Isaac Yoder was just a kid when his mother, Robin Pugh Yoder, was diagnosed with cancer and had to have her right leg amputated in 2010.
It was a big blow for a young teen to witness his mother experiencing something so traumatic, but Robin Yoder didn’t want to hide anything from her son.
He was there the week before his mother’s surgery when the whole family — Robin and her husband, Wayne, and Isaac — met for the first time with the man who would make her artificial leg and who would become one of her best allies in this unexpected journey, certified prosthetist Joe L. Sullivan.
“My Earth angel,” Robin Yoder calls Sullivan.
So Isaac has been there every step of the way — encouraging her, assisting her, staying out of her way — as she struggled through countless setbacks and celebrated every little victory. He saw it all, watching not only his brave mother and how she navigated this turning point in her life but, as it turns out, Sullivan, too, and how he went about his business of making her whole again.
Apparently, what he saw was pretty inspiring because last week he packed up his things and headed to the University of Pittsburgh, where he will begin work on a master’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics.
He aims, as his mother put it, to be someone else’s Earth angel.
He said it wasn’t exactly his mother’s experience that led him to this career path, but it wasn’t exactly not. In the end, it became a matter of “connecting the dots” to figure out “I could do this for a career.”
And his mom’s reaction when he was admitted into the program? “I cried,” she said.
Robin Yoder is not your typical amputee or, as Sullivan told me almost nine years ago when I first wrote about her, “She’s about as far from typical as you can get.”
She was a high school basketball star who had to give up her college basketball career after she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right leg, the same leg where cancer was detected three decades later and led to the amputation.
Since she lost her leg, she has worked her way back to the life she used to know, including competing in triathlons. She comes at all of this from the perspective of an oncology social worker who spent two years after college in the Peace Corps and later co-founded the Hawthorne Cancer Resource Center at Johnston-Willis Hospital.
Her son’s experience through all of his mother’s travails has been less than typical as well, including not only his mom’s determination and her resolve to avoid sugar-coating reality but also getting to know Sullivan, who has his own story to tell.
Sullivan became an amputee, losing a leg at 6 months of age because of cancer. He played sports in high school and as an adult has competed as a volleyball player internationally. A prosthetist named Tommy Powell made his first artificial leg and many devices after that, and now Sullivan is co-owner of the company Powell operated: Powell Prosthetics & Orthotics.
“Being an amputee, I always say it’s the gift God didn’t give me ... not giving me a leg,” Sullivan said the other day at his shop, where I met with him and the Yoders. “Being able to use my experiences to help people was an easy fit for me.”
Isaac has come to appreciate that perspective of helping others through something he is so familiar with; he discovered that last summer, while working an internship at a prosthetics company in North Carolina where he found himself being sought out for advice by families of new amputees. He also enjoys the essence of the work itself: working with power tools, though indoors with air-conditioning, while trying to figure out how to create a customized prosthetic or orthotic device to make someone’s life better.
“Every day, essentially, is just a big puzzle,” he said. “It’s a mix of [being] an auto mechanic and a doctor is what this career is.”
Isaac is a former football standout at Manchester High School who graduated in May from Lenoir-Rhyne University with a degree in exercise science. He spent part of this summer shadowing Sullivan, watching ever more closely what he does and how he does it.
The “cherry on top” for Yoder was making, from start to finish, a prototype socket, part of the process of fitting a prosthetic, for a very special patient: his mother.
He went about the fitting professionally — “He said, ‘Lift your leg,’ and I did,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘Thank you’” — and all his mother could think about was that almost nine years to the day she had been in the very same place, making her initial visit before losing her leg.
“It was all so very surreal,” she said, “but it was such a proud moment.”
As for his career direction, she’s told Isaac all along to “pick something you love and love it. Then his junior year he started telling me, ‘I think I’ve figured out what I want to do.’ I was like, ‘Great, but don’t do it because you think that’s what I expect.’”
“I wanted to figure out my own path,” he said and, in fact, it wasn’t until he was away from home, working that internship in North Carolina last summer, that he determined this is indeed the route he wants to take.
And now that he’s figured that out, he is well-equipped to do good work, Sullivan said.
“The No. 1 thing for anybody in our field is compassion,” Sullivan said. “For me, it’s natural, because I’m missing a limb. A lot of people get in the field for different reasons, but if you’ve experienced it somehow on a personal level, it brings a whole new light to the people you’re treating.
“I think that’s so important to make a good practitioner. It’s not so much that I’m an amputee and I’m fitting people like me, but it’s understanding what you’ve gone through.
“He’s got a unique perspective. He’s not an amputee, but he’s seen what his mother’s gone through, and to be able to tie that in with every patient, it’s going to be very real for him when he gets into the field. For him, it’s going to be very personal. He’ll take it as a professional in the field, and it’ll make him a better practitioner.”