For amputees, finding inner strength
In mere seconds, the bombs exploded, and for scores of people so did their world. Spectators at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon were cheering one minute, screaming the next. In the aftermath, three people died at the scene, more than 264 were injured, and 14 people are now amputees.
I have been an amputee for 45 years. Amputee doesn’t mean disabled. I never think of myself as disabled. I would like the victims to know that they have a full, active, and rewarding life ahead. It’s theirs for the taking.
It’s hard to see beyond the immediate trauma, to see a life through the shock and the pain. Victims are no doubt wondering: Why me? What now? I can say unequivocally that all the questions get unavoidably answered in the process of rebuilding one’s life. The journey is hard, but help is available. Accepting it is key.
My amputation was planned. I was born with a faulty growth plate in my right knee. Between 1957 and 1967, I had six major surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital to try to fix my right leg. Each surgery brought improvement but no permanent fix. Still, I thought that we were making progress, so I was surprised when the doctor saw things differently. He explained that he didn’t want my life to lurch from surgery to surgery, and decided that a prosthetic limb was the way to go.
I never saw it coming. I was scared and nervous. I was 12. The doctor assured me that I could resume my old activities. Everything would be the same but different. Well, nothing was the same. Everything was different. And it took a while to adjust.
On June 12, 1968, I had the surgery. I still remember the pain when I woke up: The real pains and the haunting ghost pains. I have a photo of me in the garden at Children’s. I am sitting on a bench, in my regular clothes though still a patient, and my leg is wrapped in the special tight elastic sock designed to reduce the swelling to ready the limb for a prosthetic fitting. All summer I was home either doing physical therapy or lying on my stomach for hours so that the quad muscles wouldn’t shorten up — dire consequences. My first leg was wooden and not very comfortable. It was leading-edge, but it fell very short of my expectations. Still, it was my new leg, and I was going to own it.
I worked hard to get used to it. I wanted to walk back into my school in the fall the way I had left it in June: on two feet. I did it. I had a leg; I was happy. But I never loved that leg. It was a hindrance. I gave it up after seven years because it was just too heavy and unwieldy. I used my crutches full time. I don’t recommend that, but it was my best option. I didn’t resume all my activities, either. Instead I concentrated on my favorite — swimming.
I competed on triathlon teams, with the Master’s Swim Club, and as a member of the US Amputee Swim team. In 1987, I was named Female Amputee Athlete of the Year. I competed in national meets and in Paris and Sydney. I won gold, silver, and bronze medals. I made the Paralympic team that was headed to Seoul in 1988, but I became pregnant with my daughter Catherine and decided not to compete. I still swim 7,500 to 10,000 yards a week.
It was one day during the track-and-field events at my first amputee swim meet that I met my leg maker, Michael Joyce of Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics in New York. My years of walking exclusively on crutches were over. I got a great new modern leg just in time for the arrival of my second daughter, Antoinette.
That was 22 years ago. And ever since I have alternated between my crutches and my leg, now a C-leg. Not every amputee is comfortable using crutches, but I use whatever fits the situation; it’s like your little black dress versus jeans and a T-shirt. Cosmetic covers are very lifelike, but I choose the industrial look. The C-leg is programmed for each individual. It’s light years better than that wooden leg. And that’s the good news. A little boy in the playground once asked me, “Are you the bionic woman?” He was spot on. The only limits are self-imposed.
My friend Mike Doyle, a fellow swimmer and a big player in sled hockey, found his new life rich and rewarding. He adopted the motto, “Lose a leg. See the world.” But you don’t have to be a competitive athlete to do that. Everyone has the inner strength to persevere. Just put one foot in front of the other.