Sunday, May 30, 2010

Honoring our Veterans

Memorial day is a day to recognize and honor those who have died while serving in the military. I want to expand that recognition and honor those who have lost a limb while serving our country.

My first prosthetist informed me that many Vietnam vets lost their legs during their time in the service. Because of them, prosthetic technology had come a long way. When I was getting a leg in the mid eighties, the Seattle Foot, the newest prosthetic foot, made its debut, boasting its ability to help amputees run. By having a newly designed spring action foot made from carbon fiber, the technology offered amputees an alternative to the previous clunky foot.

I've written previously about how far that technology has come; I now have the newest technology with the "C-Leg" that I wear and plug in every night. The microchip in this leg reads what my foot and ankle are doing - about 50 times a second - and adjusts the knee accordingly. It's really kind of amazing.

From what I can tell on Google, nearly 1,000 people have lost a limb in the Irag war. Many of them have defied limitations and have gone on to continue in the service. I know a lot of advances have been made because so many people have made the sacrifice and paid a price to serve our country.

I give thanks to the many amputee vets, past and present, who have given not only to their country but have helped the advances in prosthetic technology.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Trusting it's Good for Me

A number of people have asked me lately if I can feel a physical difference now that I've been walking everyday for a number of months.

After my first month of walking, at the beginning of the year, the muscles in my body felt looser and I had a spring to my step. Taking two stairs at a time was much easier. But after a few months, I plateaued. I've grown accustomed to my new normal and now I don't feel any physical benefits from my daily walk.

If I were able to walk a longer distance each day I would likely find the benefits increase, but a mile is about as far as I can comfortably walk on a daily basis. On those days when I walk further than a mile, I usually pay for it the next day with a blister on my residual limb.

Just because I don't feel any positive side effects from my daily walk doesn't mean I will give it up. I walk becuase I am committed to my cause: the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. I walk because I said I would. And, most important, I walk because I trust that my body needs it.

Since I lost my leg, I've never been one to "honor" my body, in fact I've had a love/hate relationship with my body. I love that it kept me alive and I've often hated what it looks like and feels like. The natural aging process has given me pause, though, and as I feel aches and pains that weren't there three years ago and see wrinkles emerge, I realize how finite this body is. I escaped death once, but there will come a day when it's my turn and this body will cease to breathe.

So I remember that walking is good for my heart, my lungs, and my muscles. I'm counting on my daily walk to be a source of stability and strength. But mostly, I just trust that it's good for me.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


A friend recently asked if I would change the way my life turned out. Would I rather have not lost my leg at seventeen years old and lived my life with two legs?

Absolutely not.

I don't love being an amputee. There are days when I hate it; there are days when it's an annoyance; and there are days when I don't really think about it. But every day is informed by what I have learned over the past thirty two years of being an amputee. I understand life in a completely different way than I would have had I not lost my leg. I have learned innumerable lessons about people and life that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Life for me is about learning and growing. It's my obligation to myself. Just a few months after my accident I played the Three Wishes game: If I had three wishes, what would I ask for? My first thought was to ask for my leg back, but I immediately discounted that idea. Something deep inside me told me that This Was It. Being an amputee was my classroom and I was here to learn something from it.

I'm hell-bent on finding the good in every situation. Especially the really hard situations. Admittedly it's hard for me to find something good about running late in the morning or smashing my finger or burning the cookies. But the Big, Life-Altering events in life cannot pass by without understanding something deeper about them. My amputation is no exception.

One thing I have learned is gratitude. For life itself. For people. For the simple joys in life. Even for those heart-breaking moments that change the world as I know it. Eventually, I am able to open my arms and embrace whatever I can learn.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Being Seen

Being just 17 years old when I lost my leg, I was at the height of my sensitivity to being singled out. But there I was, on a daily basis, being ogled at, stared at and pointed at, all because of how different I was.

