Despite Losing Her Leg, Liz Zemke Is a Standout Volunteer
PHILADELPHIA, August 26, 1998 -- A twisted hulk of crushed and crumpled metal lay strewn across a winding California mountain road. But that wasn't the bad news. That 1995 crash caused serious head trauma and massive damage to her right leg. After repeated attempts to save it, two years later she would lose her leg from the knee down.
Life as an amputee could have slowed Fresno, Calif., native Liz Zemke in any number of ways. Instead, she threw herself wholeheartedly back into life as a wife, mother, grandmother, full-time nurse case manager and president of a fly-fishing club. Oh yes, she's also the founder of a support group for amputees in the Fresno area and tireless advocate of amputee education.
She spends what time and energy she has left over personally counseling as many as five new amputees a week. For her dedication and volunteer efforts, Zemke was just selected as Volunteer of the Year by her employer, CIGNA Corporation (NYSE: CI), a leading multinational provider of health care, insurance and related financial services.
Helping Others Triumph
Zemke stood out among CIGNA's 48,000 employees for her "tremendous commitment and inspiring accomplishments in helping amputees overcome enormous physical and mental challenges," according to Wilson H. Taylor, CIGNA chief executive officer. She has been a nurse case manger for Intracorp, a CIGNA subsidiary, for two years.
In addition, Zemke was recognized by her office last year as the employee with the highest productivity. Also in 1997, she was named one of the Top Ten Business-Professional Women of the Year by the Fresno YWCA.
The organization Zemke founded, the Central California Amputee Education and Support Group, dishes out hope -- and boatloads of practical advice on everything from the intricacies of prosthetic technologies to the best way to get up after falling down -- to people trying to adjust to life without a limb or limbs. Typically, she dismisses the notion that her volunteer efforts are in any way noble.
“In fact,” she says, “I think it’s selfish in a way, because the more you help others, the more you’re helping yourself. It’s a form of recovery. My outlook got better as I started helping others, because you see others who are worse off than you. You start to think, 'Hey, I’m walking. I’m working. I’m okay.'”
A Horrible Choice
It wasn’t always that way. Zemke’s unflagging, upbeat spirit did go to half-mast briefly after her devastating accident. Numerous operations couldn't save her leg. So, she had a hard decision to make -- lose her leg or live with it, but with a severe disability.
Keeping it surely meant not being able to do all the things she loved doing. But, without her leg...who knew?
“It was a horrible choice,” Zemke recalls. “I was living in intense pain, but it was still frightening to think about life without my leg. I had tons of questions -- and fears.”
On the advice of her surgeon, she flew to New Orleans to attend the national meeting of the Amputee Coalition of America. Suddenly, the choice became much easier.
“There were about 300 amputees at this conference,” she relates. “Some were in wheelchairs, some were on crutches, but for the most part, the ones who were about my age, who had gone through similar situations, were all back in their lives, and you couldn’t tell they were amputees.”
After her final surgery, Zemke took a few half-day trips to Sacramento and Los Angeles to sit in on support group meetings. The sessions were energizing, but the trips were exhausting. So, in her usual do-it-yourself style, she started her own group for Fresno-area amputees.
Enlisting the help of Fresno State nursing students, Zemke used flyers and news releases to market her support group to hospitals, psychiatrists, nurse case managers and newspapers. She drew nearly 40 amputees to her first meeting in November 1995 and has been holding them every month since.
Like an Angry Divorce
As part of her program, Zemke also visits amputees in the hospital soon after their surgery. She usually shows up wearing a dress and high heels or sandals, with no apparent deficiency.
“They look at me like, 'Why are you here? Leave me alone.’ And then, after some initial small talk, I’ll mention that I just happen to be an amputee. Suddenly a light goes on. It’s a realization for them that there’s life after amputation.”
Zemke says her happiest moments are when people don’t recognize her as an amputee. She even fools herself...sometimes.
“But you never totally forget about your leg, although it does fade into the background,” she says. “Losing my leg was like having an angry divorce where your ex lives in town and you have to go over and drop off the kids. I have to deal with my reality every night when I get into bed and take off my prosthetic, but other than that I don’t have time to dwell on it. I’ve got a life to lead.”
When she has time to think about who she is, amputee doesn't immediately jump into her mind.
“I’m energetic and positive. That’s what I am first and foremost. Being an amputee is just one part of me now -- it’s not all I am.”
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CIGNA's businesses rank among the largest health care, insurance and financial services organizations in the United States, and also include one of the largest U.S.-based international insurance organizations. CIGNA Corporation, headquartered in Philadelphia, has consolidated assets of approximately $111 billion and shareholder's equity of approximately $8.3 billion.
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