Tuesday, November 9, 2010 arrived with a clear early morning that promised to become a chilly, sunny, and typically autumn day. I zipped my coat, buckled my helmet strap, unlocked my bike, and headed off to work. A few minutes later, a garbage truck crossed a bike lane to make a right turn. I was in that bike lane. The tires of the truck crushed my left leg and caused other internal injuries. An amazing team of trauma surgeons saved my life, but they had to amputate my leg to do so.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Confucius.

In July 2011, I set off to walk a thousand miles as an above-knee amputee in my new prosthesis. The journey has held more twists, turns, and detours than I ever imagined.

I reached Mile 1000 on March 30, 2013.

But of course, that wasn't the end.

I'll keep walking!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Robot Mom

Mile Marker 6,100:

Yep, that's me.

A lot has happened since my last blog post.

On an unsuspecting Monday at the end of November, I got a phone call.  And 90 minutes later, I became a mom.

Specifically, a foster mom.

That was Mile 5,708.

For nearly 4 months and 400 miles, I've been debating how to write this post.  How to find the time to write it, of course.  But also how to share one of the most intimate (and mile-worthy) experiences of my life in a way that maintains the privacy of an 8-year-old girl.  A child who never asked to be part of this journey.

No small feat (or feet!) for a Robot Mom.


She is small but strong.  Her khakis have been shortened with scissors, her bangs are overgrown, and her eyebrows don't yet reach the desktop in the school office.

"It's my first foster mom with a robot leg!" she announces loudly, and proudly, to the school secretary.

"It's true," I add.  She has a reputation for telling stories, so I make it clear this isn't one of them.

We've gotten up, dressed, and out of the apartment.  We've even located her school, which was unexpectedly 9 blocks away from the address I'd received.  And now we're in the office, updating her emergency contact forms.  8 AM and all is well.

We have known each other for 18 hours.



In the next 40 miles, leg talk turns to Legos.  Homework gets done.  Chicken nuggets sizzle in the toaster oven.  Disney lyrics lodge in my brain.

A hundred miles later, we celebrate Christmas together.  Then Valentine's Day.  Then St. Patty's Day.

Along the way, we take walks.  In the mornings, I get coffee and she gets a banana.  In the evenings, we stop for pizza.

She meets my family and friends, awarding nicknames to those she loves best.  My dad is "Pops."  Uncle Mark is "Funcle." (Get it?  Fun + Uncle!)   Neighbors Donna and Mike are "Peaches and Manny," Jasmine is "JJ," and Jen is "Sparkle."

Over time I become "Mom."

And she even chooses the perfect nickname for herself: "Rainbow."

(This makes blogging easier!)

After the first few miles, the novelty of a robot leg wears off.  Rainbow grows accustomed to the thump of my Genium when I kneel to lace her high-tops.  At night, she sleeps through the clicking of my crutches on the hardwood floor.  At the rock gym, she barely blinks when I screw on my climbing leg.  I admire her ability to adapt, not only to a new mom, but to a Robot Mom at that.

As for me, the miles carry small accomplishments.  Like stepping across a carpet littered with Barbies or changing the sheets on her bunk bed.  (Putting sheets on a bunk bed could be a blog post all its own!)

There are times I feel inadequate, though.  Like when my knee collapsed as she jumped into my arms, pulling us both to the floor with her enthusiasm and weight.  Or on a snow day when I'm not steady enough to take her outside to play.

We built a "day after" snowman instead!

I'm not the first amputee to be a parent or even a single parent.  It's just the first time for me.  And I'm learning as I go.  For all the demands of motherhood (temporary or not), amputee rules still apply:

Safety first.
Plan ahead.
Pacing is everything.
Hope for good leg days.


At Mile 5,971, I get a new prosthetic socket.

The inner liner is made of a material called SiOCX.  It's softer, with customized padding on pressure spots, allowing for an easier break-in period.


Good thing.

Because in the life of a Robot Mom, a new socket is a minor event.

Rainbow wants to walk to the toy store, "Pleeeeaazzze!"  She's earned 10 stickers for sleeping through the night and has saved up a pocketful of quarters from making her bed.  An errand of this importance should not be left up to socket design.  Even a second grader knows that.

I wear my leg for 16 hours each day, and fall into bed exhausted each night.  By 9 PM, I am not sure I can do this again tomorrow.  But the next morning, when my alarm goes off at 5:15, I do it anyway.

Getting out of bed is anything but robotic.


My goal as a writer has always been to share the story honestly.   Yet I worried about how to share this part of it, balancing the openness it deserves with the confidentiality it demands.

And then I realized, it's not about her.  (Although everything else is!)  This post is about me.

It's about accepting this next chapter -- and all its ups and downs -- with love, grit, and maybe even grace.  Do we ever do anything perfectly?  Do we ever know if we made the right choices?  Can we ever predict what the next few miles will hold?


On a recent Sunday afternoon, Rainbow perches on a dining room chair.  She's barefoot, in pink patterned leggings and a shirt that doesn't match.  Pencil and notepad in hand, she's composing a newscast.


