On May 23, 2008, while finishing a concrete floor in the basement of a
Portland, Ore. house, contractor J.R. Litehiser’s life as he knew it
suddenly went up in flames. Litehiser was working with a solvent-based sealer
when a spark in the basement ignited just the right mixture of oxygen and fuel,
causing the house to burst like a bomb, according to Litehiser. Recollecting
his emergency training in the midst of the burning basement, Litehiser remained
calm and stopped, dropped and rolled.
Engulfed in flames, he got out of the basement, screamed for help,
rolled on the ground and passed out. He suffered burns on 84% of his body. Of
that 84%, 70% were considered third-degree burns. He would not wake up for 8
Litehiser was in a medically induced coma at Emanuel Hospital in north
Portland during which time doctors performed numerous life-saving surgeries.
His body was systematically shutting down. He was on a ventilator and dialysis.
He was badly burned from the right side of his face down to his right leg and
from his torso down to both his feet. His quick thinking and training
ultimately saved his life.
When Litehiser woke from his coma in the burn center at Emanuel
Hospital, he immediately knew he had lost his right hand. Also, all of the
muscles from the lower half of his left leg were dead and essentially skin and
“I was pretty ticked off for a long time,” Litehiser admitted
to O&P Business News. “I felt like I was robbed. I was
cut down in the prime of my earning years. I was disabled by a fire and I had
no idea how I was going to rebuild my life.”
“It was just a mess”
After returning home from the Emanuel Hospital Oregon Burn Center,
Litehiser’s spouse at the time revealed she wanted a divorce.
“To deal with that on top of everything else, it was just a
mess,” he said. “It just was not a happy time for me.”
Litehiser was given a body-powered prosthesis following his return home.
It was uncomfortable and never fit correctly. The skin on his residual limb was
irritated. The harness wrapped around his shoulder and down along his chest and
torso, running across areas that were badly burned and recently treated with
skin grafts. The pain was unbearable and trying to get a hold of a prosthetist
was just as frustrating for Litehiser. The company he was working with only
made an upper extremity prosthetist available once every quarter.
|Once he found a device that
worked for him, Liteheiser was able to return to carpentry and concrete
|Image: Advanced Arm Dynamics|
“It was really painful and so I went a solid year and half without
using a prosthesis,” Litehiser said. “My son and I named my residual
limb, Knubby. It was a cartoon character more than anything else.”
A Thursday morning
For Litehiser, something had to give.
“I felt like I had been through the ringer, both physically and
emotionally and it was just time to start making a change,” he said.
“I was at rock bottom and living like that just was not going to do it for
me anymore. It is like the famous line from The Shawshank
Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Litehiser can still recall the day he decided he was going to make a
change in his life. It was a Thursday morning in central Oregon. He happened to
be put in touch with a support group called the Central Oregon Resources for
Independent Living, although he never intended on going to the meetings. The
group helped people living with cognitive and physical disabilities reclaim as
much of their independence as they could. He had never been to a support group
Litehiser walked into the meeting room that Thursday morning and talked
with individuals who would completely change his outlook on life.
“There were maybe eight of us or so,” Litehiser recalled.
“I was at that point where I was just sick and tired of being sick and
tired. I met some amazing people at this meeting. I don’t think to this
day they understand the profound effect they had on me.”
Litehiser met a man who was paralyzed from the neck down from a
motorcycle accident. He also met a rocket scientist who lost a large amount of
his cognitive abilities due to a stroke. He saw them cope with their
disabilities and how they still managed to maintain a functional life.
“To see these guys champion through a day made me feel less sorry
for myself and made me think, what can I do to get the most out of this second
chance in life?” Litehiser explained.
Soon after his support group meeting, Litehiser had surgery on his left
hand and began working with an occupational therapist who had worked with
Advanced Arm Dynamics before moving to central Oregon. The occupational
therapist invited Litehiser to a talk that she and MacJulian Lang, CP, clinical
director, Advanced Arm Dynamics, were going to be giving at a local hospital
for physical and occupational therapists.
