FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- (This is part three of a series following an Airman through her cancer treatment and amputation.)
“I already got my running blade,” said an enthusiastic Maj. Stephanie Proellochs (PRE’-locks).
After only taking her first steps in November, Proellochs, a U.S. Air Force Medical Service Corps (MSC) Officer and recent amputee, was already thinking of how she would be able to run and eventually snowboard with her family.
“Since I started walking on my prosthesis there are all these things that I want to start doing now,” said Proellochs. “I know that it will take time for me to get comfortable but I am excited! I want to run!”
With her ear-to-ear smile and enthusiasm for recovery, it can be easy to forget that her amputation was not the result of a single incident, but an ongoing, grueling, and unpredictable battle with cancer.
“Between being immobile and the radiation, sometimes it kind of keeps me down,” said Proellochs. “The support I have received has made it so much easier to stand.”
Proellochs credits her ability to smile through some of the toughest moments to support from her family. From her husband’s experience working with amputees to her son’s humor, Proellochs is grateful and feels confident about overcoming any challenges that come with being an amputee.
“My son has been taking it all in stride and does a great job of making me laugh,” explained Proellochs. “Between school and practice, my son manages to come up to the hospital to see me even in rush hour traffic. He also finds little ways to make jokes. He says he is the only one who can get away at making jokes since everyone else is so nice to me. He says, ‘I have to keep it real, mom!’”
Having never met an amputee before, Proellochs was also appreciative of her husband, John, who not only been by her side at every appointment, but also has experience working with service members with amputations.
“My husband is just outstanding and has made this whole process so much easier,” said Proellochs. “It is helpful that he can use his experience being around so many different amputees for so long. John has made me feel comfortable with what was to come with my recovery. He and my son make a really great pair and I am beyond lucky!”
Proellochs also extends her gratitude to her team at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Many patients who receive treatment at Walter Reed feel such a connection to their medical team that they often come back to visit just to express their appreciation.
“I mean just look around here,” said Proellochs as she scanned the physical therapy center. “Many people here do not have appointments but just come back just to show how grateful they are to their medical team.”
These patients who come back and share their experiences and stories have helped Proellochs put her own journey into perspective.
“I have spoken with patients who have been through horrible tragedies like Iraq, Afghanistan, acts of terrorism, accidents, or sickness,” said Proellochs. “Listening to their stories and how they overcame their obstacles is extremely motivating. The support I have received from other patients has been motivating. You can’t help but be uplifted and enriched by their experiences.”
Hearing the recovery journeys of other service members has allowed Proellochs to maintain her focus on continuing her Air Force career. In many ways, her MSC colleagues provide additional support to ensure an easy transition whenever she is ready to come back.
“My MSC team has been great in keeping me up-to-date and involved as I telework,” says Proellochs. “Many of them even came to my house to provide support and offer me food. When the Air Force Medical Service says ‘people are first’ they really mean it and I have experienced that first hand.”
Her experiences as a patient have also given Proellochs a new perspective in her career field. As an MSC officer, her duties ran more to the administrative side of health care. These roles provided limited exposure to direct patient care. Now, she has a new appreciation for the work medics play in caring for patients.
“I am more used to the behind-the-scenes processes of health care,” explains Proellochs. “As a patient I learned so much about our healthcare system. The ‘patient-first’ concept of Trusted Care is not just lip service. It really hit home for me that it is the responsibility of all of us who work in the AFMS to create an environment where our patients trust the care they are receiving.
“This experience as a patient has been eye-opening. I believe this will make me a better MSC officer.”
Her next step toward recovery is to keep building up her strength through physical therapy, leave the handrails of the treadmill behind, and walking unassisted with her new prosthesis. Proellochs jokes that she has started a new “leg” of her journey; those that know her would tell you that this is just another example of her amazing attitude and resiliency.
“I have met some inspiring people throughout this entire journey, and it has been a privilege to have had their support,” said Proellochs. “This whole experience has been incredibly enriching and I feel that I am in good hands as I work to get healthy again.”
The cancer diagnosis and subsequent amputation has never chipped away at her determination. With every obstacle she faces and works to overcome, she is humbled by the support from her family, her team at Walter Reed, and the Air Force. While she has a great deal of work ahead of her, she tackles every challenge head-on, and all with that same ear-to-ear smile and resilient attitude.