Making the Best of a Changed Life

Mark Zack uses his experience as an amputee to help other amputees in the Peer Mentoring Program through the UNC Center for Heart and Vascular Care.

Making the Best of a Changed Life click to enlarge Peer mentor Mark Zack shows new amputees how technology can help as they adjust to life with limb loss.
Making the Best of a Changed Life click to enlarge Mark Zack with a self-portrait of his prosthetic arm. Children often react better to his amputation than adults, telling him, “I like your hook!”

In the Fall of 2009, architect Mark Zack decided to enjoy the beautiful weather by taking his motorcycle out for a quick warm-up ride.  An avid motorcyclist, Zack was looking forward to a relaxing day, riding with his wife.

Two weeks later, Zack woke up in the hospital, missing his right arm. Mark Zack laughing

Hit by a teenage driver who made a left turn in front of him, Zack faced many challenges, the first of which was simply surviving.  In addition to the amputation of his arm, he lost 49 pints of blood, endured 15 surgeries, and spent 15 days in a drug-induced coma.

During that coma, Zack experienced what he calls “bizarre dreams”.

“I was dreaming I was in a wheelchair, working in the school system, teaching new teen drivers about motorcycle awareness,” says Zack.

Now, more than six years later, he does indeed teach teen drivers about motorcycle safety.  He is also taking everything he has learned as an amputee and using it to help other amputees.

Zack is one of two peer mentors for new amputees and their families as part of the Peer Mentoring Program, a support program for amputees in the UNC Center for Heart and Vascular Care.

Losing a limb and becoming an amputee leads to a range of physical and lifestyle changes and challenges for an amputee and their loved ones. Although the reasons for limb loss varies and creates new life challenges, it can also be a new beginning and a new way of living.

“One of the first things that I tell new amputees is that it is not going to be ‘fine’, but don’t give up,” explains Zack. “They may experience anger, like I did, but I try to show them that they can use that anger to do good things.”

Speaking to someone who personally understands what it means to lose a limb can often be a great relief and allows a new amputee to ask questions and discuss issues that only someone who has been through it can answer.  Recovery after an amputation can be a time of great uncertainty, doubt and many questions. Many amputees feel more comfortable talking with someone who understands what they are going through, someone who has experienced losing a limb and can appreciate how it feels.

When Zack woke up in the hospital, he was visited early on by an acquaintance, a pilot who had lost an arm. “He gave me lots of advice, was very honest, but gave me such confidence that I could handle this,” says Zack.

Limb loss does not discriminate and people of all cultures, gender, ages and differing socio-economic status can be affected.  Zack was a successful partner and architect with Corley Redfoot, which at the time was Corley Redfoot Zack.  Zack was one of the influential architects who designed many prominent buildings in the Triangle, including the Top of the Hill building and the UNC Health Care Wellness Center at Meadowmont.  A right-handed architect, now facing life without his right arm, Zack’s entire career was in jeopardy.

“One night in the hospital, I grabbed some paper, and figured I should start writing with my left hand.  I also figured since I was an architect, an artist of sorts, it would be easy for me to adjust.  I couldn’t even sign my name.  I had to start printing big, block letters, just like children do in grade school.  That was one of the lowest points in my recovery.”

The Peer Mentoring Program at UNC allows amputees to connect with volunteers like Zack who are willing to share their time, knowledge and experience to assist others during their transition. The goals for the program includes giving new amputees the opportunity to speak openly about how they are feeling, addressing some of the issues and concerns that they have, and alleviating some of the distress they may be feeling. Zack and Pierce

Zack is not a physician, but he is an expert on the subject of living life as an amputee.  Having lived with limb loss for a number of years and successfully regaining his independence, Zack has the knowledge to help others.

Mark Zack talks with amputee Demetrius Pierce, who also lost his arm in a motorcycle accident.

“I knew after rehabilitation at UNC that I needed to use this to help others. My amputation forced me to take a long look at my life and figure out how to use this situation for good,” says Zack.

Zack organized his buyout at Corley Redfoot and started his own architectural and design firm, Durable Design, focusing smaller-scale architectural projects and product design.   He also began focusing on one of his true passions in life: painting.

“You would think that a one-handed architect would find a hobby that didn’t involve drawing,” Zack laughs.  “But I’ve always loved painting, and now I have the time to invest in myself as an artist.”  He has entered numerous juried art shows, and one of his paintings will be on the cover of an upcoming issue of Washington State magazine.  His work is also displayed at the UNC Health Care Rehabilitation Clinic in Chapel Hill.

The Peer Mentoring Program also provides assistance and support to family members or caregivers who want to better understand how they can help a loved one who has experienced an amputation, which is another reason Zack enthusiastically volunteers for the program.   For Zack, one of the hardest parts of his amputation was knowing what his wife was experiencing.

“While I was unconscious, it was her that had to make the heart-wrenching decision to allow the physicians to amputate.  She went through a lot during my recovery and rehabilitation,” explains Zack.  “Honestly, I was more concerned about the impact that my amputation had on my family.”

Today, Zack is busy living a full life. He travels the world, writes a blog about his painting at markzackpaints.wordpress.com, continues teaching teen drivers in the Orange County Schools about motorcycle safety, and devotes himself to helping new amputees in the Peer Mentoring Program at UNC.

“I know it sounds weird, but the bizarre dreams that I had in the hospital have become dreams realized,” says Zack.  “I want to help others see that losing a limb is not the end of their lives, but an opportunity to make the best of the remaining pieces.”