Life after limb: Local amputees learn to thrive with missing arms, legs

Corey Perrine/Staff
Itzel Chavez, 5, plays with her brother Isaac, 6, and Citlalli, 11, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2012 at their home in Naples, Fla. In Nov. 2010 Itzel had her right arm amputated after a malignant tumor, infantile myofibromatosis, threatened her life. Since, she's learned to write and function as a forced left handed person. She was outfitted by a prosthetic limb but rejected it, seen on the couch, because of it's technological drawbacks, lack of practical functionality. However, last fall she finally received a more practical outfitted prosthesis.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Itzel Chavez, 5, plays with her brother Isaac, 6, and Citlalli, 11, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2012 at their home in Naples, Fla. In Nov. 2010 Itzel had her right arm amputated after a malignant tumor, infantile myofibromatosis, threatened her life. Since, she's learned to write and function as a forced left handed person. She was outfitted by a prosthetic limb but rejected it, seen on the couch, because of it's technological drawbacks, lack of practical functionality. However, last fall she finally received a more practical outfitted prosthesis.

The 8-year-old girl skied down the hill, coasting into her father’s waiting arms. Tears rolled down his face.

Courtesy Photo/Pfc. Vaughn, U.S. Army 
U.S. Army Col. James Shafer, left, presents Staff Sgt. Lee Norton with a Purple Heart medal Feb. 4, 1971 at Valley Forge Medical Hospital, ward 4CD. 'It was  great place to recuperate,' Norton recalls. 'We went to this place down the road to get roast beef sandwiches and drink beer.' Norton said sometimes the guards would get frustrated with them coming and going so much they chimed back, 'What are you going to do, send us to Vietnam?!' After an honorable discharge, Norton said he would go on to become a hippie and says' the Oliver Stone film, 'Born on the 4th of July' is like a memoir of my life -- I took lemons and made lemonade.'

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Courtesy Photo/Pfc. Vaughn, U.S. Army U.S. Army Col. James Shafer, left, presents Staff Sgt. Lee Norton with a Purple Heart medal Feb. 4, 1971 at Valley Forge Medical Hospital, ward 4CD. "It was great place to recuperate," Norton recalls. "We went to this place down the road to get roast beef sandwiches and drink beer." Norton said sometimes the guards would get frustrated with them coming and going so much they chimed back, "What are you going to do, send us to Vietnam?!" After an honorable discharge, Norton said he would go on to become a hippie and says' the Oliver Stone film, "Born on the 4th of July' is like a memoir of my life -- I took lemons and made lemonade."

“He said ‘I never thought I’d see my daughter smile again,’” Lee Norton recalled.

Norton, a Vietnam veteran and amputee, learned how to ski competitively after a landmine took his left leg in the war. The North Naples resident taught children the sport for a time in Colorado. His students included the girl whose parents recently learned the cancer that took their daughter’s leg would also claim her life.

There are nearly 2 million people living with limb loss in the United States, according to the Amputee Coalition of America. More than half lost legs or arms due to vascular disease. About 45 percent lost them in some sort of trauma. Only about 2 percent lost limbs due to cancer.

Norton is one of three Naples-area residents the Daily News has been following, documenting how they live their lives after losing a limb.

“We can’t always choose what happens to us, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad,” Norton said. “But we do have the choice of how we’re going to deal with it and so attitude is everything.”

That’s a message he hopes those injured in the recent Boston Marathon bombings can benefit from.

“The questions they have now will soon be answered,” Norton says. “The pain they have now will soon subside, and their lives will get back to normal.”

Girl struggles with taunts, stares

First she uses her left hand to pluck grapes from the stem. Next, she struggles to unscrew a tub of pretzels. Then 5-year-old Itzel Chavez unwraps a piece of candy with her teeth.

“Let me open that for you,” her mother Corina Chavez says, taking the sticky treat from her youngest child.

Nearby, 7-year-old Isaac and 11-year-old Citlalli pore over homework in their Naples Manor home as their sister eats one after-school snack after the next.

