Desire to Help led to a New Career

By Doris Wedge

For the Norman Transcript – Sept 20th 2010

Craig Gavras enters a room with confidence, the decisive strides of a man who knows where he is going, a man who is grounded because of where he has been. His walk belies the fact that he suffered a personal injury that robbed him of his right leg and derailed his desired career.

The irony is that it was an injury that led to another career, one which has given him more than he lost.

OU grad Gavras is co-founder and executive director of Limbs for Life Foundation, the brainchild of him and prosthetist John Sabolich, to whom Gavras turned for a new leg after he had an above-the-knee amputation at age 25. It was their desire to help amputees who did not have insurance or financial support to obtain a prosthesis.

Since established in 1995, the foundation has grown to serve about 700 people each year in the United States and many more people around the globe. It is a story of caring and generosity, not only by Gavras and Sabolich, but by others who contribute not only money but unused artificial limbs.

Perseverance describes Gavras’ own battle after the event that he describes as “my knee exploded.” Married, and a trainee in the Dallas Police Academy, he was running when suddenly the nerves and tendons and muscles of his right knee were ripped apart. It was not an outside force that wrecked the knee, but the internal failure of the knee. Over the next two years, doctors tried to save his leg, he said, but finally the decision was made that it must be amputated.

It was his attitude, his belief that he would be OK that got him through the amputation and the recovery and the adaptation that lay ahead.

“I was OK with the amputation. Not that we didn’t shed tears, but I knew it would be OK. Now that I have children, I can understand better how devastating it was to my parents,” he said.

A gesture of the positive attitude that brought the family through the ordeal was when his brother brought his golf clubs to the hospital room. “It was his way of saying that things would go on. It would be OK.”

Soon after the surgery Gavras began thinking about the many amputees who did not have the resources that he had, who might not be able to turn to the premier prosthetist in the country. When Sabolich realized that Gavras wanted to grow a foundation to help other amputees, “he provided the seed money for Limbs for Life.”

Of the 156,000 amputations each year in the United States, only about 8,000 are for hands and arms, Gavras said. Usually those people don’t seek a prosthesis. “The prosthesis for an arm or hand is cumbersome, heavy. Usually, they opt to do things one-handed.”

But when a person loses a foot or a portion of their leg or the whole unit, they are left immobile unless they have artificial assistance. “If they use crutches, they have effectively lost the use of their hands, as well,” he said.

Using fundraisers, donations and grants, Limbs for Life partners with prosthetists around the country to assist people who don’t have the financial means to get a prosthesis. Each case is thoroughly investigated and the need verified before assistance is given.

They provide services each year for about 700 amputees in the United States. Amputees of all ages “are able to resume their lives,” Gavras points out with pride. “The last one we helped was an 82-year-old farmer.”

The Limbs for Life Foundation has a different mode of operation in clinics in Turkey, Haiti, Guatemala, Peru, Dominican Republic and Mexico, where the clients received used limbs which have been donated to the organization.

Regularly, boxes of used limbs arrive at the foundation’s Oklahoma City office. Volunteers clean and recondition the parts which are shipped to the foundation’s clinics around the world. “Because of product liability laws, we can’t re-use equipment in the United States,” he explained.

Most recently, they have been especially active in the Haiti and the Dominican Republic where they have helped Haitian earthquake victims. Because of the turmoil which still exists in Haiti, “we can be more effective if we bring them to the Dominican Republic where we can fit them,” he explained.

Fitting the prosthesis calls for making a mold of the existing limb and then choosing the parts sized to the individual for assembly into a functioning limb. “There are many types of knees and feet and they are matched to the needs of the person.” The clinics can also provide the servicing that the prosthetics will need. “These are mechanical devices and like everything else, they need upkeep.”

Gavras is deservedly proud to say that 96.1 percent of the money that Limbs for Life receives goes directly to patient services. Fundraising has occupied most of Gavras’ time since 1995, but the foundation recently has been able to employ a person who will focus on development, including grant writing. “We want to move away from relying so much on fundraising events, which are very time-consuming.”

He looks forward to growing the foundation’s financial base, and streamlining the process in order to have a quicker turn-around on providing limbs where needed. “The goal of any charity should be to close the doors because there was no longer a need,” he said, but that’s not likely to happen.

His work as executive director calls for a great deal of travel, time that is taken away from his family in Norman which includes a wife, a son and two daughters. “We go skiing about three times a year,” he said, and they enjoy swimming and bicycling, all sports that put wear and tear on his legs. “I get a new leg about every three years.”

Gavras looks back on the injury as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” And the lesson learned was “whatever you are faced with, you can overcome.”

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