlrig has been able to stay vertical longer and avoid additional surgery.
“It is about quality of life, or excitement of life,” Uhlrig said. “Who wants to sit around on their backside all day long when you have other options?”
Uhlrig lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in April 2009. A truck broadsided Uhlrig while he was out for an evening ride with his fiancée. She was thrown from the motorcycle and killed; he was flown to KU Medical Center. Uhlrig’s injuries required doctors to keep him in a medically induced coma for two weeks. He spent six weeks in the hospital healing from injuries that included a broken shoulder, torn diaphragm and a collapsed lung. The injuries to his leg were so severe he faced another year and a half of surgeries or amputation. He chose the amputation.
“I wasn’t going to sit around and let the world go by. It’s just not me. I wanted to get up and around, and get back to the real world,” Uhlrig said.
He was fitted for a prosthetic leg a few months after the accident, but found himself in an ongoing cycle of infections and surgeries to treat irritations caused by the prosthesis. Those complications limited the time he could wear the prosthesis.
“That impedes your mobility,” Uhlrig said. “On crutches, you can’t carry anything. It’s hard to go to the grocery store. In a wheelchair, you still can’t carry anything. Then your good leg starts taking the abuse.”
At his doctor’s suggestion, Uhlrig went to H.O.P.E., where he found a completely different experience. Schultz fitted him with a prosthesis that has an elevated vacuum suspension system, which makes for a better fit and helps Uhlrig avoid down time.
H.O.P.E. custom designs and builds artificial arm and leg prosthetic devices. The group also has a local certified orthotist, Lori Hansford, who fits patients for braces. Schultz began working with prosthetics after considering a career in physical therapy. He says the number one goal of what they do at H.O.P.E. is to return people to their previous quality of life.
“In contrast to physical therapy, prosthetics is more like a microwave. It is an instant change in someone’s life,” Schultz said.
With orthotics, Schultz says, fit is the most important thing that can change a person’s experience. New gel liners and suspension techniques have improved the comfort of prosthesis in recent years and can allow people like Uhlrig to wear them comfortably all day without getting sores. Schultz equates the loss of a limb to losing a loved one. A patient goes through stages of grief: anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Helping a patient get fitted with prosthesis is one of the quickest ways to help someone reach the acceptance stage. For Schultz, the experience of helping fit people with prosthetic legs never gets old.
“You take someone who has lost a limb and they have been in a wheelchair, and you get them up walking for the first time in months. There’s nothing like that,” Schultz said.
Janet Stock had known Marilyn Rowland, owner of Hair Secrets Salon and Wig Boutique, for years but had no idea how important that salon would be for her personally until she received a cancer diagnosis nine years ago.
“I needed to have a lumpectomy and needed to go through chemo and radiation,” Stock said. “They told me I would lose my hair.”
For a woman who had very long hair—down to her waist—the prospect of losing it was daunting. It also became a mess.
“When your hair first starts falling out, it falls in everything. It’s all over. It’s hard, especially if you’re kind of vain about your hair, like I was,” Stock said.
Stock selected a wig at the boutique, where Rowland’s daughter, a beautician, also shaved Stock’s head. It was a service Stock was glad to find available in Topeka.
“When you’re on chemo you really don’t want to travel more than you have to,” Stock said.
That travel hassle was one reason Rowland opened the wig shop 25 years ago. A friend of hers was going through chemotherapy at the time and needed a wig. Traveling to Kansas City was too much for her friend, so they ended up in a local hair salon in Topeka that happened to sell a few wigs on the side. Rowland thought the experience could have been better.
“Before then, I had wanted to start a business. I just couldn’t decide what to do. I thought, if everyone in Topeka was going to Kansas City to buy wigs, I should try it,” Rowland said.
Rowland rented a corner in a Fairlawn Plaza store targeted toward seniors where she put 10 wigs on display. Without much money for advertising, Rowland visited local doctors’ offices to explain what she was doing. The response was positive.
“They were really happy there was someone who was going to do this,” Rowland said. “After I got into it and started to understand the chemotherapy and the mastectomy, we added the [breast] prostheses.”
The business, which offers wigs and post-mastectomy products, now serves not only most of Northeast Kansas, but also has clients across the country and even internationally. Rowland said many women continue to wear wigs even after their hair grows back.
Stock still wears her wig. Her hair grew back, but it was not as thick as it was before her cancer treatment. After cancer, she also became more interested in looking her best. She was a jeans and tee-shirt gal before. Now, Stock says she enjoys wearing a wig, skirt and heels.
“It changed because I wanted to show that I really did appreciate my body. I think that’s what it is, and hair is a big part of that for a woman,” Stock said.
Stock now works at the boutique helping other women going through the same process.
“Marilyn is a very caring person. She tries hard to fit people with the right (wig) prosthesis,” Stock said. “We try to make sure it looks right and doesn’t look ‘wiggy.’ Why would we put people through that if it didn’t look right?”
Sandra Schwarz struggled for years with chronic sinusitis. It was the type of debilitating problem that caused her to miss work—a lot. She suffered from headaches and dizziness, constantly facing rounds of antibiotics and a lot of pain. Schwarz had two sinus surgeries, but the infections kept coming back.
Then a doctor at Topeka Ear, Nose & Throat suggested a new treatment, which involved an out-patient procedure using a balloon and a stint to clear out the sinuses.
“It changed my life,” Schwarz said.
The pain from the procedure was minimal and she was back at work the next day. In the year since the procedure, she has stayed well.
“I’ve only been on antibiotics once in that whole year; that’s a record for the last 10 years,” Schwarz said. “My energy level is up tremendously. I come to work with a better attitude because I’m not feeling sickly all day long. I’m just all around a better, happy person.”
Dr. Michael Franklin started Topeka Ear, Nose & Throat 18 years ago with a philosophy of treatment that includes equity for the patient and the doctors in the practice. While the clinic has good relationships with local hospitals, doctors there maintain a level of independence that gives them flexibility in patient care.
“Our goal is to try to say yes to people,” Dr. Douglas Barnes said. “We want to try to help them figure out what they have, and how we can help them. Sometimes it’s in our area. Sometimes it’s not. We don’t pre-screen. We never require referrals.”
The clinic also offers many diagnostic services on site. This helps with the bottom line for the business, but also makes for a better patient experience. Having everything close and familiar to the patient helps keep things simple. It also allows for quality control. Barnes is quick to point out that while they try to do a lot on site they still work closely with other offices and local hospitals.
Barnes says the opportunity to help change lives for the better is very humbling.
“When someone is coming to you with a life threatening illness, it is a sacred space. You get to a chance to be a part of their life,” Barnes said. “People come to you and put their problems at your feet, you try to do what you can to help them.”
The procedure at Topeka Ear, Nose & Throat has given Schwarz her life back. In August, when allergy season started up, she was concerned the sickness might come back. Those on-site diagnostics gave Schwarz the ability to find out that she was okay quickly.
“It was so relieving to see the CT scan. The doctor and I were both relieved it was working,” Schwarz said.