Bilateral amputee finds acceptance a magic path to recovery

May 09, 2017
A man with two prosthetics for arms speaks in a classroom
Trauma survivor Stephen Shope shares his story with MUSC employees and his tips for making the Trauma Survivors Network at MUSC a lifeline for patients. Photos by Sarah Pack

In his usual candid style, Stephen Shope admits he likes taking risks.

It’s why June 21, 2009, Shope was speeding along on his motorcycle and got a wake-up call. “I was going 130 miles per hour on my crotch rocket,” he says, describing how a state trooper passed him on the other side on the interstate. He turned his head to see if the officer was going to hit his lights, but when he looked back into his lane, he knew it wasn’t going to be good.  

“There was an SUV in the other lane, but when I turned my head around for a split second, that SUV had decided to get in my lane. I couldn’t avoid him. I hit the side of him, and I hit the guard rail and ended up getting thrown off my bike.”

Shope, a bilateral upper extremity amputee, is sharing his story with a group at the Medical University of South Carolina that is interested in ramping up the hospital’s peer mentor program called Trauma Survivors Network. Called TSN, it is a national program provided by the American Trauma Society to create a community support network for trauma survivors and their families.

Shope is a believer. 

A man in a hospital bed with a newborn baby in his arms
Shope with his newborn son, Luke. Photo provided 

He remembers a quadriplegic who first came to visit him after his accident. He was 20 and much too young to understand the value of a man coming three hours just to have a 20-minute talk with him, he says. “That’s pretty cool.” Shope, now 27 and with a new baby at home, understands the value of that visit and works to build trauma networks at hospitals.

Shope says being a mentor is really not a choice for him. He feels grateful to be alive and compelled to pay it forward. He realizes how blessed he is.

“The first person to get me on the side of the road was a Marine from Iraq. The second person was a respiratory therapist, and the third was a resident physician. And if the story is not even more unbelievable, the helicopter was only a mile from me at the time of my wreck. So I was in the OR in downtown Charlotte within 15 minutes.”

Shope had severed both arteries in each of my arms, and doctors had to put him in a medically-induced coma for two weeks. “My left arm was basically traumatically amputated during the wreck, while my right arm had to be taken in the hospital due to severe road rash and the development of a life threatening bacterial infection. The doctors told my parents, ‘his right arm or his life.’ Once you get an infection in the skeletal structure they have to cut higher than the infection, so I woke up missing both arms.”

He holds up his arms. “Pretty sweet.”

One method of coping for Shope is his sense of humor. He’ll offer people a high five or joke about how’s he’s been hooked up. He does it to put others at their ease and to show them he’s doing just fine. Pulling out his iPhone with his prosthetic hooks, Shope shows off photos of his newborn son, Luke. “It’s freaking intense,” he says, beaming and complaining of sleep deprivation.

The accident occurred when he was in college, but he went on to get his degree in Organization Communications from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He married in 2015 and still enjoys riding his motorcycle and sports, including skateboarding. He’s a peer mentor for the AMPOWER program founded by Hanger Clinic and works full time as a patient care coordinator.

It’s one thing for a peer mentor to tell other trauma patients it will get better. It’s a completely different experience to show them how there can be life after trauma, he says

Bruce Crookes, chief of MUSC Health’s Division of General Surgery, thanked Shope after the presentation, adding he and other peer mentors help patients heal in a way that the surgeons can’t. The hard work of recovery starts after the surgeons are done and Crookes shared how valuable the work is that Shope is doing, not only for patients, but in educating doctors and nurses about the teamwork required for patients to truly recover well from a trauma. 

Regina Creech, Injury Prevention and TSN coordinator at MUSC, says Shope was one of the first volunteers trained as a TSN Peer Mentor. “We brought him to campus to share his wisdom about the peer mentor program and to help energize our staff about growing the peer program at MUSC.”

Creech says Shope, who will be returning to MUSC May 10 for the campus’ observance of Trauma Survivors Day, reaffirmed that the peer mentor program is an extremely vital part of TSN. “He confirmed that when he shared his personal experience about being visited while he was in the hospital and how impactful that visit was to his recovery. His peer visit is what compelled him to become a volunteer and to help other newly injured patients.”  

Shope says he enjoys helping TSN spread. 

“I’m almost eight years post amputation, and I get to see patients who are two weeks out of trauma. I see where they’re at in their recovery process, and they see where I’m at in the process. All of the trauma folks being together helps. Trauma is trauma. We’re all on the same playing field because we’re all trauma survivors,” he says. “If they don’t see validity in wearing their new prosthetic arm or leg, they’re not going to wear it.” 

The program is about inspiring others. Hospitalized for two months, Shope was willing to mentor others once he got his new arms, he says. He’s learned valuable lessons along the way. He teaches new trauma patients about managing expectations. Goals have to be set, and they have to be small, obtainable and celebrated when they’re accomplished, he says.

“You can’t quit. You have to keep trying. It’s do one small goal and then do another,” he says of the coaching style he uses. “Let’s work on what you can do. Let’s stand up for a minute. Ninety-nine percent of the work is on the patient. They have to do it because they want to do it.” 

Shope was motivated because he saw a path back. When he saw a video of an amputee riding a motorcycle, for example, he thought if that man could do it, so could he. As he’s gotten older, he has learned how to calculate his risks a little bit, he says, smiling. He also has learned not to speed anymore. 

“I’m back almost where I was pre-injury. I’m still riding motorcycles, still working full time and providing for my family.” Shope says he knows other trauma survivors may have more emotional grief to work through than he did because they were hit by a drunk driver or shot or involved in some other trauma out of their control. 

As for him, he doesn’t have anyone else to blame, and it wouldn’t help even if he did. 

“I did this to myself. I have to accept that. What am I going to do? Be mad at myself for the rest of my life? No,” he says, answering the question for himself. “It’s something you just have to accept and move on.”

If you would like to volunteer for the program or be a peer mentor, contact Creech at 1-843-792-1068. Visit this site to learn more about MUSC Health’s TSN program.

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