…and Bill McConnell doesn’t often miss what he aims at! A gun enthusiast and longtime hunter, he refused to allow severe damage to his right leg to stand in the way of doing the things he loves. And now, after a transtibial (below-the-knee) amputation and a new prosthetic Proprio Foot, he’s picking up the pace in pursuing his favorite activities.
In December 2006, McConnell was returning home to Hummelstown, PA, after a two-day trip on his motorcycle, when he was the victim of a serious accident he’s unable to recall.
“They found the bike on one side of the guard rail and me on the other, with my femur sticking a foot out of my right leg, my ankle crushed, and my femoral artery torn.
“It was just a horrible accident,” he recalls, adding that the quantity of blood lost at the scene nearly cost him his life.
Subsequent efforts to repair his upper leg were hampered by an infection that defied detection, and by the time five surgeries had resolved the upper leg issue, the lower leg was severely compromised.
Despite five additional surgical attempts to save it, persistent infection in the lower leg had caused the bone to die, McConnell reports, “—and you can’t bring dead bone back to life.”
After four of the five lower leg surgeries failed, McConnell and his wife agreed in 2013 that it was time to choose the transtibial (below-knee) amputation option.
“I had very literally walked on a broken ankle for seven years following the accident,” he recalls. “The leg still worked—but walking on a broken ankle hurts! I went through endless amounts of pain and suffering tied to an infection—and not only does that beat up the body, but it beats up the soul.”
He shared one treasured bright spot from that dark period, however:
Partners in Pain
Shortly after his accident, McConnell’s wife, Kay, adopted a rescued Shetland Sheepdog named Lacy.
The little dog fit beautifully into the family; but as she aged—and as McConnell’s painful complications continued—Lacy developed severe arthritis. “I couldn’t pet her anywhere but on the top of the head that it didn’t hurt her,” he remembers.
Activity was painful for her, and with inactivity, Lacy gained weight. “I called her my little spudmeister, because she looked like a potato with little legs,” he joked fondly.
“Some nights while Kay was upstairs asleep with Lacy nearby, I would be downstairs, dealing with the pain. You can only take so many narcotics. And in those moments, I was in just unbelievable pain, with the pain transferring from body to soul.
“One night, I heard this little dog struggling weakly to make it down the stairs, one step at a time. Just for her to walk, hurt her; but she made it down the stairs, walked over and lay down on the floor next to me. It was as though she were saying, ‘You might have to hurt, but you don’t have to hurt alone.’
“This was the first of many times she came to comfort me, though it cost her a lot of pain and suffering to do that.”
Indomitable spirit; unsinkable humor:
Despite those seven challenging years prior to the amputation, McConnell never lost his determination to deal with the difficulties and continue business as usual, as much as possible.
He continued working as a regional sales manager and field representative for Lebanon Seaboard, a national lawn and garden products company, both before and after his amputation—until his 20-year retirement in 2016.
He also continued to pursue his hobbies and special interests, many of which involve shooting and hunting—including experimentation with ballistic theory, loading and test-shooting his own cartridges. His interest in military armaments has led him to explore aircraft museums, as well.
“Although I’ve hunted off and on my entire adult life, the greatest fun I get in hunting is proofing theory on my loads,” he explains. He has also taken dozens of classes on gunfighting since he broke his leg—simply because “it has been a massive challenge that I enjoy—the first class was taken from a wheelchair.”
One particularly difficult medical class, taught by an ER doctor with SWAT team credentials, required McConnell to apply a tourniquet to his wounded partner in a training scenario wherein the two were under fire and the partner was actively defending them (with a mock firearm).
Performing the task while keeping low “was an exceptional effort, as my right knee only bends 90 degrees,” he commented.
Prior to his amputation, he and his wife took a hunting trip to South Africa in 2011. At that point, five surgeries had been completed above the knee, but the foot and lower leg had undergone only two surgeries: By wearing a support boot for the broken ankle, however, McConnell was able to hunt with the aid of an expert PH (Professional Hunter) who served as educator, guide, and protector.
McConnell describes Hans as a friend as well as “a wonderful PH who dealt well with my limitations.”
Although McConnell lists scuba diving as one of his earlier interests, he notes that he had actually quit diving even before the accident. Afterwards, “I did what little I could with one leg, but I never got my stamina back after the accident. And if you don’t have stamina in the ocean, you’re going to drown.”
Amazingly, through it all, he never lost his sense of humor:
“I had actually watched a limb amputation on YouTube before my surgery—I just wanted to see how it happened—it’s an interesting process,” he explained.
Armed with his YouTube education, McConnell, who had received an epidural but was awake during his own amputation surgery, chose his moment carefully.
“Just after the absolute, total point of no return, when the surgeon had made those three crucial cuts that began the amputation, he paused and asked, ‘Are you okay?’
“I’d been waiting weeks for this,” McConnell relates gleefully, “so I said, ‘Hey, is it too late to change my mind?’”
The surgeon was not amused, but McConnell admits that “a very dirty look” was all the reaction he was able to detect through the surgical mask before the doctor went back to work.
McConnell is quick to emphasize that he has never regretted losing the leg, and even notes that, as he sits and talks, he can’t really tell that his right leg is missing. “I just feel like usual; it always feels like it’s there.”
Following the amputation, his search for a prosthesis led him to Lawall, and Jeffrey Koach, CPO.
“Jeff has been a godsend to me from the beginning to the present,” McConnell says. “One of the neat things of many about Jeff is that he has a beginning-to-end comprehension of how this system works, starting me with my first socket and my first foot in 2013.”
McConnell progressed from that first preparatory foot that allowed him to get used to ambulating with a prosthesis, and was then fitted with an energy-storing carbon fiber foot.