Corey Perrine/Staff
Itzel Chavez, 5, center, receives her new prosthetic arm from Paul Weott, licensed prosthetist/orthotist and Chris Lemonis, licensed prosthetist, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012 at Orthotic & Prosthetic Center in Fort Myers. After rejecting her first limb, Itzel Chavez, 5, and her mother, Corinna, hope she takes to her new limb. Unlike the old one from a year ago, it's more comfortable and is only for looks. Corinna admits she wants to stop the staring that people do sometimes. According to Corinna, Itzel is popular and makes friends easily.

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Itzel Chavez, 5, center, receives her new prosthetic arm from Paul Weott, licensed prosthetist/orthotist and Chris Lemonis, licensed prosthetist, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012 at Orthotic & Prosthetic Center in Fort Myers. After rejecting her first limb, Itzel Chavez, 5, and her mother, Corinna, hope she takes to her new limb. Unlike the old one from a year ago, it's more comfortable and is only for looks. Corinna admits she wants to stop the staring that people do sometimes. According to Corinna, Itzel is popular and makes friends easily.

Distracted every few minutes by one of her children, Corina, 31, patiently tells a story she knows by heart.

“It was very hard for us, my husband and I,” she says. “They kept saying it would be best to amputate.”

First came the surgeries. Next, chemotherapy. Then the operation that left Itzel, then 3 years old, without her right arm.

For years it swelled with a cyst-like tumor that kept growing back.

The condition is called infantile myofibromatosis. It’s a mouthful of a diagnosis responsible for years of doctor’s visits, physical therapy and appointments with a child psychologist who taught a curious and outgoing Itzel how to deal with cruel comments from her peers and stares from strangers.

“If a kid says a dumb thing to me I say ‘Stop,’” Itzel explains. “And if they can’t hear me, I say ‘Stop’ louder.”

The psychologist visits were prompted by Corina, who says she used to get angry when people grimaced and pointed at what’s left of Itzel’s arm — a shoulder joint that quickly tapers to a point.

Corey Perrine/Staff
Itzel Chavez, 5, swims with her mom, Corina, not seen, Thursday, April 25, 2013 at River Park Community Center swimming pool in Naples, Fla. Corina was teaching Itzel to overcome her fears of jumping in a pool. The Chavez family came to cool off on a hot April day. Since receiving her second prosthetic arm, Itzel, has rejected it for everyday use. 'She really cries if I try to put it on her now,' Corina said. 'When she's ready, I want her to ask me not force it on her. She's had enough, been through so many things already.'

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Itzel Chavez, 5, swims with her mom, Corina, not seen, Thursday, April 25, 2013 at River Park Community Center swimming pool in Naples, Fla. Corina was teaching Itzel to overcome her fears of jumping in a pool. The Chavez family came to cool off on a hot April day. Since receiving her second prosthetic arm, Itzel, has rejected it for everyday use. "She really cries if I try to put it on her now," Corina said. "When she's ready, I want her to ask me not force it on her. She's had enough, been through so many things already."

The visits have also helped Itzel overcome the frustrations of having to cope without her limb. She has trouble buttoning clothes, playing certain sports and using tools.

Cutting flashcards for school causes a brief fit when she rips the paper by accident.

“These scissors don’t work Mom!” she shouts, tossing them across the table.

A tiny prosthesis, complete with pink fingernails, helps in public — if Corina can get Itzel to wear it. When asked if she likes it, Itzel shakes her head.

It’s heavy and doesn’t move like a real arm. It slows her down.

“I don’t want to bother her with stuff like this,” Corina says. “She’s gone through so much already.”

In time, Itzel might learn to accept the prosthesis. Then she’ll outgrow it. One day, Corina hopes Itzel can have a man-made left arm that functions as well as her right.

“I don’t know if she’ll be able to tie her shoelaces or do her hair. It’s long now. We might have to cut it short,” she says, considering her daughters pigtails and the years ahead. “But I’ll be there to help her. I don’t mind at all.”

