Some nights, the cramps in Tina Wendelschafer's left leg wake her in the dead of night.
"I get cramps in the middle of my foot, sometimes my big toe hurts," she said. Still, there are times when she can't help but treasure the pain.
"Sometimes the phantom pains are a nice reminder," she said, choking back tears, "that I used to have a leg there."
Wendelschafer talks about her 18-month battle back to mobility after her leg was amputated. Her ability to cope has been helped by a support group she attends at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital designed for amputees and their loved ones. The group meets monthly and assists people with the physical and emotional challenges they face after losing a limb to injury or disease.
Wendelschafer, 46, a Gilbert resident, has attended the monthly meetings since her left leg was amputated just below the knee. On May 5, 2002, she and her husband hopped on their Harley-Davidson motorcycles and rode to Payson for breakfast.
"Nothing was going on until I hit a construction sign in my lane that pushed me into a guardrail," she said. Since then, Wendelschafer has painstakingly rebuilt her life. A milestone came on Thanksgiving, when she walked about three miles on a trail behind her house.
"I went by myself, and it only took me a little over an hour," she said, Stories such as hers are common at the meetings.
Shirley King, who was at last month's meeting with Wendelschafer and eight other attendees, uses a wheelchair. "My doctors amputated my foot in October after trying to repair it for over a year," she said. King's foot wouldn't heal after a car accident. King said she's getting ready to be fitted for a prosthesis, but isn't sure what to expect.
Wendelschafer jumped, threw her left leg onto a table and easily snapped off her prosthesis to show King.
"This one's a pin system," Wendelschafer said.
Meetings typically are centered on discussions conducted by health care professionals. December's meeting featured a talk on pain medications by Sara Bader, a Scottsdale Healthcare physician's assistant. Stories of victories and setbacks are common.
Andy Feola, 58, was at the meeting with his wife, Mary. The Scottsdale man lost both his legs to arteriosclerosis a little over a year ago. In late November, he finally obtained his driver's license to operate a hand-controlled van. That month, he also walked three times with his prosthesis.
"I tried once, but fell and banged myself up," he explained. "It took three more months to heal before I could try again. You can't do it if you have the slightest injury."
After the group settled in, it focused on Bader's talk.
"I can't go straight to bed, or I'll wake up with phantom pains," Wendelschafer said, "Is there something I can take that will kill the pain, but won't make me groggy when I get up for work?" She is a surgical assistant for an east Mesa medical practice. Bader suggested Oxycontin, a powerful painkiller that has stirred controversy in the past year from critics who have questioned whether it is too addictive.
Feola chimed in, "That stuff is strong. . . . I saw spiders on that." The group also talked about insurance companies. "It's so bad that sometimes I just take half my prescribed amount because I can't afford it and the insurance company won't cover it," said Bob Brenghouse of Tempe, who lost his leg to diabetes.
Wendelschafer told the group that she'd like to get a "running leg."
"The insurance company will only give you one leg once every five years, and at about $15,000," she said.
In many ways, the meetings are as much about friendship as amputation.
Mary Feola said that if it weren't for the support group, she and her husband wouldn't socialize at all.
"It all becomes about making your world accessible," she said. "You get closed off — you can't visit old friends because their homes aren't wheelchair-accessible, tables aren't the right heights. The remote (control) becomes your
best friend. . . . Thank God for this group."