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Published in CenterView on November 04, 2013
Whittington with Shannon Dodd, physical therapist
Whittington with Shannon Dodd, physical therapist

UMMC caregivers help patients recover self-worth after drastic bodily injuries

By Gary Pettus

It wasn’t just his leg; it was also his strength, his freedom, his fitness as a husband and as a man.

It was one part that helped make him – Christopher Whittington – whole.

And when he lost it during what he calls “the most humiliating time in my life,” he almost lost himself.

At the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Chaplain Jeffery Murphy has seen patients like Whittington struggle with these bouts of shame and despair – not just amputees, but anyone whose body was changed in a personal way by injury or disease.

“What’s lost or changed is not just a small part of someone’s life,” Murphy said. “It’s what gives them life.”

Murphy spelled out this dilemma during a recent presentation, “Spirituality and Body Image Following a Medical Crisis.” His target audience: UMMC caregivers who can help patients work through this issue.

“Almost all of our patients have some scarring or change in body function,” Murphy said. “It’s not just fixing the wound; it’s treating what that scar is going to mean.

“I believe we aren’t always sensitive to how this affects them.”

It doesn’t help that popular culture pressures people to build the perfect body, Murphy said. From his perspective as a chaplain, he sees this compulsion reinforced by religious imagery: the Madonna, Michelangelo’s David and other works whose creators were influenced by the ancient Greeks.

Whittington with Jeffery Murphy, hospital chaplain
Whittington with Jeffery Murphy, hospital chaplain

“There are sculptures of Jesus: His feet are smooth. But he walked around barefoot or in sandals. His hands are not calloused, but he was a carpenter.

“When we leave the physical struggle out of these religious stories, we leave out their power. If we make all of these religious figures beautiful, we make them almost unreachable.”

Most people fall short of these images when they’re well, but during injury or illness, the gap between the ideal body and the real one is widened by burns, loss of strength and scarring.

“I’ve had patients who were more worried about the scar than the cancer,” said Dr. Ricky Clay, professor of surgery and a plastic surgeon.

“Everybody has a certain image of themselves. But we don’t look like we think we do. Even the image of ourselves in the mirror is

“An acute injury makes you take a hard look at what you really look like.”

Often, what we look at hardest is our face.

Facial scarring or trauma can result in “a significantly decreased satisfaction with life,” as reported in a 2005 study published in the Annals of Plastic Surgery, “Quality of Life and Facial Trauma: Psychological and Body Image Effects.” It can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, jail time, unemployment, binge drinking and marital problems.

What matters to a patient varies, Murphy said.

“I remember a woman who was really concerned about a scar on her foot,” Murphy said. “Then I found out that she was a ballroom dancer and wore a lot of heels that would make the scar visible. It made sense to me then that this would be very important to her.

“It may be a scar no one else will see. What may not be a big deal for you could be a very big deal for your patient. Whatever it is, it changes who they are.”

It certainly changed Whittington, whose left leg was amputated at UMMC little more than a year ago.

Whittington with Shannon Dodd, physical therapist
Whittington with Shannon Dodd, physical therapist

“It was a real dark time,” the Vicksburg resident said. “I was angry at myself. I was angry at God. I was angry at everybody around me.”

He had arrived at the hospital with his foot held together by bandages, duct tape and a sock.

“This happened because I was an idiot,” he said. “I was not taking care of my diabetes.”

A sore had developed on his left foot, but instead of going to the doctor at first, Whittington soaked it. The infection worsened, and one night as he dried off his foot, a bone fell out.

“I knew I was probably going to die,” he said.

At UMMC, surgeons removed the leg – eventually up to mid-thigh – to save his life. But in Whittington’s mind, they had also removed his ability to figuratively stand on his own two feet.

“I was argumentative with my nurses, with Chaplain Murphy,” he said. ”I lashed out, yelling and screaming at my mother and at my wife, Cristy,”

Whittington was trying to cope with loss, but as a plastic surgeon, Clay has seen people who also struggle to deal with gain.

“Patients face body image issues even when the results of surgery are good,” Clay said, “because when they look in the mirror, they’re thinking, ‘It’s not me.’”

As for Whittington, he is not concerned so much about what he looks like now, he said. It is what the missing leg represents that has haunted him.

“Men have that philosophy: ‘We’re invincible,’” he said.

Instead, he weakened: He lost approximately 60 pounds. He worried about his business and his family.

As a physical therapist at UMMC, Shannon Dodd sees those same fears in the eyes of patients who have suffered strokes, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, as well as amputations.

“Their role in the family has changed,” she said. “They are no longer the caretaker; people have to take care of them. Body image issues affect men and women differently.

“Women tend to care more about appearance – like not being able to wear high heel shoes with their dresses to church because they have to wear a foot brace, or having an altered gait pattern that causes people to stare at them. Men tend to believe that people don’t look at them the same. It has to do with their masculinity, their ability to provide for their family and make money.”

Smothered by the weight of these doubts through 11 surgeries and a 51-day hospital stay, Whittington needed time, psychological counseling and guidance from Murphy to begin becoming himself again.

“Jeff (Murphy) had no business being that patient with me,” Whittington said. “He put up with my absolutely horrible attitude, knowing that it was just my pain, that I was lost.

“I finally realized that just because I was missing a leg didn’t mean my life was over, and Jeff helped me get to that point.”

Like other patients, Whittington had discovered a strength he didn’t know he had, Murphy said.

“It’s the strength of overcoming, of enjoying life again.”

Whittington has regained physical strength as well, thanks in great part to Dodd, his PT. He now has a prosthetic and his goal is to walk without the aid of a walker or cane by the end of the year.

“I know I’m stronger than I ever was,” Whittington said, “but those feelings of inadequacy will reach out and bite me when I least expect it.

“There are days when I feel I’m in the bottom of a barrel and can’t get out. And there are days when I feel like I’m sitting on top of the world.”

Often, on the bad days, he’ll climb into his van and take a ride and watch the white lines pass by, or sit at a pier and watch the waves lap up and try to touch him. Then his head clears and maybe he’ll remember what his wife once said to him in his hospital room:

“I love you, not your leg.”

To read Christopher Whittington’s story in his own words, go to the website of his online newspaper, the Vicksburg Daily News, and select “A Revised Letter to My Medical Team at UMMC.”