FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- (This is part two of a series following an Airman through her cancer treatment and amputation.)
Maj. Stephanie Proellochs (PRE’-locks), a recent amputee, gazes up at the rock climbing wall at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s physical therapy center in Bethesda, Maryland. She recalled the time she witnessed a Service member who had lost his arm effortlessly climb his way to the top.
“Yeah, I’m climbing that wall soon! Just watch,” said Proellochs, a U.S. Air Force Medical Service Corps Officer.
On the surface, this physical therapy center looks like a normal gym with its energetic music, exercise equipment, and rock-climbing wall, all surrounded by a running track. Look closer, and you see Service members recovering from amputations, overcoming challenges, and making remarkable progress as they return to duty.
Proellochs is one of those patients taking her first steps with her prosthesis on the road to recovery.
Proellochs spent months receiving treatment for a cancer diagnosis that culminated in the amputation of her left foot in September 2017. Now learning to walk with her prosthesis, Proellochs shows a resilience that has been with her throughout all the phases of her diagnosis, treatment, and beginning of her recovery journey. Equipped with a daring sense of humor and support from her family, she demonstrates internal strength and resilience that are so critical to recovery.
That attitude was on full display right before she took her first steps. Proellochs and her husband, John, decided to spend Halloween at Walter Reed with other patients, physicians, and physical therapists.
“Halloween here is on another level,” said Proellochs. “Former patients even come back because everyone gets really excited about it and takes the costume contest seriously!”
Proellochs was no exception. She won the costume contest with her amputation creatively dressed up as the iconic alien from the film “E.T.” and her wheelchair fashioned to look like the familiar bicycle with a basket over the handlebars.
“Stephanie manages to make me laugh at every appointment,” said Kyla Dunlavey, a physical therapist working with amputee patients at Walter Reed. “Her ‘E.T.’ costume is just one example of her humor! It was the best I had seen in my 14 years here.”
Proellochs embraced all these challenges with a smile. Her attitude and appreciation for the support she has received helped her build meaningful relationships with her physical therapists and other patients. These connections have helped her cope and prepare for what to expect when taking these crucial first steps in a prosthesis.
“I was told that it’s the little things that you don’t think of that you take for granted,” said Proellochs. “For example, you can’t feel the ground so you need to rethink about foot placement. Some other amputees have said that no matter how well you think you’ve got it down, you will never pick your foot up high enough.”
Despite a minor setback that delayed her from receiving her prosthesis sooner, Proellochs was ready to take her first steps on Nov. 10, 2017.
“The moment I stood up I felt total elation! I can’t begin to describe it but it was a very emotional moment,” said Proellochs. “My husband and I were both brought to tears and we could not even look at each other when I first stood up.”
That total elation is plain to anyone who sees Proellochs walking on her new prosthesis. It is easy to see how eager she is to move to the next steps in her recovery.
“I know this might sound corny but this is my first step in my new life. There are all these things I want to start doing now,” exclaimed Proellochs. “I know that it will take time for me to get comfortable with my new leg before I start running, but I am excited.
Proellochs’ determination has pushed her to be diligent in every exercise that will help her walk on her own. Despite still relying on a single crutch, she has been able to outpace her therapist while walking around the track in the physical therapy area.
“I am excited, but this new leg definitely takes some getting used to,” said Proellochs. “If it rubs or gets unbearably uncomfortable, then I work with the physical therapist to make sure that my gait is correct and physically doing what I am supposed to be doing.”
Proellochs takes advantage of every moment with her prosthesis. As soon as her physical therapist helps her stand, she is ready to tackle that day’s exercises. She eagerly races around the track to the parallel bars for her next exercise. She fearlessly transitions from her one crutch to walking on her own, minimally relying on the bars for support. Her smile and confidence make it look like she has done this a million times before. It can be easy to forget that she has only recently received her prosthesis.
Her healthcare team is a significant factor for her safely walking in her prosthesis and back to her active lifestyle. The team-based approach between her oncologist, surgeons, therapists, and her prosthetists has been vital to her recovery. They work together to ensure she is receiving the best care, a classic example of Air Force Medical Service (AFMS) Trusted Care principles.
“My entire healthcare team is aware of and invested in every step of this journey,” said Proellochs. “My therapist takes note of any discomfort I have during each session and the prosthetist actually takes my leg to make adjustments.
“I often see the surgeon who did my amputation come here to check in on his patients and speak with the therapists here. They really work together as a team and make me feel supported and engaged in my care.”
Proellochs jokingly admits she sometimes struggles saying the word “prosthetists,” but she has never had trouble facing new challenges. Talking with her healthcare team and other amputees recovering at Walter Reed, she is able to put her journey in perspective while finding solace through every step of her journey.
“People might not understand this, but it was liberating seeing the world from a wheelchair,” said Proellochs. “I have gained a new perspective and appreciation to just be able to stand and walk again!”
The next part of her recovery touches on how her role as a Medical Service Corps officer and how her amazing support system has prepared her for the unknown and ever-changing journey with cancer.
Continue following her journey next week on the AFMS website.