Mark McGregor noticed a blister on the bottom of his foot after working out in a gym last January.

Two weeks later, the blister was gone. But so was his foot.

McGregor, 69, had to undergo an amputation of his foot and a portion of his leg.

“I’m a diabetic,” the Grand Rapids, Michigan resident said. “I knew quite a bit about being a diabetic and not being able to feel so to always be on the lookout for sores. I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention. Bacteria loves sugared blood. That’s why it moves so fast.”

McGregor had been faithfully applying antibiotic cream to the blister, but it didn’t help much.

His sister took him to the emergency room and he was admitted to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

McGregor underwent a preliminary surgery so Marisha Stawiski, DPM, a foot and ankle surgery specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group, could determine if the infection had reached the bone. It had.

Kevin Anderson, MD, Spectrum Health Medical Group orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon, removed McGregor’s foot and leg at mid-calf.

McGregor’s mind raced. Everything had happened so fast. Would he ever drive again? How would he care for himself? Could he learn to walk with assistance?

Just as his wound happened quickly, so did his recovery.

Jump start to recovery

Spectrum Health Inpatient Rehabilitation Center physical therapist Joseph Ross met with McGregor two days after surgery and recommended an early post-op prosthetic, which means patients are fitted and use a prosthetic within two to three weeks of amputation surgery, about a month earlier than traditional practices.

“Mark was a good candidate because he was cognitively able to follow the detailed instructions and was very motivated,” Ross said. “We always get the blessing from the surgeon, too.”

Laurel Packard, clinical lead for occupational therapy, said Spectrum Health is a leader in this area.

“Early prosthetic use is supported by the literature, but is not a common practice and is an innovation of sorts,” Packard said.

Nobody wants to feel that they can’t do what they used to do.

Mark McGregor

The early prosthetic set McGregor on the fast track to recovery, not just physically, but also emotionally.

The device is stiff and doesn’t move at the knee, but it jump-started his progress.

“It gives you the opportunity to actually stand up,” McGregor said. “And with a walker, start walking, very soon.”

The first day, McGregor took 10 steps. The next, 25 steps.

“You take 60 steps by the end of the week and you’re in seventh heaven,” he said. “You really feel like you are making progress quickly, which in fact, you are. It was very, very helpful. You don’t have time, except for in the middle of the night, to feel sorry for yourself because they have you working.”

McGregor had so much admiration for the device that he named it—Willy Walka. He said he never could have come this far without the device and the encouragement of his family and therapy team.

“The prosthesis really made me feel like I was going to be able to walk again,” he said. “They can tell you all they want, but you’re in bed. You can’t walk. They’re teaching you how to slide up from bed to a wheelchair and how to hop with your walker because you don’t have a leg.”

Walking again is a ‘big deal’

McGregor said he feels fortunate to have had the early prosthetic.

“It’s a transition that really helped,” he said. “The fact that I was fortunate enough to get one was fantastic for me. To see yourself starting to walk is a big deal.”

Ross said because the program has had great success with about 15 early post-op prosthesis patients, staff now considers it the method of choice, if possible.

The early prosthetic program is a partnership between the Spectrum Health Inpatient Rehabilitation Center and Hanger Prosthetics.

“We discuss each appropriate patient and I am usually present for the initial consult and fitting,” Ross said. “They have done a wonderful job for us. They found a way.”

Ross said Mark, like many patients, was in shock about the amputation, afraid and unsure of what the ramifications would be.

“An amputation is a very serious life event, affecting the core of who a person is,” Ross said. “You can only imagine the joy a person has when they enter our unit a week or less after their amputation and leave a couple of weeks later walking independently.”

That’s how it happened for Mark. Willy Walka is still in his closet as a memento, but he’s walking independently with a new prosthetic that bends at the knee and offers greater walking capabilities.

“I can walk all over the grocery store and I can walk up and down streets,” McGregor said. “I still can’t run, but I’m working on it. I can walk without a crutch.”

Through classes and road tests, he learned to drive with his left foot.

“Nobody wants to feel that they can’t do what they used to do,” McGregor said.