Vet accepted fate after landmine blast

Lee Norton heard a ringing in his head and felt blood in his eyes.

The calf muscle on his left leg dangled from the bone. He wasn’t sure if he was alive.

Four months into his tour of Vietnam, the college student stepped on a landmine that sent him flying into the air.

Corey Perrine/Staff 
Lee Norton, left, catches a medicine ball from his wife, Debbie Norton, right, while being trained by his step daughter, Tracie Ziter, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 at the Norton residence in Naples, Fla.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Lee Norton, left, catches a medicine ball from his wife, Debbie Norton, right, while being trained by his step daughter, Tracie Ziter, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 at the Norton residence in Naples, Fla.

“This calm feeling came over me and I realized: No, I was alive, and everything would be OK,” he said.

Doctors amputated his leg above the knee. Norton, an Ohio native, spent seven months recuperating at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge General Hospital in a special ward for war amputees.

“There was such a sense of camaraderie,” he says of the 100 men who accompanied him. “And we learned to accept what happened to us and realize we were the same person we were before.”

Now at 62, in the company of his wife Debbie and their dachshund Beau in their North Naples home, Norton says his life has been blessed.

He overcame a 10-year drug addiction he blames not on his accident, but on “the college atmosphere of drugs and sex and rock and roll.” He found religion in the Baptist church. He learned to snow ski and won competitions, later teaching young cancer patients the sport.

Corey Perrine/Staff
Lee Norton, from left, his wife, Debbie and step daughter Tracie Ziter, train Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 at the Norton residence in Naples, Fla. Lee has been an amputee since age 19 from injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. Now, the U.S. Army veteran has been living life after, like any other, but with the use of a prosthetic limb. A retired cabinet maker, he remarried 20 years ago to his bride Debbie.

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Corey Perrine/Staff Lee Norton, from left, his wife, Debbie and step daughter Tracie Ziter, train Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 at the Norton residence in Naples, Fla. Lee has been an amputee since age 19 from injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. Now, the U.S. Army veteran has been living life after, like any other, but with the use of a prosthetic limb. A retired cabinet maker, he remarried 20 years ago to his bride Debbie.

He answered a call to the ministry, preaching in Ohio and heading a marriage counseling group here in Naples.

And he fathered two sons despite doctors’ predictions that he could never have children. He adopted a third child.

Now he bikes daily and said he is in better shape than some of the “10-toed freaks” he calls friends.

“There was never a point in my life as to ‘Why me God?’ I’m serious about that,” he says. “There was an acceptance right from the get-go.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges.

His leg is painful. Boils and blisters break out where flesh meets fabricated limb. He’ll need a knee replacement on his good leg soon. Years of hopping around the house when he didn’t feel like wearing the prosthetic has taken a toll.

Norton has also had to deal with the stigma of war.

Once, while seated at a bar in Kent, Ohio, after the National Guard killed four students at Kent State University following war protests, Norton was confronted by a student asking about his leg.

“I told her I’d lost my leg in Vietnam and she said ‘Well good. You deserve everything that happened to you,’” Norton recalls.

That didn’t get him down. Not much can, his wife says.

“That’s Lee.”

Ballplayer humbled as he continues to compete

Dan Robbins bounces as he talks. He shifts his weight from side to side before leaning for support against a chain link fence at North Collier Regional Park.

In college, a 6-foot-4-inch tall Robbins stood steady on the pitcher’s mound during baseball games for the Lambuth University Eagles in Jackson, Tenn. Now the 27-year-old plays softball for his congregation’s team, Parkway Life Church of God, and the curve of the prosthetic legs he uses to play sports forces him to keep moving or fall.

Corey Perrine/Staff
Dan Robbins is congratulated by New Hope Ministries' Dallas Shoeneman after they defeated Parkway Life Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 at North Collier Regional Park in Naples, Fla. Robbins influence is infectious as a visual testament to not letting physical obstacles slow him down. After receiving his $20,000 'cheetah legs' through generous donations, Robbins wrote on his social network page, 'If you see these, I suggest you get out of my way! I'm not slowing down!'