I remember when I first started college just nine months later. There were so many cute boys. Occasionally, as we were approaching each other walking down the side walk, I'd catch a cute guy looking at me. I'd get excited. Does he think I'm cute, I wondered? As we got closer to each other, I could see that he wasn't looking at me, he was looking at my prosthetic leg or my limp. He wasn't thinking I was pretty; he was noticing my difference. Then he'd walk by without even looking me in the eyes. My heart sank. That story happened more times than I care to admit.

When I started skiing, backpacking and kayaking, people would stare, only then it was in admiration. Strangers often came up to me and asked questions about my prosthetic leg and about how I lost my leg. I indulged their questions, not understanding how to set any boundaries.

I could feel eyes on me before I could see them. I knew when a child was pointing at me by the whispers from the parents to stop. I was used to being seen for the part of me that was missing.

I spent a number of years shifting how I see myself: from being a survivor and defining myself through my amputation to exploring all of who I am, warts and all. I am more than a gimp. I am more than someone to be admired for doing daring or physical things. Being a mom has helped immensely with taking the focus off of my leg and putting it right where I wanted: on my motherhood.

I was on the front page of the Bellingham Herald this week in an article about my 100 mile walking campaign. I haven't been in the paper before and I wasn't prepared for the attention. I'll admit, it's been uncomfortable and has pushed me outside my comfort zone. After years of trying to take the focus off my leg, it's ironic that I've come full circle and I'm talking about losing my leg on the front page.

Only this time, it's not about me. Now the issue is about people in developing countries who may be singled out in ways I can't imagine, who may be ostracized from their communities. Now it's about equality and basic human dignity. It's about allowing people in developing countries to see themselves in a new light, to see themselves as contributing members of their communities. Now it's about getting other people walking, even if it's just for a mile.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Crashing Into Sleep

For the first fifteen years after my accident, I went to sleep the same way every night.

Each night, as my body relaxed and sank onto the mattress, heavy and motionless, my mind quickly let go of the day. I have never been one to let life’s problems disturb the sweet decadence of sleep’s reprieve. In that space between consciousness and slumber, my mind would slip into a mindful dream space: random images and twisting colors streaming and swirling around each other. I was a part of the images, but, because I was not yet fully asleep, I was aware of, and could even narrate silently, what was happening.

Regardless of how this conscious dreaming began, it always ended the same: I was a passenger in a moving car. Other cars were on the road, both in front of mine and behind mine. It was always dark, sometimes pouring rain; shadows of images passed by my car's windows. Without any warning, the person driving my car abruptly and violently slammed on the brakes. I watched in terror as our car swerved, careening out of control, as we tried to avoid hitting the car in front of us. The sound of the screeching tires, squealing as loud as a train coming to a sudden stop, jolted me out of my near slumber, always just before the crash.

My eyes popped open and I jerked awake. I felt like a landed fish, laboring for each shallow breathe. My mouth was full of metallic tasting saliva as if it had just started bleeding. I swallowed it away, took a deep breath, and looked around my room, reminding myself that I was in my bed, safe and sound. The unbidden, ghastly ritual over. I shut my eyes and saw only darkness. It was only then that I could quickly fall asleep.

My crashing-into-sleep routine waned significantly after I met Harvey, the man who hit me, fifteen years after the accident. Is that a coincidence? I still occasionally crash into sleep and even after 32 years it is still just as terrifying. I didn't know about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome back then, but now I can identify my other symptoms: fear of being in a car on the freeway, screaming at sudden noises, startling easily. I know I drive my husband nuts sometimes with my extreme reactions, but knowing that they can be attributed to PTSD offers some relief and makes me feel a little less crazy.

I wonder about the folks around the world who have lost their limbs in traumatic ways: war, landmines, and accidents. How do they find relief from their symptoms? Are they aware of PTSD and the psychological impacts of surviving trauma?