Koach recalls that when McConnell started with the Flex-Foot, he did very well with the adjustment. “He’s an avid walker; he walks around his neighborhood as part of his exercise program, and he’s done great with that. He’s been slowly increasing his activities and getting back to what he wants to do; he was excited about being able to go hog hunting with his friends down south.”
McConnell found the Flex-Foot so satisfactory that he wasn’t ready to consider a foot that offered added advantages—especially an adaptive microprocessor-controlled foot that anticipates the need and raises the forefoot to increase toe clearance—and adjusts the ankle angle to changing terrain.
“I didn’t want the Proprio Foot,” McConnell remembers, “because I didn’t believe it could figure out what I was about to do—no way!”
“Then one day Jeff called and asked if I’d like to model a Proprio Foot—and try it out for some people who’d like to see how it worked in action.”
McConnell agreed to participate, and made a shocking discovery:
“No, it can’t predict what I’m going to do. But it guesses really well!”
Koach enumerates the features that make the Proprio Foot an ideal choice for McConnell:
“It adapts really well to uneven surfaces, and it adapts well to going up and down slopes. With Bill’s activity level, and his neighborhood walking program, he’s not just walking on a track—he’s going up and down hills. Typically that’s something that amputees really notice, because most prosthetic feet are designed to walk on level surfaces and don’t adapt to climbing. But when you start going up a hill, this foot actually adapts at the ankle by dorsiflexing—or if you’re going downhill, it plantar-flexes, like a normal foot would do.
“Because of the sensors in the foot, it can tell whether you’re going up or down a slope, and changes the angle of the ankle and the foot automatically.”
It also does the same things when you’re sitting in a chair, he points out. “When you’re sitting in a chair, the toe of a normal prosthetic foot will be an inch or two above the floor, while the heel is resting on the floor—and it’s just a little bit unnatural. But this foot can tell when you’re sitting, and it will actually bring the toe down so it’s resting on the floor like a natural foot would do.”
The Fantastic Foot…
McConnell acquired his Proprio Foot in June 2019, and is now an enthusiastic champion of the device. The problems he’d experienced with walking on uneven ground “have simply gone away!” he notes. “It adjusts instantly for balance, to keep you from being thrown to one side. It’s so good on the side-to-side balance that a person can forget it’s a ‘store-bought’ foot!
“The amazing thing about the Proprio Foot is that I can keep doing things that I would have stopped doing without it. That’s partly because it makes so many things easier; but it’s also because the foot allows me to exercise a lot more and remain in better physical condition to fight off the effects of age and inactivity. It has been very much a double plus for me!”
In December McConnell reported that after wearing the foot for six months, he’s put about 220 miles on it. “I had increased my activity to where I was walking two miles a day four days a week. But after three or four weeks, I had to cut it back, because my real foot couldn’t take it!”
He shared pictures of his recent trip to the 1,000 yard shooting range, where he makes suspended steel plates “ding” at 500 yards. “I was alone most of the time because there aren’t that many silly people who go out at 30 degrees to shoot. A person needs to be pretty sure-footed to do this alone and in the snow.”
Although the years have tempered his natural tendency to be a more independent person than most, he recognizes that the foot enables him to tackle with confidence more of the things he enjoys, especially outdoor activities like walking, hiking, hunting—and ‘just being mobile.’
At 65, the father of two grown children, married to “the most wonderful woman that God ever put on this earth,” McConnell is pleased that he still doesn’t need anyone to hold his hand.
“In my opinion,” he believes, “the genius of the foot is not that it makes you better. What it does is offer you the opportunity to make yourself better. It doesn’t give you the muscles or the coordination or the strength; but it gives you the opportunity to build the muscles, the coordination, and the strength—because then the foot will keep up with you.
“It’s like a guitar,” he explains. “Buying one doesn’t make you a musician; but it gives you the opportunity to become one.”
When he first tried on the Proprio in front of the watching audience, people wanted to know what he thought of the foot. “Ask me in 100 miles!” was his response.
Now, says McConnell, after many more than 100 miles, he can confidently say that it keeps getting better and better, the more he walks on it.
“I just recently discovered that, as I adjust my balance, with the lateral use of the foot I can almost pretend that I’m ice skating, the way you kind of shift your balance—it’s really cool! It helps you with walking better.
“That was just two week ago that I noticed that—and I’ve had the foot for six months! It grows with you.”
Koach is also aware of the greater capabilities McConnell is enjoying, the longer he wears the foot:
“Bill sends me regular emails about how his walking has increased. In terms of mileage, he’s able to do a lot more than previously. He had been trying to walk a mile three times a week; now he’s up to a mile and a half or more—four times a week!”
Chances are that in another year of wearing the Proprio Foot, he’ll have a lot more stories to share, says McConnell, because he keeps discovering new things about it. “As I get better, stronger, I discover more things that it will help me to do. It’s really better than I imagined.”
His enthusiasm for the changes the prosthesis has made possible prompted him to present his prosthetist with a cake that proclaimed that Koach was his hero.
“…and he was!” McConnell exclaims. “If I ever have a question or an issue, I reach out to Jeff and he’s there to help. He has made my life a lot better!”
The admiration is mutual. “Bill has definitely been somebody who hasn’t let his injuries hold him back,” Koach notes. “He’s certainly been eager to do as much as he can. Before his amputation, he had to go through multiple surgeries to try to save his leg, and once he made the decision to have the amputation—he hasn’t looked back.”
To others working through rehabilitation challenges of their own, McConnell shares advice that reflects the enthusiastic optimism with which he approaches life and the future: “The further you go, the further you can see.”