Alberta amputee program follows on U.S. rehab success

An Edmonton soldier who lost both legs in a suicide attack in Afghanistan has helped develop a program called Freedom Through Sport at the University of Alberta.

An Alberta soldier who lost both legs in a suicide attack in Afghanistan says that while he thinks he's doing well when it comes to walking, he knows he could be a lot further along if he had started earlier in his recovery.

"I can walk to a certain amount — I use two canes, and I think I do pretty good," Master Cpl. Paul Franklin said Thursday. "And then I see guys in the [United] States, and they're walking with no canes and no aids, and I think — 'Hey, that's not fair.'"

Franklin, an energetic advocate for amputees, isn't feeling sorry for himself. He has channelled what he has learned to develop a program called Freedom Through Sport at the University of Alberta's Steadward Centre in Edmonton. The centre provides physical activity and sports programs for people with all types of disabilities.

The new program was inspired by Franklin's visit to the U.S. Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, which has treated 600 amputees from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. Patients meet with a physiotherapist from the first day they're admitted.

"The guy's thinking war, he's thinking injury, he's thinking all the rehab, and meanwhile the [physiotherapist's] saying, 'All right, you've gotta work out now,'" he said. "It gets the mindset going, because they're involving sport and rehab right from Day 1."

In Canada, he said, amputees often wait until they're fully healed from their injuries to begin any kind of rehabilitation. And lifelong fitness is not always the focus.

"What I want to do is say, 'Hey, start that earlier, and then the curve isn't so much to get over,'" he said. "Once you get used to what you're doing, it's hard to expand beyond that."

A Thursday workshop lets patients and physiotherapists from Edmonton's Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital discuss ways they can work with the Steadward, said the centre's executive director, Donna Goodwin. Ideally, every amputee who comes through the Glenrose would work with the Steadward early in their recovery.

Improvements slow and steady

Laurie Beresnak, 39, came to the Steadward after losing her legs to an illness two years ago. She said she was referred from the Glenrose by her physiotherapist.

"She knew that I was frustrated that physiotherapy was ending, and I couldn't walk without my walker," she said.

Beresnak said she had to work for a long time to improve her muscle tone and balance to the point where she can now walk unassisted. She also does downhill and cross-country skiing, and until recently rode a special three-wheeled bike.

"This year, I was able to ride my two-wheel mountain bike,
because I improved," she said. "So that's great."

Franklin said the partnership will also allow amputees to share information about what does and does not work, as well as provide the usual camaraderie of sport. He plans to lead a running clinic in the spring and adventure training in the summer.