2013-01-09 / Family

A county man’s recovery from surgical disaster

By Jim McConnell

Despite having two prosthetic legs, Midlothian resident Robert Riiber is able to drive his Cadillac with a hand lever that's linked to the car's accelerator and brake pedals. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Despite having two prosthetic legs, Midlothian resident Robert Riiber is able to drive his Cadillac with a hand lever that's linked to the car's accelerator and brake pedals. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Since 2007, the arrival of each new year has taken on extra significance for Robert Riiber, a Midlothian resident who understands the value of time and appreciates it now more than ever.

Riiber nearly died more than six years ago because of surgery that ultimately resulted in the amputation of both of his legs above the knee.

In many ways, heading home after spending a month in a hospital was like being born again.

“I often say my birthday was Sept. 16, 2006, because I had to relearn everything from that point,” the 55-year-old Riiber said with a smile during a recent interview.

Riiber, who was born in the U.S. and is also a citizen of Norway, grew up a naturally active person. During his time as a member of the ski team as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, he regularly went on four- to six-hour training runs in the mountains.

But Riiber had put away his skis by the time he started experiencing severe lower back discomfort in 1994. After tests, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm in his abdomen and underwent a surgical procedure.

Noting that it was unusual for a person his age to have an aneurysm in that location, Riiber’s doctors recommended that he be tested for Marfan syndrome, a predominantly genetic disorder that damages the body’s connective tissue.

An examination of Riiber’s skin cells produced a negative result. Still, his long, lanky frame fit the profile of a person with Marfan syndrome, and his doctors’ initial suspicions were all but confirmed when the aortic aneurysm resurfaced in the same location 12 years later.

Riiber’s second operation appeared to be going along smoothly. The surgeon was nearly finished suturing an arterial graft to the weakened section of Riiber’s aorta when it completely gave way, sending blood gushing into the abdominal cavity.

The surgeon scrambled to tie a knot around the aorta, which stopped the blood loss but also prevented blood from flowing into Riiber’s lower extremities.

Riiber spent 31 hours on the operating table. “If I would’ve died that day, nobody would’ve blamed the doctor,” Riiber said.

Riiber’s condition was further complicated when he developed compartment syndrome in both legs almost immediately after being moved into recovery. To relieve pressure from fluid buildup in Riiber’s legs, doctors performed procedures in which they scraped away layers of muscle from both legs.

Eventually, gangrene set in. Riiber’s doctors told him they could save his legs, but they’d had to scrape away so much tissue that both had been rendered useless. His best chance for resuming an active life would come from a dual amputation above the knee.

“I decided the only way to deal with this was to keep my chin up and put a smile on my face,” Riiber said.

Riiber’s girlfriend, Andra Davis, described herself as “truly amazed” by his positive outlook in the face of such a life-altering situation.

Riiber’s early enthusiasm was shaken by one of the first pieces of literature he received after entering post-surgical occupational therapy. The pamphlet projected long odds against a double amputee his age regaining the ability to walk.

At that point, Riiber didn’t think he’d be able to return to his career as a structural engineer. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to walk or drive or shop for his own groceries.

“All I knew was that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair,” he added.

Fortunately for Riiber, shortly after returning to Chesterfield County, he found a pair of allies in his quest to regain his mobility: David Lawrence, a physical therapist and owner of The Gait Center; and Joe Sullivan, a certified prosthetist and co-owner of Powell Orthotics and Prosthetics.

Lawrence put Riiber through more than a year of grueling physical therapy, during which Riiber developed the strength and flexibility needed to walk on prosthetic legs. Sullivan fitted him with his new computerized legs and taught him how to use them.

“Robert had the spirit," Sullivan said. "We could tell he was driven and this was something he was going to do.”

Learning to walk again was a painstakingly slow process – Riiber worked with Lawrence twice a week for 18 months.

Having earned a new lease on life, Riiber remains determined not to be defined by his disability.

He still lives in the same house – with the same second-floor bedroom. He purchased a black Cadillac, which he drives with a hand lever linked to the brake and accelerator.

Riiber also has gone out of his way to help others. He’s made several visits to the VA hospital in Richmond, where he speaks to wounded soldiers about life as a double amputee. Sullivan also occasionally asks him to speak to presurgical clients at Powell Orthotics and Prosthetics.

“I got my life back," Riiber said. “I relish the opportunity to talk to people and show them this isn’t the end.”

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