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How War Amps of Canada Is Changing the Lives of Amputees

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By Kim Hughes | www.samaritanmag.com

Among other horrors, the recent Boston Marathon terrorist bombings put amputation in the spotlight, with American war veterans quickly dispatched to counsel the 15 people who lost limbs in the awful explosions of April 15, 2013. Those veterans -- themselves amputees -- represented a passage to recovery and restored normalcy for the victims, something the War Amps of Canada knows all about.

Now 95-years-old and with some 1.5 million lost keys returned to their rightful owners as part of the registered charitable organization's famed Key Tag fundraising method, War Amps has likewise deployed veterans to help countless thousands who've lost limbs to disease, accident and congenital defects, guiding them towards better lives.

Info stated on the War Amps website neatly summarizes its work: "A philosophy of 'amputees helping amputees' has been the hallmark of the War Amps since 1918, when the organization was founded by amputee war veterans returning home from the First World War.

"Counselling, self-help and practical assistance -- along with the desire to preserve Canada's military heritage -- are common threads that have been retained in the modern-day organization that developed from their efforts. Today the Association continues to serve war amputees, and all Canadian amputees, including children."

And indeed it does, notably through its child amputee -- or CHAMP -- programs and associated Playsafe and Drivesafe programs created to help identify and avoid preventable accidents through awareness. Given that birth defects represent the majority of absent or partially formed limbs, according to War Amps, their counseling and assistance work with kids is especially significant. And that's only part of the outreach.

"We provide a huge amount of financial assistance to amputees," offers Rob Larman, director of Playsafe/Drivesafe who first came to War Amps in 1978 as a 14-year-old client who'd lost a leg jumping a train.

While Larman says the War Amps "don't track percentages because the reasons people come to us vary so much," he confirms that "the leading cause of amputation is congenital birth defect or various syndromes that can happen [in fetal development]. Then you run into medical issues -- diseases like meningitis or cancer. Next up is accidents."

The cost for a prosthesis is in the thousands. Larman continues: "It's hard to discuss financials because I can't give you an estimated cost of an artificial limb. It varies. It could be a very standard appliance of $8,000 to $10,000. But when you start adding various components -- maybe an ankle rotator -- the costs soar. The Ontario Assistive Devices Program covers 75 per cent of a standard artificial limb, so a base model without any bells and whistles.

"The War Amps steps in and covers the 25 per cent not covered by the government in addition to hidden costs associated with being fitted with an artificial limb. Not everyone lives next door to a prosthetic facility; sometimes there is travel involved, hotel and meals are needed and we cover that as well."

It is no overstatement to say that Larman's entire life would have been different had it not been for War Amps, which receives no government grants, thus relying on the above-mentioned Key Tags and Address Label Service and private donations for its survival. (The site claims it never exceeds 10 percent on administrative costs and doesn't employ professional fundraisers.)

When Larman claims the War Amps have helped enhance the lives of "literally tens of thousands of amputees," since its formation in 1918, he's speaking both professionally and personally.

War Amps' Rob Larman, director of Playsafe/Drivesafe, lost his leg at age 14 jumping a train. Here he is at the 2012 Atlantic CHAMP Seminar in Halifax with Drayden Sweeney, talking about the old mahogany leg and how the technology of artificial limbs has advanced over the years."I remember my parents struggling with how they were going to afford an artificial limb but the War Amps took me under their wing and alleviated so much burden from my family," Larman tells Samaritanmag. "But more importantly, it eliminated the negativity, my embarrassment about being an amputee.

"I remember a veteran coming into the hospital to see me and saying, 'You know, you're going to be okay.' I looked him up and down and said, 'How dare you tell me I am going to be okay.' He rolled up his pant leg and showed me his artificial leg. I felt terrible, but I realized, 'Wow, I didn't even know he was an amputee when he walked in. If he can walk like that, so can I.'

"When I lost my leg the CHAMP program was just becoming established. Its first seminar [seminars are annual family and amputee networking opportunities and support get-togethers] was 1981 in Burlington, Ontario, and at that time, we had 50 children from across Canada. Now, we hold six regional seminars across the country with at least 100 children at each seminar.

"That doesn't show the exact numbers of people we assist financially and beyond, but we are bringing 100 children from a specific region together to discuss living with artificial limbs and helping families and teens deal with these issues throughout the course of a weekend."

The War Amps also operates an innovative program called Matching Mothers: "We can take a family with years of experience dealing with amputation," Larman explains, "and match them with another family facing the same sort of difficulties." The families trade notes and support.

But while children amputees are a huge part of the War Amps efforts, civilian adults and modern veterans also benefit from the org's advocacy efforts. For instance, War Amps offers information on tax credits available to amputees, psychological and sociological support and legal advice for those involved in litigation.

And the connection to war veterans remains very much in view. In addition to his role as Playsafe director and org spokesperson, Larman is also vice-president of the War Amps Operation Legacy, which is dedicated to passing military heritage on to Canada's youth.

"Let's face it: disability used to be in the closet and swept under the rug," he says. "But that was part of our message: just because you are disabled doesn't mean you are unabled. People with artificial limbs can lead very healthy, successful lives."

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

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