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Woman creates active life after losing hands, feet

Angie Jackson
Associated Press

Grand Rapids — These days, Pam Buschle is more active than ever despite losing both hands and feet in a life-altering battle with septic shock two and a half years ago.

The 55-year-old has found the thrill in whitewater rafting in level four rapids on the Colorado River. She’s felt the freedom of waterskiing on Reed’s Lake in East Grand Rapids, where she lives. She’s practiced yoga, has tried scuba diving and rides her recumbent bike around town.

Buschle’s done all that and more with .

Her next challenge: Take her driver’s test in a vehicle adapted for her prosthesis.

“It makes me focus on everything that I can do,” Buschle said of her active life. “It helps me to remain positive and know that I can do anything that I choose to do, I may just have to do it differently.”

While reclaiming her independence in what her doctor says is an impressively short time frame, she’s also morphed into an advocate for Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and a mentor for others with disabilities.

Buschle had both hands and feet amputated during a seven-week bout with sepsis that began in December 2013 following a routine abdominal surgery.

She spent four months at Mary Free Bed learning to use prosthetic hands and feet with a steadfast determination to return to normal life.

Later, she returned to work at Brookwood and Challenger elementary schools in Kentwood, where she’s a social worker.

Since completing therapy, Buschle’s stayed involved with the rehabilitation hospital through volunteer opportunities and adaptive clinics.

She’s also connected with and mentored other patients, including an 8-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic who was born without her left arm above her elbow. Buschle heard the girl’s story from an old friend and helped arrange for her to receive a myoelectric arm at Mary Free Bed.

She says the social worker in her loves to give back.

“I want to help people who may not have had all of the opportunities for such excellent health care and rehabilitation,” Buschle said.

Dr. Stephen Bloom, a physiatrist at Mary Free Bed, said that’s just how Buschle is wired — with an eagerness to help and teach others.

He’s cared for her since she was deathly ill in the intensive care unit, and saw her progress through inpatient and outpatient care. The two are also longtime friends and neighbors whose kids grew up together.

“She’s just become a champion for the disabled,” Bloom said. “It’s just thrilling for me and our whole Mary Free Bed community to have someone who’s so motivated, so outspoken, so graceful help us try to spread the word of rehabilitation.”

Buschle has aimed to reintegrate herself back into her life in the community. There was never any doubt that she’d return to work, Bloom said.

Having faced her own frustrations with physical limitations, Buschle says she now has a greater appreciation for the struggles of students she works with, whose challenges range from difficulty reading to cerebral palsy or autism.

She’s straightforward when curious students ask about her appearance.

“She’s a constant educator, which is one of the most important things to have in the world of disability,” Bloom said.

This summer, Buschle is volunteering at a junior wheelchair sports camp and fundraising for scholarships to send local kids and adults with physical disabilities to next year’s No Barriers summit. The national conference includes clinics, outdoor adventures and leadership exercises.

“I want people out there who go through a really life-challenging or altering illness to know that there’s hope,” Buschle said.

And not only can quadrilateral amputees like Buschle survive, they can thrive.

She’s been taking driver’s training lessons at Mary Free Bed for the past year. Buschle is practicing for a test later this summer by driving a large adaptive van that allows her to steer with her right myoelectric hand. She controls the gas and brake with her left hand. She uses her elbows to use the turn signal and honk the horn.

Getting her license will be one more symbol of independence for Buschle, who has relied on her husband, Marty, and other relatives to drive her to work and other places.

“I’m excited for the first day that I’m able to drive to school and pull into a parking space and walk into Brookwood or Challenger,” Buschle said.

She pushes herself physically and mentally for the reminder that her amputations don’t slow her down.

Bloom said Buschle continues to be an example of resilience and the human will to survive.

“The most exciting things from Pam are still to come,” he said.