Written by Carl S. Oliver, MSW, CCLS on September 03, 2019
Sam Matagi enjoys a discussion group at Phoenix World Burn Congress
As many of you know, a burn injury is a lifelong journey of healing. It involves physically healing from the burn, which can take weeks, months, even years, requiring surgeries, therapies, and frequent visits to a hospital or clinic. Burns also involve psychological and emotional healing. While finding strength and reinvolving yourself in life are critical to moving forward, this comes easier for some than others.
Samoana (Sam) Matagi’s journey included change in his appearance and a major change in his ability to function, but he was able to use his experience to find ways to not only to re-involve himself in life but to help others along the way.
On December 13, 2010, Sam was involved in an electrical accident while working as a power lineman in Kremmling, Colorado. In a split second, nearly 15,000 volts of electricity surged through his body when a scrap of cut wire hit a live wire.
The next thing that Sam remembers is waking up on a stretcher. He didn’t open his eyes, but Sam was aware of the noise from the helicopter as he felt excruciating pain in his hands. Sam arrived at the University of Colorado’s burn center on a Monday, and by Friday he was having both of his hands amputated to prevent the spread of infection to the rest of his body.
He woke up from the surgery to his new reality. Sam says that initially he slept a lot and while the body does need lots of rest after being injured, Sam says he also used sleep as a way to avoid reality. Soon after, Sam would do whatever he could to put things in the back of his mind.
Sam’s biggest supporter was his brother, Fatu, who quickly came to Colorado (missing Christmas with his own family) to be at Sam’s side. Fatu knew all too well what his brother was going through—less than 3 years earlier he had lost one of his hands in his job as a power lineman.
Sam also turned to Facebook, where there was an outpouring of support from his friends and family. However, doing so proved to be difficult without his hands. Sam tried everything to use his iPad. He taped a stylus around his residual limb, tried using his mouth, nose, etc. He finally resorted to having his brother be his scribe. Although great support came from social media, the realization that even this wasn’t going to be easy anymore increased Sam’s frustration.
Sam Matagi is a burn survivors who's injuries resulted in the amputation of both his hands.
It wasn’t until Sam and his brother were on a plane to Utah three weeks later that they found humor in the situation. As Fatu fed his brother a burger, the two joked about how everyone was staring at the “one-handed” guy feeding the “no-handed” guy. The brothers laughed. Their sense of humor was and still is one of their greatest coping techniques.
Sam was heading to the University of Utah Hospital Burn Center in Salt Lake City to be closer to his family and friends. He spent two days in the burn unit and was then transferred to the University of Utah’s Rehabilitation Center. Sam already knew many of the staff because Fatu had been a patient there after his similar injury.
In addition to undergoing physical rehabilitation, Sam also learned the value of peer support at the Center. “I remember going there the first time and everything I said would make me cry. I remember telling the group that my mom needs me to help take care of her and then bursting out in tears. Many of the group at the end of the meeting told me they loved me and hugged me. It was a great place to talk about things that I didn’t share with anyone else,” recalls Sam. With time, the importance of hearing from and being supported by those who had been there” became more and more apparent.
On January 28, 2011, Sam was discharged from rehab. But like many survivors, returning home brought its own challenges to Sam. He started to truly feel the emotional and psychological impact of his injury. He felt isolated. His anxiety would not allow him to focus on his therapies; he found himself skipping sessions and questioning how he would be able to get back to living.
He was scared and recalls feelings of claustrophobia (as though the walls were closing in around him). He again began to use sleep as a way to avoid reality. He felt depressed and began to struggle with the hassle of doing even the basic activities of daily living, such as going to the bathroom, shaving, etc. He developed new fears.
Sam did continue group therapy, as well as one-on-one therapy with his psychologist. However, even in group therapy he experienced the feeling of isolation. No one else in the group had lost both of their hands. From his psychologist, Sam learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, which he had thought was something that only soldiers returning from war experienced. Sam says his therapist was able to help him see things from a different perspective, to refute his negative thoughts and look deeper inside himself.
Sam also found himself battling the desire to stay sheltered and limit his time out. After a week at home, a friend invited Sam to a Utah Jazz NBA game. He found himself constantly changing his mind about going. He would call to confirm, and then cancel.