Getting a prosthetic leg and regaining mobility is such a gift. True emotional healing is a much longer mile than I ever expected.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

One Foot Then the Other

When I was at the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation at the beginning of my campaign I heard stories about people in Sierra Leone who lost a limb during their violent 10-year civil war. I saw a picture of a man who's leg had been violently amputated by a machete by the rebels. He had been left for dead, but his indomitable spirit kept him alive. Today, with support from the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation's sustainable program to make and provide legs to the many amputees in Sierra Leone, this man is walking and working again and contributing to his community.

Because of the earthquake in Haiti, an estimated 4,000 people lost a limb. The POF has added Haiti to their list of world-wide countries in which they provide limbs to people who need them. I think of these Haitian amputees nearly everyday on my walk. Are their wounds healing well? Do they have crutches to use while they wait for a leg? Can they get around at all?

I am humbled by the amputees in Sierra Leone and Haiti. I can't even compare myself to them. Their trauma has been so encompassing, so wide-reaching. I try to imagine their lives and I can't.

Sometimes I wonder how a woman in Bellingham, Washington can make a difference in the lives of these people. But I have to believe I can. If I doubt my ability to make a difference then I don't know what I will tell my children when it's time for them to go out into the world to make their mark.

I do what I can, one step at a time. One of my favorite songs is "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry. In her angelic voice, she sings, "It's one foot then the other as you step out onto the road." That's all any of us can really do, walk our personal paths of passion, one step at a time, with faith that the path ahead will lead us to our destination. I trust that walking my daily mile matters. Even though they don't know that I'm doing this for them, for me, it's enough to know I am walking for the Haitians and all the other amputees who otherwise won't walk again.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I've been an amputee for thirty two years. The first eighteen years I was very active and involved in many activities: backpacking, kayaking, skiing and dabbling in many other sports like soccer, rock climbing and scuba diving. I never really felt disabled.

And then I became pregnant when I was thirty five years old. I quickly started gaining weight which made walking quite painful. Eventually even sitting was painful. I had a temporary leg made, but, by the end of the pregnancy, it fit just well enough to get me to the donut counter of the grocery store and to the movie store. At the end, waiting two weeks for the birth, I was like a beached whale laying on my couch.

After my son was born my weight didn't go back to normal as easily as I hoped so my mobility didn't resume as quickly as I wanted. It took about two years to get my weight back down, but what I realized was that my hips had shifted and everything felt different. I had to have a new leg made because my body simply wasn't the same as before I became pregnant. It took about two years after I gave birth to feel myself again, but it was only about nine months later that I became pregnant with my second child.

For my second pregnancy I decided to wear my peg leg. We made a big socket so my residual limb could fit in it, even after fifty pounds of weight gain. The leg itself was lighter, so it was easier to maneuver with all that extra weight. What I didn't anticipate was how the straight-legged walking (think Peg-Leg Pete) would tweak my back and other hip. I wore that leg for a full year before getting yet another new leg made for yet an even different body.

Pregnancy is what really made me disabled. I have never fully recovered and, at this point, I've quit trying. I realize the body I had before babies is long gone, just like it is for many two-legged women. Just for me, it's not about weight, it's about all the other ramifications pregnancy had on my one-legged body: tendinitis, bursitis, a permanently swollen foot, and lower back pain.

And you know what? I wouldn't trade it for the world. I wouldn't give up one ache or trade in one pain. I would gladly give up my other leg if it meant I could be Luke and Tessa's mother. There is nothing I can say about motherhood that isn't cliche. I can't talk about the small, seemingly insignificant moments without sounding schmaltzy; I can't go on about the big Aha's without sounding trite. But what I know, beyond the small and large joys of being a mother, is that it has been worth everything I had to give up. Everything.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Power of Forgiveness

