NE Ind. man turns loss of leg into advocacy role

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AUBURN, Ind. (AP) — Cancer couldn't change Ashtan Wallace.

Not even when it took his left leg below the knee. A relentless, positive attitude has carried the 26-year-old Auburn resident through circumstances many would find tragic, and he now uses that positive approach as a patient advocate for SRT Prosthetics & Orthotics.

In his role with the company, Ashtan advises fellow amputees on what they can expect when they are fitted with prosthetic limbs.

"You know they're scared, so you try to be as sympathetic as possible," Wallace told kpcnews.net (http://bit.ly/TRXUeL ).

"He's been a very needed, added benefit to our company," said Theron Steinke, of SRT's community relations department. "Ashtan has a very genuine passion for our patients. He is able to empathize with what they are going through."

Wallace seemed destined to serve — just not as he originally intended.

Wallace grew up in Auburn, attending and wrestling for DeKalb High School until 2004. At that time, he moved to where his mother lived in Nebraska, and he graduated from high school there in 2005.

He described himself as a bit of a joker, and he hasn't lost his sense of humor. His vanity license plate reads "5 toes," and this past Halloween he wore a pirate costume complete with peg leg.

Both of his parents had served in the military, and he joined the U.S. Army in 2006, becoming an engineer.

"I grew up in the military," he said. "I just knew it was for me."

On Dec. 12, 2009, he went to his doctor to have a cyst removed from his leg. When the biopsy came back, doctors discovered he had cancer. He called his mother, and she immediately told him he was going to get through it.

Eventually, his left foot was removed from the heel forward.

"I never did the 'Why me?'" Wallace said. "It's not going to answer anything."

He remembered telling one of his parents, "'God thought I was going too fast. It was his way of slowing me down.'"

But there was no slowing down for Wallace. He worked hard to remain on active duty in the military and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Wallace served as a liaison for his unit, helping soldiers who were heading home to arrange flights and accommodations.

He brought four prosthetics to Afghanistan. Unfortunately for him, his half-foot prosthetics did not hold up. He had broken all four of them in his first 32 days in Afghanistan, and he was sent out of country for evaluation.

"I had to duct-tape the last one to get me from Afghanistan to Germany," Wallace said.

Wallace asked the military to send more prosthetics so he could get back to his deployment. It wasn't meant to be, and he eventually was shipped home.

"I tried everything in Germany to get back to Afghanistan," he said. "I wish I could have stayed there the whole deployment."

When he returned to the United States, a combination of pain and the physical limitations of a half-foot prosthetic forced Wallace into a difficult decision. At the age of 24, he asked to have his leg removed below the knee.

The procedure was performed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas in March 2011. He said he knew he had a better chance at a normal life with the extended amputation.

By June of that year, he was walking on a prosthetic.

"It was a good feeling to stand up again," he said. "It was nice to walk around again."

Attitude is everything, he said.

"You just have to stay positive," he said. "It's the biggest part to your recovery. Your mindset has to be right."

The toughest part, he said, was watching the extra load his wife, Amanda, had to carry regarding household chores. He used this as a motivation to work harder so he could help out more around the house and spend quality time with his 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son.

It was through his recovery effort that he first came into contact with SRT Prosthetics & Orthotics, a Fort Wayne-based company that manufactures and fits prosthetics and orthotics.

When he first was fitted with a prosthetic after his first amputation — before he heard of SRT — the person who fitted him with his half-foot prosthetic and the oncologist who worked with him at the time both had all of their limbs. Neither could tell him what it truly would be like to be an amputee.

The staff at SRT is different. The person who fitted him for his latest prosthetics is an amputee. Wallace said after interacting with SRT's staff, he begged and begged for a job with SRT.

He was intrigued by the Fort Wayne-based company's programs such as the Amputee Walking School scheduled for January dates in Kokomo, Muncie and Fort Wayne. Put on by SRT, the events are for any amputee — even if their prosthetic is from another manufacturer — to help them learn walking techniques and muscle-building exercises.

"They're just trying to help the amputee," he said of SRT's involvement.

Wallace said he wanted to be involved with a company that cared for so much more than just the bottom line. He got his wish for a job earlier this month after retiring from the military for medical reasons Oct. 21.

Now moved back to Auburn, Wallace shares his own first-hand knowledge with people who are being fitted — or will be fitted — with a prosthetic. He is not a salesman, he said — he is there "to help other people and mentor them."

Having to repeatedly go through the story of losing his limb in order to help others is not a burden, he said.

"I love telling my story," he said. "I don't let my story get me down. I have nothing to be sour about."

Wallace now plays wheelchair basketball, jogs and golfs. He is still pretty much at the beginning of a life well lived.

"It's just the way I was before the amputations," he said. "I'm just going forward. I'm better. I'm more active."

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Information from: The (Auburn, Ind.) Star, http://www.dekalbstar.com

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