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Dan Robbins is congratulated by New Hope Ministries' Dallas Shoeneman after they defeated Parkway Life Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 at North Collier Regional Park in Naples, Fla. Robbins influence is infectious as a visual testament to not letting physical obstacles slow him down. After receiving his $20,000 "cheetah legs" through generous donations, Robbins wrote on his social network page, "If you see these, I suggest you get out of my way! I'm not slowing down!"

“You’re going from being a fast runner to being the slowest guy on the team,” Robbins says. “It’s humbling.”

Two years ago, Robbins was “being stupid” when he lost control and crashed his motorcycle into a concrete wall at 100 mph in Bonita Springs. His parents Ken and Jeanne Robbins made the difficult decision to amputate while their son was unconscious. His legs were crushed.

Doctors could fuse the bones in his ankles and watch him limp through life, or cut them off and maybe see him play ball again.

Robbins woke from a coma the next week to find doctors had severed his legs, one above the knee and one below.

“It felt like I had lost everything,” he says, smiling despite the gravity of those words.

From the park’s bleachers, Ken and Jeanne insist their choice was the right one and their son agrees. He is a better man, they say, a more fervent believer in Christ. He’s dabbled in motivational speaking and greeted recent amputees at their bedsides, proof they too can achieve normalcy.

Corey Perrine/Staff 
Dan Robbins drinks water during a Zamboni break on the ice Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 at Skatium in Fort Myers, Fla. The Southwest Florida sled hockey team, The Ice Bandits, is preparing to take on Canada in the coming days in Orlando. The team travels around the state and country competing against all classes and genders. Dan has been to Philadelphia this year and has picked up the sport shortly after completing physical therapy. In less than one year he qualified for the team in Feb. 2012 through USA Hockey. The team would go on to win their division for the season in early 2013. 'Undefeated is not about winning every game, it's about continuing to fight after a loss.' Robbins said. 'In all sports, games reveal character and good coaching builds character. I'm proud to say my hockey coach is tough but he builds good character in his players.'

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Dan Robbins drinks water during a Zamboni break on the ice Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 at Skatium in Fort Myers, Fla. The Southwest Florida sled hockey team, The Ice Bandits, is preparing to take on Canada in the coming days in Orlando. The team travels around the state and country competing against all classes and genders. Dan has been to Philadelphia this year and has picked up the sport shortly after completing physical therapy. In less than one year he qualified for the team in Feb. 2012 through USA Hockey. The team would go on to win their division for the season in early 2013. "Undefeated is not about winning every game, it's about continuing to fight after a loss." Robbins said. "In all sports, games reveal character and good coaching builds character. I'm proud to say my hockey coach is tough but he builds good character in his players."

“Just seeing him walk on his legs gives them courage,” Jeanne says.

In public, kids and strangers ask questions. Is he military? No. Is he the same height he was before? Yep. Is he a cyborg?

“I explain to the kids, I’m half-human, half-robot, but my human half controls the robot half,” Robbins says, beaming.

His parents are proud, even though Robbins has struggled to find work due in part to his physical condition and the economy. It’s his attitude, his renewed faith and that perpetual grin which assure them he’ll make it.

“He’s always been that way,” Jeanne says through tears. “He was always a happy-go-lucky child.”

Robbins credits his mindset with what an old church friend once told him: Real joy is not in a circumstance. Real joy comes from knowing God has a purpose.

“I thought, wait a minute, I still have a lot to be thankful for. I have my face, my head, my brain’s working right,” Robbins says. “The feeling (of losing everything) just kind of went away. I felt like I was going to be OK.”

Ken and Jeanne turn their heads at the crack of a bat. They watch as the second basemen lobs the ball to first. Robbins is out before he’s made it halfway to the base, but his legs don’t brake so easily. He slows his pace gradually, bouncing the length of the baseline, buoyant on two carbon-fiber limbs.

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Related story: Boston bombings raise awareness of amputee groups

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