As Army Veteran Karl Milner walks into Jewell Clinic in Aurora, Colorado, front desk staff greet him and his service dog, Red, by their first names. Milner is checking in for a new prosthetic limb fitting. It’s not long before Red wanders over to another Veteran sitting in the nearby waiting area, attracting a doting crowd.
While this may be an ordinary visit for Milner, it’s been an extraordinary ride to get here today—not only because of the eight hours Milner traveled from his home in Wyoming, but also by the sheer willpower Milner said that’s brought him this far.
Milner said his life began to change six years ago with a packet of seeds.
“I was about 400 pounds and in a wheelchair when a VA employee passing by handed me a packet of seeds and said, ‘Grow a garden,’” Milner said. On the back of the packet was the MOVE! logo and a phone number to the VA weight management program for Veterans.
While struggling to find relief from painful diabetes-related wounds and infections on his lower right leg, Milner planted the seeds, which later grew into a garden of squash. The experience inspired Milner so much that he signed up for MOVE! and learned how to significantly improve his diet and exercise routine. During that same time, Milner went through amputation surgery outside of the VA and received a lower limb prosthetic device that caused constant discomfort and inadequate support. That’s when Milner decided to change all of his care to the VA.
What do you want to do with your life?
At a consult appointment, Jewell Prosthetist Veasna Lay asked Milner what he wanted to do with his life.
“I said I wanted to go paragliding,” Milner said. “He told me if I lose the weight, he’d get me a new leg.”
From that day forward, Milner didn’t look back. As he loses weight, Milner returns to Jewell for an expedited fitting—usually every three to four months. He typically arrives on a Monday morning for casting and leaves by Thursday or Friday with a finished prosthesis. Lay and other prosthetists on his team typically block out the majority of their schedules that week to work with Milner one-on-one.
“This way we can fabricate a complete prosthesis from start to finish in four to five days versus what would normally take about three to four separate appointments over the course of three weeks,” Jewell Prosthetics Lab Chief Michael Litavish said. “This saves time for Veterans like Karl in the long run, so he does not have to drive back and forth from Wyoming in between appointments.”
Weight down, activity up
To date, Milner has lost about 200 pounds and is more active than before amputation.
“Karl has been pushing the envelope of what he wants to be able to do with his life,” Litavish said. “He is definitely someone who has exceeded our expectations and maybe even his own.”
You won’t find Milner in a wheelchair these days. He’s usually outside jogging, hiking, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing, hang-gliding or paragliding—his life goal.
“I love to see patients work hard to meet their goals and realize their dreams,” Litavish said. “It has been a privilege to be a part of this journey with him.”
“Losing the leg actually meant gaining my life back,” Milner said. While he still needs to manage his diabetes symptoms and treatment, Milner has Red by his side, who’s already trained to alert him when his blood sugar levels are off.
For other Veterans who require a limb amputation, Milner proves that the surgery doesn’t guarantee they’ll be wheelchair-bound and that one’s attitude can make all the difference.
“I just had to learn to use my voice,” he said. “VA will give you whatever you need, but you have to ask for it.”
Terri Rorke is a U.S. Army Veteran and public affairs specialist for the Eastern Colorado Health Care System.