Missouri Man Lost Leg, Now Makes Prosthetic Limbs For Veterans

Geoffrey DunlapGeoffrey Dunlap spent his young years working in a plastics factory in Mexico, Mo., making plastic bags for newspapers and little plastic mailboxes. But when a motorcycle wreck in 1997 caused him to lose his right leg below the knee, he suddenly discovered a whole new use for plastics: prosthetic limbs.

At the age of 35, Dunlap, who had never been to college, decided to get a bachelor's degree in health sciences, and become an accredited prosthetist.

"You go through the same stages of grief as when you lose a loved one," Dunlap told AOL Jobs about losing a limb. "The loss, the feeling of emptiness, denial. Then you get angry, then you feel sorry for yourself, and then finally you gain acceptance of the situation and you gain control of your life again."

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Dunlap's new life is helping others go through that process, at Standard Artificial Limb in Maryland Heights, Mo. And more than 40 percent of the people that he helps are veterans. "They're just different, a different type of person," Dunlap says about the veterans he serves. "They don't complain a lot. They take their disability in pretty great stride. They don't feel sorry for themselves, and have the 'woe is me' attitude."

He sees some veterans from Vietnam and even a few from World War II. But the vast majority are young guys from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Dunlap explains, advancements in body armor and battlefield medicine mean that there are a lot more amputees today, and a lot fewer dead.

Forty-five percent of post-9/11 veterans have applied for disability benefits through the Veterans Administration, compared with 20 percent of Gulf War veterans. As AOL Jobs has reported, a "very injured" veteran suffers an average annual wage loss of $40,000 (including the wage loss of loved ones that take care of them). But not Dunlap's patients, if he can help it.

One of those patients is Mark Meirink, 23, who stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan two years ago, and lost his lower right leg. Recently, he ran a 14.2 mile race, up an incline of 1,500 feet, with a 35-pound backpack, reported the St-Louis Post-Dispatch, thanks to a special prosthetic outfitted by Dunlap.

"He always offers to come in on the weekends, because I go to work and school during the week, so I'm very limited on time," Meirink, who works just by Dunlap's office, told AOL Jobs. "I consider myself very lucky and blessed that he's right there."

The hardest thing for Dunlap about working with veterans is how young most of them are. "Sometimes I sit and think, 'Wow, it was bad I had to lose my leg, but at least I didn't lose it when I was 20 years old,' " he explains. "I got to experience a lot of things in those 15 years. I hope these guys will get to experience them -- walking on the beach with the sand between your toes."

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Improvements in prosthetic technology, particularly with the new "bionic" limbs with in-built computer chips, mean amputees can do pretty much everything they did before. People used to maneuver artificial arms with cables and harnesses, but today, electrode sensors provide far more dexterity, enabling people to point and pick up small objects, or as Dunlap puts it: "They can hold the hand of their loved one."

Showing his patients how normal their lives can be is the best part of the job, he says. "To see someone come in and they're crying because they lost their limb, they feel like they're not the person they used to be ... then seeing the whole 180 switch from the traumatic loss of the limb to so happy that they're crying tears of joy."

Losing his limb certainly sparked a 180-degree switch for Dunlap. He was working as a waiter at Ruby Tuesday's when he had his accident, and now his job is to help people everyday restore their old lives, and discover new possibilities.

"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," he says, "but I'm glad I'm here to help smooth over some fears they may have."
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