Cheerfully Crippled 

Members of the amputee support group Stumps 'R Us try not to take themselves or their condition too seriously.

A man with a black metal bar sticking out of the bottom of his pants leg limps into Spenger's Fish Grotto. "Hey, Gimpy!" shouts Dan Sorkin, who is standing in the doorway of a banquet room.

Others enter the Berkeley restaurant. A gray-haired woman, elegantly dressed and bejeweled, parks her powered wheelchair at the end of a table. A large man with long blond hair swivels his wheelchair into position nearby. Another, wearing shorts, displays a leg made of metal and plastic. "Hello, cheerful cripples," Sorkin bellows. "Welcome to another Stumps 'R Us gathering."

The eighty-year-old flight instructor is founder of the organization Stumps 'R Us, which describes itself as a "whimsical support group of cheerful cripples." Like the others, Sorkin, who lost his left leg below the knee following a motorcycle accident, is one of the roughly three million North American amputees.

Sorkin says he founded Stumps 'R Us because he was dissatisfied with all the other groups dedicated to the concerns of amputees. "They are universally boring, depressing, and not much fun," he says. "They only want to sit around and complain."

Meetings of Stumps 'R Us, which has been gathering for lunch monthly for eighteen years and boasts members in fifteen countries and 22 states, aren't always limited to sitting around in some room. They often involve an activity such as bowling, boating, or even skiing, Sorkin says. The whole point is to avoid the depressing support-group vibe. Members try to laugh at themselves, make fun of themselves, and not take their disabilities too seriously.

Like many other leg amputees in the room, Sorkin wears shorts so he can show off his prosthesis. He greets all the guests by first name as they arrive.

"How's the new leg working out, Pam?" he says to one guest hobbling carefully in. "Hey, Dick, good to see you again," he calls to another seating himself at a table.

Soon all the tables are full, and the thirty attendees order drinks. Conversation is loose — politics, science, the Web. Many chat openly about their prostheses, wheelchairs, health problems, and how they lost limbs. There is lots of laughter.

"After my accident, my leg was shattered," Sorkin says. "After three months of trying to fix it, the surgeon said he'd have to take bones from other parts of my body. I said, 'No, don't do that — just saw the leg off.'"

"It was marvelous," he says of first being fitted with a prosthesis. "It was the first time I had been on my feet in over six months."

Fred Hughes and his wife chat across the table with another couple. Hughes worked for an engineer's supply company until a series of unrelated medical problems damaged his heart, lungs, and vascular system. He lost a leg because of a blood clot, but got around fine wearing a prosthesis until a bacterial infection, followed by a stroke, forced him to use a wheelchair.

"I really wanted to get back on that prosthesis," Hughes says. He looks physically fit and acts jovial, but his speech slurs every now and then. "I don't like just sitting around all day, but now my right side is pretty much useless."

His wife, Carol, smiles and puts her arm around him. She finishes his sentence and puts a straw into his iced tea so he can reach it easier.

"Have you tried exercise?" suggests Pam Seifert from across the table. Like Hughes, she had a stroke and then lost a leg due to a blood clot. She keeps a walking stick by her side, and the outline of a large hinge shows through her sweatpants. She also is a keen horseback rider. "There is an exercise show on PBS called Sit and Be Fit," she enthuses. "It has helped me tremendously."

This casual — and usually humorous — exchange of advice and information is what the group is all about, Sorkin says. Aside from the monthly luncheons, the group also features a newsletter, Gimpy, and a Web forum (Stumps.org) where amputees can chime in with advice and anecdotes. Phantom pain, quack prosthetists, and alternative methods for avoiding painful "stump spasms" are all topics freely discussed alongside jokes and details of the next bowling party.

With the main course eaten and dessert on its way, Sorkin addresses the group. "Pam would like to share with you a book she just bought," he announces over the chatter, holding up a paperback. "It's called The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life ... um, so it's a comedy."

"Is it a standup comedy?" quips the man whom Sorkin greeted as he entered the restaurant. The group groans, then laughs.

As the waitstaff dishes out huge slices of cheesecake soaked in raspberry cordial, Sorkin introduces guest speaker Jerry Pierce, a "product consultant" from iBOT Mobility Systems, who is about to demonstrate a $23,000 electric wheelchair that can climb stairs.

Sitting in the oversize wheelchair, Pierce, who is not an amputee, begins to show off some of its functions. He explains that the technology used in the chair is exactly the same as that used in the Segway, the two-wheeler "person mover" that uses gyroscopes to balance and remain upright.

After noting that the maximum weight the chair can handle is 250 pounds, he asks if anyone wants to try it out. The large man with long blond hair volunteers. "How much do you weigh?" Sorkin asks his volunteer. "249 pounds?"

"Don't ask," replies Chris Chevalley, a magician from Tiburon. "Not after that cheesecake."

Chevalley, who is missing most of his right leg, climbs into the chair and the demonstration begins. The unit rises up on two wheels and continues to elevate, rocking gently back and forth like a cherry picker. Soon he is sitting three feet above the ground and maneuvering around the room.

"This is amazing," he says. The other members gasp. Some clap and cheer. "It feels totally natural."

"What people like about this unit is that it brings you up to eye level with those who aren't in wheelchairs," the consultant explains. "It means that if you're at a party you can see what's going on around you. It means you can go up to the bar and get a drink. That's something we feel is pretty important."

"Especially in this group," Sorkin quips.

"What about insurance companies?" another member asks. With the cost of wheelchairs, prostheses, in-home elevators, and other amputee paraphernalia running into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, insurance coverage is a much-discussed topic among this crowd.

The consultant hesitates. "Well, we've been having problems with insurance," Pierce says. "You guys are gonna hate hearing this, but they consider this a luxury item."

The attendees grumble among themselves. Some roll their eyes and shake their heads, as though it's something they've heard before.

At the end of Pierce's iBOT demonstration, the March meeting is adjourned and the members of Stumps 'R Us begin to shuffle out. Sorkin stands by the door, shaking everyone's hand and inviting them back for another get-together next month. Some exchange phone numbers and business cards. The man Sorkin greeted on the way into the restaurant shares a joke with him, and the two laugh.

"Watch out, everyone," says Sorkin as the man navigates his way out the door. "Cripple coming through."

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