Sam used his resources at both group and individual therapy to grapple with these feelings. His therapist gently convinced Sam that he was using excuses to avoid going out in public, helping him work through the pros and cons of going to the game. In the end, the pros far outweighed the cons.
Sam went to the basketball game where he had a great time, successfully ate a cheeseburger using his prostheses, and even ended up on the Jumbotron. He credits this experience as the moment he really started getting back to living.
Sam Matagi inspires to compete in the snowboarding event at the 2018 Paralympic Games.
From the get-go, Sam’s concern was far less about his altered appearance and much more about his functioning. How will I do this? How do I do that? Through Facebook, Sam contacted Sean McHugh, a one arm amputee who reaches out to help others who have endured amputation.
Through Sean, Sam connected with Jason Koger, another burn survivor and double arm amputee. Finally, Sam had found someone in a similar situation who could answer some of his most pressing amputee-related questions, including personal hygiene strategies that could be answered honestly and through personal experience.
By phone, Jason helped Sam tremendously. He even invited Sam and his brother to come to his home in Kentucky to learn from him, although Sam has not yet been able to take Jason up on this generous offer. The two men’s paths did cross again when they both tried out for a role on the television series Hawaii 5-0. They were both vying to serve as the “hand double” for the actor who was playing “a bad guy with no hands.” While Sam was disappointed not to get the part, he seems genuinely happy that Jason did.
Sam continued occupational therapy (OT) at the University of Utah’s Rehab Center as an outpatient, but was hoping to find information online that would help him learn how to use his new prosthetic hands. His search yielded only a single video for sale.
One day during an OT visit, Sam shared with his therapist, whom he had developed a deep respect for, his idea to create his own videos. With the support of his therapist, who was very dedicated to Sam’s recovery, the “No-Handed Bandit” was born. Since then, Sam has developed a series of YouTube videos to assist others with amputations by showing them simple step-by-step ways of completing everyday (and some not-so-everyday) tasks, from putting on prosthetics, to playing basketball, to shaving, to climbing a coconut tree, and many more.
Sam believes the video project has been another important step in his recovery process. He so clearly remembers feeling helpless and hopeless. Now he takes great pride in being able to help others who might be in the same position to put an end to their feelings of hopelessness.
He continues to receive lots of feedback from people all over the world who are learning from him, evidenced by the comments that he receives from his fans on his YouTube account. Besides helping other amputees, Sam has received questions and comments from OT students who are using his videos to further their education and practice. Sam definitely plans to continue creating videos, with inspiration for new material coming from people asking him, via the comment section of his YouTube channel, to demonstrate different tasks.
When asked about the process of accepting his injury, Sam claims that his different appearance and the accident itself never really bothered him. He explains laughingly that despite all that he learned in social skills training, he gives everyone who asks the “long story.” He refers to himself as an “open book” when it comes to talking about it with anyone and everyone.
In addressing how he handles rudeness and staring, Sam shared a story of a kid who was helping him move furniture. The boy looked at him, and said “That is just wrong.” Once again, Sam’s sense of humor surfaced and he replied, “Well, I guess you’re gonna have to get over it, huh?” He also admits that sometimes he makes stories about his injury, such as “I was on a roller coaster and put my hands up.”
Today, Sam and his brother Fatu are working toward competing as snowboarders in the 2018 Paralympics. While Sam claims his younger brother is better at the sport, he laughs and shares the fact they aren’t too worried about both making the team as they plan to compete for American Samoa. Humor is his way of both coping and in connecting with others.
In April 2011 Sam became a Phoenix SOAR peer supporter. Sam knew that he had benefited from listening and learning from other people’s experiences in group therapy, especially hearing how they had found resolution to their issues. Now he wanted to contribute, to give back.
As a Phoenix SOAR volunteer, he has the opportunity to share his experiences in hopes they will benefit others. Sam says that he has thoroughly enjoyed volunteering with Phoenix SOAR. Initially he was making weekly visits to the hospital but now is mostly called specifically to meet people who have endured an upper extremity amputation. Often he and his brother will go together to meet with new survivors. He says that they go with only one goal, and that is to help the person smile or laugh.