“The previous company he had worked with approached the insurance
company about a myoelectric but was given a denial,” Lang explained to
O&P Business News. “They told him your insurance company is not
going to pay for it. That was it. But we are not that easily dissuaded.”
After meeting with Litehiser, Lang immediately invited him to Portland
for an evaluation.
“He made it clear to me right away that upper extremity prostheses
was what they do all the time and it was inside of 2 weeks of that initial
meeting, I was in Portland getting a cast made for an elbow-suspended
suction-fitted terminal device. I was hungry for something to use and when I
saw the functionalities that could be gained by having it as a tool, I dove
right in,” Liteheiser said.
Most prosthetists advise their patients not to wear their prosthesis for
more than an hour or 2 in the first few days in order to get used to
functioning during activities. Litehiser was wearing his 8 or 9 hours a day
immediately following his first fitting.
“They told me not to drive with it and that was the first thing I
did,” he said. “I used it to steer so I could hold a cup of coffee in
my other hand. I went full tilt.”
Lang agreed. Litehiser always goes “full tilt.”
“J.R. is fun to work with, the quintessential bull in the china
shop,” he joked. “The only complication that we had is that he takes
whatever you give him and uses it immediately and actively which occasionally
leads to broken devices. We realized quickly that telling him to be gentle with
something does not really get us the results we need. But he is so focused on
making it a part of his daily use that training has not been a struggle.”
Litehiser could see that the prosthesis would benefit him on a daily
basis and instantly became an avid prosthesis user. He can hold doors open,
drive, change radio stations and has even started doing carpentry and concrete
“It’s fun cooking with it and I can grab hot stuff out of the
oven and it freaks everyone out,” he joked. “I can make it rotate
like The Exorcist, 360·. When children ask what happened I
tell them never run with scissors. It is a lot of fun. It’s a great
icebreaker, a neat tool.”
It is easy to develop a comfortable working relationship with Litehiser
thanks to his natural outgoing personality, Lang said. In fact, he occasionally
brings his son and dogs to the office during his fittings.
“You have to laugh about it, it is definitely a defense mechanism
and it underscores some of the disappointment or the hurt, but it is also
helpful to remember not to take certain things too seriously,” he
explained. “I mean, there are so many worse scenarios that could have
easily occurred. I could have lost both my arms and legs. I could have died. I
could not be here.”
Before Litehiser was a contractor he was in law enforcement. Before he
was in law enforcement, he was a teacher. He has naturally leaned towards
professions that help people. Now, he is a volunteer, speaking on behalf of the
United Way asking for donations through payroll deductions. He also works with
On the Move, a program funded by the state of Oregon that transitions
individuals with disabilities out of the hospital and into independent living
“I get to meet all kinds of folks doing that type of work,”
According to Lang, Litehiser has been a positive influence on other
“We do not often use the term ‘poster boy’ around here
but he is that type of person,” Lang said. “This is a man who lost
pretty much everything along with his arm and at this point his limiting factor
is no longer his amputation or prosthesis. That’s beneficial for people to
hear and helpful for amputees to see.
Along with his volunteer work with the United Way, he has been to a
support group that Advanced Arm Dynamics created in Portland that is upper limb
amputee specific. He has spoken there and has helped some of the individuals in
the group, according to Lang.
Now with a growing family, Litehiser is at peace with his life. A
jokester, he still admitted that he has his good days and bad ones as well.
“I would just say make the most of the time you have. But trust me;
I understand the seriousness of a traumatic loss or not having a limb. For me
it sucked. If I could have my hand back I would, but I can’t so I’m
just going to get on with it,” he said.
Litehiser reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Jillian.
“We just so happened to live not too far from one another and we
are now living together and we have combined families, plus a new baby. So that
is what I am most excited about. I love it. I have always wanted a large
family.” — by Anthony Calabro