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The long road to recovery for amputees - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

The long road to recovery for amputees

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Every step for Bruce Lapine is easier than the last. He's learning to walk again on his new prosthesis.

"It's independence," he said.

Lapine's left leg was amputated six years ago due to health complications from smoking. He's waited a year for this moment.

"This is a lifetime relationship," said Deborah Wilde of Bio-Medic Appliances. "The way the prosthesis fits over will change over time."

He rolled into Bio-Medic in a wheelchair, and will walk out of this facility that makes custom prosthetic devices.

"It's a little discouraging at first. You can't just put this on and walk, you have to build up the strength in your stump," Lapine said.

Getting a prosthetic limb is now a reality for some people injured in the Boston Marathon bombings.

"We rarely see these explosions with fragments. It's a common injury in the military environment," said Dr. John Fortune, the trauma medical director at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

Fortune has gone to Germany to treat bomb injuries from wounded warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says severe tissue loss can lead to amputation, but doctors do everything possible to avoid amputation, including always getting a second opinion. Fletcher Allen does less than five emergency traumatic amputations a year.

"It's not a simple amputation through clean tissue, this is a devastating injury with lots of injuries near the amputation site," Fortune said.

Amputation surgery has not changed much over the years, but the use of tourniquets has. Once discouraged because slowing the blood flow was thought to worsen injuries, tourniquets are now favored to treat life-threatening wounds after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Doctors say it buys time and does not do further damage.

Reporter Gina Bullard: Is it a difficult recovery process?

Eric Darling/Fletcher Allen physical therapist: It is, it's quite long. People will go through several weeks of preprosthetic training before they even consider getting a new prosthetic leg.

Balance, strength and conditioning are vital for people to get back to a productive lifestyle. Prosthetic technology has advanced significantly over the past decade, from a simple joint to computerized bionic knees and ankles.

"The technology has reached a level where we can restore function to a very high level," Wilde said.

And for people like Lapine, he says leaving this appointment on his own two feet is the best news he could ask for.

Doctors say that recovery can be quicker for people who have traumatic amputations rather than amputations due to vascular or diabetic complications, because patients usually have fewer medical issues.

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