I was seventeen years old at the time of the accident; Harvey, the man who hit me with his car was twenty one. We saw each other for the first time a few years after the accident at the trial. We weren't allowed to speak to each other. Not that I wanted to talk to him; I wanted to punch his face in. I wasn't allowed to. The trial lasted a week and my lawyer could tell, by the questions the jury was asking, that they were likely going to be a hung jury. Which would mean another trial. I knew I couldn't go through that again. My defense mechanism is amnesia and I only remember about 4 hours of that whole week. It was grueling. We decided to settle which, meant I didn't get much compensation. More fuel to my fire of anger. When it was all over, a juror came up to me and apologized, explaining that there was one juror who thought it was my fault. I freaked out. If ever there was a time in my life when I wanted to run, it was in that moment. I could only walk quickly to the nearest exit and limp my way down the two flights of stairs. My sister followed me, easily caught up to me, grabbed me and held me tight. My tears soaked the shoulder of her shirt.

I didn't see Harvey again for fifteen years. On the fifteenth anniversary of my accident, I called Harvey to yell at him for ignoring me for fifteen years, for ripping off my leg, for ruining my life. (He didn't really ruin my life. I mean, I was healthy, relatively happy, and active, but it would have been much more dramatic to say, You Ruined My Life!). I wanted him to pay. His insurance company paid the settlement so, as far as I could tell, he had had no consequences to "ruining my life." His time had come.

I don't mean to be a tease, but the rest of this story is going to be published soon and I don't think the publisher would appreciate it if I gave away the ending. I've written an essay about my experience with Harvey which is in the upcoming anthology, The Spirit of a Woman, Stories to Empower and Inspire, edited by Terry Laszlo-Gopadze. It will be in major bookstores in June, but pre-orders are being taken now. There's a link on the right side of my blog in which to pre-order. I am honored to be sharing space in the same book as some amazing women: Angeles Arrien, Christina Baldwin, Lauren Artress, just to name a few.

I can tell you that I've thought a lot about forgiveness over the years. I've come to the conclusion that forgiveness is a choice, forgiveness is a process, and forgiveness has been a gift I've given myself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Walk a mile in my shoes

I've been thinking about the saying, "Walk a mile in my shoes" lately and how there are two viewpoints to that saying. The first is from the person saying it, as if in challenge, as if to say, "You can't possibly know what it's like to suffer as I do unless you have the same experiences that I do."

I know that place. I've had that feeling. After I lost my leg in a car accident in high school, I felt so alienated from my peers. They couldn't possibly know what I was feeling. Like any normal high school student, I was desperate to be the same, to fit in, to connect with my peers. My accident catapulted me into another realm of consciousness and I didn't know how to relate to them anymore. In my desperation I would think "Walk a mile in my shoes and then you'll understand me, then you'll be able to relate to me." But the reality was, I wouldn't wish my experience on anyone. Partly because it was too painful - why would I want anyone to go through that? And partly because it was my experience. No one else's. Icky? Yes. But mine. I knew, from that early age, that everyone on this planet has their own experiences that have the potential for learning, growing and transcending.

The other viewpoint to that saying is from the person receiving it, the person who is hearing it. Do I take on the challenge to understand other people's perspectives? Other people's pain? Do I really try and know what other people go through? Sometimes I do; sometimes I don't. And even when I do, I ultimately know, that unless I share the exact same experience, I cannot know another person's pain.

As I was walking the other day and my prosthetic leg was rubbing in that unmentionable place, I tried to walk that mile in the shoes of someone living in Sierra Leone who needs to walk for her water. What is it like to have to walk for one of life's necessities on crutches? In the midst of pain? How does one do that? I kept walking, as if my life depended on it; I just kept walking through my own pain. I don't have scorching heat and oppressive humidity added to the mix - which would, quite frankly, make me wilt like an unwatered flower - and I have all the creature comforts I could ask for inside my warm home. In truth, my life did not depend on finishing my mile the way it does for people in developing countries. I could only imagine.

The important part of that saying is that we all walk our own miles. We all have pain that we can allow to separate us from the rest of the world. But I don't believe it really separates us. When I allow it, my pain actually connects me to the rest of the world, just as easily as my joy does. I just need to allow it.