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Life after limb loss
May 6, 2013

Delano native gives hope to Boston bombing victims

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

DELANO, MN – “What will life be like from now on?”

For those who lost arms and legs in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, a personal visit from 1996 Delano High School graduate Rob Rieckenberg brought a surge of optimism for the future.

To begin with, they learned how Rieckenberg, whose right leg was amputated in June 2005, can still enjoy things like softball, skydiving, downhill skiing – and just life, in general.

“The biggest thing is, life goes on,” said Rieckenberg, son of Delano residents Bob and Cathy Rieckenberg. “You’re going to have a new normal, but it’s not a bad normal. You just need to get ready for it.”

The invitation to meet new amputees in Boston came from Boston Medical Center and Spaulding Rehabilitation Network about a week after the bombings.

Rieckenberg didn’t hesitate, and the next morning, he and three other amputees were on a plane.

“Being able to share with the survivors and people of Boston my story, my heart, and the inner strength and spirit that my family has given me makes me love life and all the little things in life even more,” Rieckenberg noted.

Wiggle Your Toes
As a volunteer for Wiggle Your Toes (a non-profit for victims who have experienced limb loss), Rieckenberg helps people navigate many aspects of recovery, such as home remodeling, transportation, finances, legal issues, medical equipment, therapy, and prosthetics.

The organization was founded in 2009 by Aaron Holm, who lost both his legs in 2007 while changing a flat tire on the shoulder of a highway.

“I met Aaron a week after his accident, when he was still in the hospital,” Rieckenberg said.

Holm wanted other amputees to have the same support he did, and today, Wiggle Your Toes is inspiring numerous amputees and their families.

According to a 2011 Wiggle Your Toes article in the Star Tribune, there are about 25,000 amputees in Minnesota, and about 2 million nationwide.

Bound for Boston
In Boston, Holms and Rieckenberg met with about eight amputees and their families.

“There are another eight or nine who are still in ICU, or who weren’t ready to meet with us yet, either physically or mentally,” Rieckenberg said.

Of the amputees they visited, all were extremely appreciative.

One woman, who lost her right leg when the second bomb exploded, told Rieckenberg she’s met several prominent people since the incident, “but of everybody we’ve met, you’re the only ones who’ve been able to provide us with information and hope.”

“She told us that the scariest part is the unknown, and that it helped to see people walking around and smiling,” Rieckenberg said.

Another woman, who lost both legs, and her daughter, who suffered leg trauma, were especially excited when they saw Wiggle Your Toes volunteer Leslie Pitt Schneider. They could hardly believe Pitt Schneider was an amputee, with her tall black boots and stylish jean skirt.

“It was like a flip of a switch – she was asking, ‘What kind of shoes can I wear? Can I wear heels?’” Rieckenberg recalled.

Amputee adjustments
Amputees may need to adjust to a new way of driving and walking, but Rieckenberg knows it can be done.

“I don’t even own a wheelchair,” he laughed, adding that a friend who was injured called recently asking to borrow his, assuming he had one.

Walking with a prosthetic leg wasn’t easy at first, however.

“One of the first times I was learning to walk, I was watching this guy just walk back and forth,” Rieckenberg said. When Rieckenberg asked for advice, the man responded, “trust.”

“Trust that your leg is going to do what it’s supposed to do, and just walk,” Rieckenberg recalled. “You don’t want to over think it.”

Lucky to be alive
Many people tell Rieckenberg they can’t believe how happy and positive he is, but Rieckenberg knows he has a lot to be thankful for.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said.

The night he lost his leg, Rieckenberg had been walking to a friend’s place in Minneapolis. On the way, someone stole his wallet and beat him up, leaving him lying on a nearby train track.

When the train went by, it took his right leg and severed his femoral artery.

Doctors say he easily could have died within minutes, but somehow, he survived until train conductors found him more than an hour later.

Support and attitude
Rieckenberg doesn’t remember the incident, but he does remember the support he received from family and friends when he woke up in the hospital.

Without his dad and four “moms” (three of them are actually his older sisters, Cara, Stacey, and Amy), Rieckenberg said he wouldn’t be the person he is today.

“Everyone always says, ‘there’s no way I could do what you do,’ but you don’t know until you’re put in that situation,” Rieckenberg said. “If you have the right support and the right attitude, you can do anything. We all have our down moments and hard times in life, but it’s how we react to them that defines the rest of our lives moving forward.”

To learn more about Wiggle Your Toes, go to www.wiggleyourtoes.org.

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