UF Health

Gator Amps at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital Provides Hope and Opportunity to Amputees

Gainesville, FL

Not-for-Profit Rehabilitation Hospital

40 Beds

An estimated 185,000 amputations are performed in the United States every year. While the number of amputations in the U.S. has increased by 3.6 percent from 1997 to 2012, in Florida the number of amputations increased by 12.8 percent during that same time period.1 The staff at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital understand the importance of “disability identity,” providing the support necessary for amputees to have a positive sense of themselves and recognize how they can continue to live life to the fullest.

The desire to help new and previous patients build their confidence and return to their normal life led to the development of UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital’s Gator Amps. The program helps amputees connect with other amputees, build relationships, receive support, and explore new ways to stay active and engaged in meaningful interests.  While it started as an area support group that met once a month in the rehab hospital’s therapy gym, it has grown to be a close-knit community of amputees that support one another in the Gainesville area and beyond.

In 2013, Becky Piazza, M.S., OTR/L, UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital clinical coordinator, worked with local orthotic and prosthetic companies in the Gainesville area along with colleagues at the rehab hospital to launch Gator Amps. Thanks to the support of Piazza and colleagues Andrea Gilbert, OTR/L, Meg Sack, OTR/L, Neda Mitova-Caneva, PT and Kevin Kohler, PT, DPT, the initial support group was just the beginning.  The following summer, the rehab hospital’s staff hosted a certified peer visitor training session through the Amputee Coalition of America.  A certified peer visitor is an amputee who volunteers to provide information and support for individuals preparing for an amputation or coping following surgery.

“Having an amputation changes your life but it doesn’t mean life as you know it has to end.” – Becky Piazza, M.S., OTR/L, UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital clinical coordinator

People who require an amputation are often very upset and fearful about the procedure.  But the peer mentoring program allows for a fellow amputee to come and visit, talk about life with limb loss, and offer support and resources for a patient.  Thanks to the Gator Amps program, this first meeting can take place before an amputee even leaves the hospital. While an initial meeting sounds simple, seeing someone with a limb loss walking around with no assistance is very empowering for new amputees.

Although doctors and therapists can provide medical treatment for amputees, they can’t relate to the daily life and struggles an amputee may face.  Meeting with an amputee that is successfully living life to the fullest gives hope.  New amputees may have basic questions, like “how do I shower?” or “can I still ride my bike?”  But the relationship goes much further than that – it is a launching point for building a community of amputees that encourage one another, learn from each other, and live life together.

The focus on mentorship not only provides encouragement and hope for new amputees, but also provides an opportunity for those with amputations to give back and have a connection in the community.  Since it began offering the peer visitor program, 25 individuals have participated in the eight-hour training to become a peer mentor.  The combination of peer mentors and monthly meetings help the rehab hospital cater its activities, speakers and other learning opportunities to the needs and interests of Gator Amps participants.

Gator Amps is made possible because of the support from UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital, including a team of occupational therapists and physical therapists who work closely with peer mentors.  Annual trainings are offered at no cost to participants thanks to support from the hospital and contributions from vendors and physicians.

1: Amputee Coalition Florida Fact Sheet.  Created May 2015.