Professor uses accident as catalyst for change

March 8, 2010

Marifran Mattson, associate professor of communication and recipient of the 2010 faculty Focus Award (Purdue University photo).

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Editor's note: Five members of the Purdue community were honored March 2 with Focus Awards for their outstanding contributions to furthering the University's commitment to disability accessibility and diversity. This profile focuses on the faculty recipient, Marifran Mattson, associate professor of communication.

As Marifran Mattson lay in the ambulance transporting her to the nearest hospital in October 2004, she watched as the accompanying EMT continually glanced into the ice chest sitting next to her.

"Is that my foot in there?" asked Mattson, associate professor of communication.

The EMT, or emergency medical technician, paused.

"Really, you need to just be honest with me right now," Mattson said.

"Yes, it is," he responded.

Mattson had been riding her motorcycle with a group of friends when she collided with a semi, shearing her left leg off above the knee.

Luckily for Mattson, she was in supreme physical shape, having just run a half-marathon two weeks earlier.

"I was in such good physical condition when I lost my leg," she says, "I didn't bleed out because my blood pressure was so low."

Running had saved Mattson's life, and now she is no longer able to do it.

After eight surgeries, a month of recovery in the hospital and extensive rehab, Mattson was fitted with a prosthetic leg.

Upon returning to Purdue a year later, Mattson was encouraged by her first group of graduate students to turn this event into something positive.

"When they first said let's have a motorcycle safety campaign, I said no way, I don't want to think about motorcycles," she says.

But Mattson's students were enough influence to coax her into it, resulting in the development of the Motorcycle Safety at Purdue health campaign that she continues to use as a teaching tool in her undergraduate and graduate classes. And she has gone on to tackle much bigger projects, leading her to become the recipient of the 2010 faculty Focus Award.

Among her efforts, in July 2008, Indiana House Bill 1140 became Indiana law. Mattson worked alongside fellow amputees, prosthetists and caregivers to help make this possible.

The law requires health insurance companies covered by Indiana law to cover the costs of prosthetics. In previous years, insurance companies had been decreasing or eliminating coverage on prosthetics.

"I have the ability, given my background in communication, to make arguments and be able to speak on behalf of other people," she says. "Why not take advantage of that?"

Mattson herself isn't covered by the law, however, Her insurance is through Purdue, which is on the federal level. The law she fought for is effective only at the state level.

The insurance company lobbyists came out strongly against Mattson and her group's effort to pass the bill. Mattson was even heckled, and her motives questioned, because the bill did not directly affect her.

"I have a great health insurance plan here at Purdue, but I was really doing this to help other people," she says.

Mattson no longer rides a motorcycle. In fact, her blood pressure skyrockets if she gets too close to one.

She no longer can drive a stick-shift vehicle safely and while she does own a second prosthetic leg, designed specifically for running, she cannot do so comfortably.

Outside of that, Mattson says, she feels she is back to doing everything she was before the accident.

And despite her misfortune, Mattson says it has given her a new perspective to her life.

"Everything just takes me so much longer and I have to be more patient," she says. "Those are good things, though.

"It's caused me to stop, think, look at and be more willing to help other people. Before, it wasn't necessarily that I didn't want to, but I was moving too fast to take the time to realize I could be helping others."