By his own admission, being a supporter has built Sam’s own self-esteem. Connecting with someone who is at the beginning of his or her own journey reminds Sam of just how far he has come. According to Sam, the further out he gets from his initial injury the more he forgets where he once was.
Just as Sam has benefited greatly from social media connections, he has enjoyed being able to connect face-to-face with people in similar circumstances. Since becoming more involved in the amputee community, he has also been able to facilitate connections between others who share common challenges.
In 2012 Sam attended Phoenix World Burn Congress for the first time. “Just talking about it gives me goosebumps,” Sam says, describing how amazing it was to be in such a large group of people who had survived traumatic injuries. There he found a great deal of value and meaning.
“The love emanating from the room was really healing—almost like a medicine,” he says, recalling the genuine concern expressed by everyone and the abundant hugs. People’s interest in his story amazed Sam. He was also very impressed with how open people were. There he built new relationships and made many new friends.
Sam described the whole experience in Milwaukee as exciting and validating. Just being there made his self-esteem and confidence grow. He felt that being at Phoenix WBC and serving as a panelist with other amputees helped in his own recovery and gave him a sense of accomplishment.
Surviving a burn or any traumatic injury is devastating to both the survivor and also his or her loved ones. These injuries can change a person’s appearance and impair physical functioning as the survivor once knew it. Going through an amputation, whether it is a finger, hand, arm, toe, foot, or leg or any other body part, is a further loss that changes appearance and physical capabilities as well.
The good news is that with modern technology and design, options for adapting and adjusting in order to get back to living exist. As daunting as the task of relearning what you once took for granted can be, the wonderful thing is that you can regain your abilities, just in new and different ways.
What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning their journey through changed appearance functioning?
It is vital to get back to doing the things that they loved to do before the accident. These things can be the same after the accident; they will just need to find new ways of doing them. (For Sam, this means basketball and snowboarding. He plays basketball every week, except in snowboarding season.)
Find new recreational activities. (Sam tried white water rafting with the support group to make friends, build self-esteem and regain confidence. He also went on an amputee cruise, which he really enjoyed.)
Find resources online, and network with people who are further along in their recovery.
What would you suggest to parents, siblings, and other people who are supporting/caring for someone who has an amputation/changed appearance/functioning?
Listen to the survivor.
Don’t endlessly offer encouragement or be overly positive.
Don’t always offer advice.
Keep in mind that the amputee is going to go through phases (ups and downs, sad, mad, self-pity).
LOVE the person.
Do you have advice for health care professionals?
Take the time to get to know the patient. The greatest therapists/nurses/doctors are the ones who do this. Those who come in and are just focused on checking things off the items on their punch list do not have the same results. Adjust and accommodate scheduling and methods where possible to individualize treatment.
Collaborate with the patient on goal setting. If the goals are adapted to fit the patient’s needs, they will be more motivated.
As much as possible, allow the patient to develop his or her own way of doing things. This gives back a sense of mastery and control, which is so often lost during recovery.
Carla S. Oliver, MSW, CCLS, is the manager of the therapeutic recreation/child life department at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She has practiced in the field of child life for more than 20 years, with the majority of her career dedicated to working with pediatric burn survivors and their families. Carla is a member of the mental health team for Phoenix World Burn Congress, where she has co-presented the parent workshop. Carla is also president of the Child Life Council (2014-2015).
Phoenix Society Peer Support Chat: Moderated live weekly peer support chat. Available at: http://www.phoenix-society.org/chat.
Phoenix Society Online Discussion Forum: Moderated discussion board with topics such as Getting Back to Living. Available at: http://www.phoenix-society.org/forum.
The No-Handed Bandit YouTube Channel: Videos for amputees and their families. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/user/samoanamatagi.
Arms Within Reach Foundation: Funding comprehensive prosthetic rehabilitation for upper extremity amputees. Available at: http://www.armswithinreach.org/.
Amputee Coalition: Reaches out to and empowers people affected by limb loss to achieve their full potential through education, support, and advocacy, and to promote limb loss prevention. Available at: http://www.amputee-coalition.org/.
The Open Prosthetics Project: An initiative of the Shared Design Alliance. Available at: http://openprosthetics.org/.