On his way to work one morning in 1982, teacher J Weil hit a patch of ice and wrapped his Porsche around a Tacoma telephone pole.
Weil spent four weeks in a coma and never led another class at the Clover Park School District alternative school where he had taught.
“The accident ruined my left ankle and lower leg, just crushed them,” said Weil, now 77. “I dragged that leg around for 17 years, dealing with pain and the limitations to everything I did.”
In 1999, after a handful of surgeries had failed to fix his problems, Weil’s doctor told him if it were his leg, he’d have it amputated.
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Weil had his left leg removed just below the knee.
“Some amputees are ‘poor me,’ really challenged by the experience,” Weil said. “I was around amputees who would sail or ski, find ways to do whatever it was they wanted to do.
“There are those who were sedentary before and after amputation.”
Weil was part of a support group at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where he learned to do simple things that made the transition easier.
“I realized there were a lot of people without access to Harborview, so I started a group in Federal Way — Amputee Advocates,” Weil said. “That was in 2001.”
Hundreds of amputees have passed through or become part of the program. One of those is Dan Huntley, a Spanaway resident who lost his right leg below the knee more than 30 years ago.
“I was on a motorcycle and was passing a pickup truck when it turned left,” Huntley said. “I was unconscious for three weeks.
“I spent two months in the hospital, and they didn’t tell me much about a daily routine — I learned on my own. It’s quite the change, emotionally and physically. I was 23 and could do anything, then this.”
When Weil started his support group in 2001, Huntley signed up. He’s been part of the group ever since, attending meetings on the second Thursday of every month at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way.
Today, at age 54, Huntley is the group’s facilitator, while Weil is more like a consultant.
“We have a lot of people come in pre-amputation to talk to people who have been through it,” Huntley said. “It makes sense to ask those who have experienced it what it’s like.
“A lot of people have phantom pain. I didn’t have much of it, but my right foot — the one I lost — would itch badly at times. Some people are self-conscious about their prosthesis. I wear shorts all the time.”
When Weil started Amputee Advocates, he did so with a message.
“Life isn’t over, that’s the basic theme,” he said. “It changes, but it’s not over. You can do anything you want, and we have people who prove that daily. We have people who are scuba divers, golfers, bicycle riders, mountain climbers, skiers. …
“Our group took dancing-for-amputee lessons that lasted six weeks. We took a tai chi class, we took a yoga class.”
Sometimes, the success stories are smaller, more personal.
“We had a man with cancer lose his leg last year, but he wanted to be able to walk his daughter down the aisle, and he was able to do it,” Huntley said.
Huntley, who works as a grain technician at the Temco export facility in Tacoma, threw himself at opportunities to test himself. He started by relearning how to ride a bike, how to drive. Then he took it further.
“I ski, I golf, backpack, fish. I don’t do anything with impact — no skydiving, no running,” he said.
“I had to have my left knee, that’s on my ‘good’ leg, replaced in 2005,” Huntley said. “It can’t take pounding.”
Weil has helped amputees who are coping with the aftermath of accidents, disease and war.
“I instruct a class on how to ski-bike, and military amputees really take to the challenge of it,” Weil said. “These guys are so brave. They were whooping and hollering, falling down and getting right back up. It was delightful to see them realize life is not over.
“That did my heart good.”