FARMINGTON — Roger Jividen, prosthetist and owner of Four Corners Artificial Limb & Brace, paid a visit to Zach Hefner the day before the teen's leg was amputated.

An amputee himself, Jividen wanted to offer hope and compassion.

"The hospital calls me every time they have a new amputee," Jividen said. "I go over there, show them my prosthesis, tell them how it all works. If someone (is going to) lose a leg, they want to talk to an amputee."

Zach, 19, survived a motorcycle accident June 15, but the weight of the 1995 Chevrolet truck that rolled over him left the teen with

life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured spleen, a fractured skull, hip and elbow and a nearly severed left leg. He endured half a dozen surgeries, including an amputation, during his three-week hospital stay before beginning the long road to recovery.

One of his first stops after leaving the hospital was Jividen's office.

The two had a lot to talk about; Jividen lost his left leg below the knee 25 years ago, also because of a motorcycle accident.

Zach and Jividen are two of an estimated 1.7 million United States residents to experience loss of a limb, which in many cases comes after a brush with death. Amputation is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure, and hospitals discharge an average of 135,000 new amputees yearly, according to data from the Amputee Coalition of America.

Jividen and Aaron James, certified orthotist at Four Corners Artificial Limb & Brace, see at least one new amputee every month. The visit usually is the first of what becomes a lifelong relationship with prosthetists.

"People are hurt, broken, disappointed when they come in," Jividen said. "There's no pity party around here, but sometimes people come in thinking it's the end of the world. We help them face reality."

James first sees patients two or three months following the amputation, after the stump has healed and scabbing from skin grafts or stitches has disappeared.

He fits patients with temporary prosthesis designed to help reduce swelling. Patients wear temporary equipment for about six months before they are fitted with a permanent prosthesis.

The fun part comes when a patient picks a foot and designs the socket, a fiberglass casing that covers the stump, James said. Hundreds of models are available, and each is designed for a specific purpose. Zach was looking for something that wouldn't cramp his active lifestyle.

The teen was fitted with a College Park Tru-step, a foot designed to allow extra motion in the ankle and solid footing. He used pieces of a favorite T-shirt to add dancing figures to the socket.

Zach stretches three socks over his stump every morning to protect it from the socket. A titanium and aluminum tube connects the socket to the foot, which Zach slides daily into his size 10 shoe.

The first steps

Two long months after the accident, Zach was ready to start walking on his prosthetic foot.

With the help of a cane, he shuffled along slowly, grimacing at the pain on the tip of his stump.

"I had to start out slowly so my stump could work up to supporting the pressure," he said.

The pain was constant for the first months, Zach said. His hip, arm and leg throbbed and he experienced phantom pains in his missing foot.

But his will was strong. He gradually learned to navigate with a prosthetic leg, making modifications in his regular routine to eliminate stumbling blocks.

"One thing I learned was not to have floor mats in my truck," he said. "When I pushed on the clutch, the mat got all crumpled up underneath."

Shortly after getting his temporary prosthesis, Zach began physical therapy. The crew at San Juan Regional Rehabilitation Outpatient Center sees as many as

12 amputees every year, said Minnie Sparks, who worked with Zach to rehabilitate his arm.

Few come in with as much gusto as Zach, she said.

"I don't think he believes in failure," she said. "If he doesn't do it well enough the first time, he just tries it again."

Physical therapists put Zach on a Nintendo wii, where he relearned balance and weight shifting by simulating some of his favorite sports: snowboarding and soccer.

"He can tell by the pressure on his prosthetic where his foot is headed," Sparks said. "He can feel it even though it's not there. All the nerves are still there. They're just cut off. They're still sending signals, he just needs to learn where the nerves are situated."

The more Zach practices, the more walking, running and climbing stairs on his prosthetic foot will become second nature.

"It's getting the form, posture and muscle tone back," Sparks said. "It's getting used to the pressure on the prosthesis."

Zach likely will need to continue physical therapy on his own for the rest of his life because of the severity of his injuries, Sparks said. He finished his formal sessions this month.

But Zach is not complaining.

"Attitude is totally on his side," Sparks said. "He takes everything we give him and goes further. He's come a long way in a short time, and that's not the norm."

Zach is so positive, in fact, that other amputees seek him out. The hospital doctors, prosthetists and physical therapists have solicited his help in talking to new amputees.

A winning attitude

Nothing could have prepared Zach for life without his left leg, James said. But his youth and the nature of the amputation were on his side.

"Zach is a teenager, so that's the biggest help," he said. "You're always going to have bumps, things aren't always going to go right. When you're young and having a positive attitude, it makes it that much easier to get through the hard days."

Patients with health-related amputations are much harder to work with than accident victims, Jividen said.

"Diabetes cases are tougher because they're been living with the disease," he said. "With the traumatic ones, they haven't contemplated it. They're more ready to get up and move on."

Zach said he tried complaining about the pain and the challenges of being an amputee, but soon found it didn't get him anywhere.

Instead, he decided to meet his challenges with

a sense of humor, which started before he left the hospital.

A friend asked him what it was like to lose a leg, he said. Without missing a beat, Zach answered, "I guess it's a little short."

The teen also took advantage of his lost appendage to dress up as a pirate on Halloween, complete with a bona fide peg leg.

Challenges arise, however, taking the form of stairs, ice and bowling alleys, to name a few, Zach said. Stairs, he said, were easy to relearn; ice can be scary and the bowling alley still poses a problem. Zach said he has a hard time convincing owners to let him bowl while wearing his street shoe.

The treadless bowling shoe increases Zach's risk of falling, which could re-injure his arm or hip.

"(Bowling) was really the only time someone has told me I couldn't do something," he said. "I don't need special treatment or help just because I'm missing a leg."

Zach's life changed the second his motorcycle collided with a truck seven months ago, but he's doing his best to rebuild it. He plans to pursue a career as a physical therapy assistant or prosthetics and can hardly wait to get back to his extreme sports.

"It was a life-changing thing, but I'm just going to go with it," he said. "This isn't going to stop me. Some things I will take precautions on though, because breaking this (prosthetic) foot, money-wise, it's expensive, probably more expensive than breaking my real one."

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com