Veterans who come to the prosthetics department at the San Diego VA Medical Center are cared for by some people who know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
“I put my legs on in the morning and I take them off at night just like my patients do, so I can relate,” said Rob Hanly, a certified prosthetist orthotist who has helped amputees for 15 years.
“I lost my legs when I was 6 years old,” Hanly said. “It was the result of a birth defect.”
Now he fits and fabricates artificial limbs for others at the VA medical facility in La Jolla.
“I’ll cast the patient’s residual limb and make a custom made socket,” Hanly explained. “From there, we will order components — feet, knees — to get the patient back to doing what they would like to do.”
Often there’s relief in the eyes of patients Hanly meets for the first time.
“I think it gives them a sense of ease that they know somebody that’s working with them has gone through it,” he said.
The chief of the prosthetics department, Tristan Wyatt, is also an amputee. The Army veteran lost most of his right leg from a rocket attack in Iraq in 2003.
“It hit me in the knee, and it hit the guy that was next to me in the hip, and it came out of his back, and it hit the guy in the gunner hatch right below the knee,” Wyatt recalled. “So it took out ... three of us in one shot.”
The three men, all friends from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, were among the war’s first amputees. They were hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and spent years together recovering.
“It was helpful that my friends were with me,” Wyatt said. “It was good that I had a support system with the other two guys."
The hardest part was going home, said Wyatt, a Colorado native who said he joined the military in response to terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“You go home, and you go back to a town and a world that looks completely different.”
Wyatt started working for the VA 10 years ago as an intern in Washington, D.C. He wanted to help other veterans.
"It was always compelling to me to want to try to make sure that the guys coming after us had an easier time," Wyatt said.
Now he’s in charge of a $25 million department budget that lets him make sure veterans get the prosthetics, medical equipment and care they need.
“I want to make it the best possible experience for these guys,” Wyatt said. “I don’t like any kind of inefficiency. I don’t like any kind of hiccup. I want everybody to come in the door and get taken care of.”
The San Diego VA serves nearly 15,000 post-9/11 veterans, and three times as many call San Diego County home.
Amputees have become emblematic of the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 1,600 service members lost an arm or a leg, mostly from the blast of improvised explosive devices. Hundreds lost multiple limbs, including San Diego Marine veteran Jorge Salazar.
“I was doing a security patrol, and I stepped on an IED and immediately became a double amputee above the knee,” Salazar said.
Two-and-a-half years later, Salazar has rebounded from his combat injuries. Now, he even competes in wheelchair basketball, including this week at the Paralympic trials at Camp Pendleton.
“If I didn’t have these sports, I don’t know what I would be doing,” Salazar said. "I know I would have to get a job, go to school, but if it weren’t for this I’d be probably a little lost.”
He said the San Diego VA prosthetics team also helped him find his way.
“When someone has been through what you’ve been through, and you understand them and they understand you, it’s a lot more comforting," Salazar said. "It’s very nice seeing another veteran working for you."
For the VA’s Wyatt and Hanly, it’s about giving hope.
"We have a connection to it because we are users of the service," Wyatt said. "It’s not to say we have more of a vested interest than other people do, but it’s closer to our hearts."
Hanly, although not a wounded veteran, empathizes with his patient's needs.
"Amputees tend to migrate toward each other, and we definitely relate," Hanly said. "My birth defect is different than his traumatic injury but again we still have to put our prosthesis on in the morning and take it off at night and go about our day and we try to do that the best we can."