When she has a full page of notes, she calls me over.  An aspiring YouTuber, she wants to make a video.  So I cue up my phone.  She sits, prim and proper, at the table and begins reporting the day's news.

"It is raining today," she starts.  "It is not good to go for a walk."

No argument there.

She pauses authentically, makes eye contact with the camera.  Or maybe with me.   Then, in her best newscaster voice, she presents the next story.

"My mom likes to write." 

It comes out of nowhere and takes me by surprise.  Partly because it's an unlikely segue from the weather, but mostly because she is eerily perceptive.

In our time together, she has never seen me write more than a shopping list or a note to her teacher.  So why include this in her newscast?  Why now?

Maybe it's just a coincidence.  She knows how to spell "mom," and "write" is a word from last week's spelling list.

Or maybe it's a sign.

I've spent the last 400 miles trying to be a good mom.   Maybe she knows me better than I think.

Rainbow and Robot Mom.

I'm not sure how long we'll be together, but I know there will be more adventures ahead!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Brick by Brick

Mile Marker 5,655:

When the going gets tough, the tough go small.

At least I do anyway.

On my morning walks -- which have been a struggle lately -- I focus on bricks.

Why bricks?

I do most of my walking in Old City, and recently I've been blown away by the sheer number of bricks around.  They're underfoot in the alley where I get my coffee.  They're stacked into the walls of Old Christ Church.
 
They're EVERYWHERE I step.

Did you ever notice how precisely each brick interlocks with the next?  Or think about the workers who built Philadelphia one brick at a time?

These bricks have been standing since Ben Franklin's days.  They've endured snow, sun, wars, and trash trucks -- legs made of skin, and wood, and titanium.

Sometimes miles are just too long.  This week, I have to think smaller.  I'm holding it together brick by brick.

It starts on Halloween when I'm invited to be a guest lecturer at University of the Sciences for a class of PT, OT, and PA students.  The profs hint I should wear a costume, so I choose the most logical one...

Modern Day Pirate!

I tell the students about my rehabilitation journey.  I talk about the prosthetic process and describe how my therapists broke down each task into its smallest components.  How many times we backtracked and started over.  How I practiced walking for hours in front of the mirror, internalizing a lesson that would carry me for thousands of miles:

ONE STEP AT A TIME.

It's especially relevant this week.


Halloween brings back memories of October 2010, when I had no idea what was coming.  Each year since then, those 10 days -- from October 31 to November 9 -- have become the countdown, like a bumpy brick road I have no choice but to walk.


The path that leads from BEFORE to AFTER.

In 2011, on the first anniversary of the accident, I was haunted by October and dreaded turning the calendar page to November.

It's different now.  I don't feel quite that way anymore.

In 7 years, November 9th has been transformed from a day of tragedy into my ALIVE DAY.

It's a day of loss -- yes -- but also a day of awe, and love, and gratitude for all the miles (and people!) that have carried me this far.  It's a day when I think about how my journey's been built, step by step, brick by brick.

I find this reminder
on the hospital wall when
I go to volunteer!

Sure, I still get teary-eyed during the countdown.  And I'm still overwhelmed by an inexplicable sense of urgency, like I need to get everything finished before it's too late.

But oddly, life goes on.  There are students to teach, and patients to visit, and gardens to water, and walls to climb. 

And of course, no week would be complete without prosthetic problems.  (Nothing too serious -- just a torn liner!)

I tick off each task like a brick in the alleyway.

This year, I feel more prepared.  This year, I think I'll handle it better.  Yet on November 8th, as day sinks into evening, anxiety creeps in like a drum roll.  The last task of the day is to attend a meeting of the Patient and Family Advisory Council at Jefferson.  I drive into the parking garage, take the elevator down, walk across 10th Street.  It's only 5 p.m., but already the sun falls below the city skyline.

Our meeting is held in the same building as the Emergency Department.  The same building as the trauma bays.


My heart speeds up.  The drum roll builds in my ears.

I look away from the illuminated sign and turn my eyes downward toward my feet.  That's when I notice the brick entranceway.  It sounds crazy, but it helps.  For some reason, seeing those bricks calms me down.

Inside this building, they don't use bricks.  They rebuild lives with sutures, and bandages, and blood.  But it's the same idea.

One stitch at a time.
One step at a time.
One brick at a time.

I felt it in the hospital, learned it in rehab, and still practice it everyday.  Without pacing, pattern, and patience, how would we ever build anything?

The meeting is held on the top floor of the building.  From the conference room windows, we can see the white cross on the hospital helipad.


Tonight, in the short span of our meeting, two helicopters land there.

As my journey moves into Year 7, others' journeys are just beginning.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What Happened to You?

Mile Marker 5575:  

On a Saturday afternoon, my mom and I are running errands at the Montgomery Mall.  As I'm strolling through Macy's housewares department, a saleswoman turns to me unexpectedly.

"What happened to you?"  she says.

For a split-second, I have no idea what she's talking about.  What happened to me?  When?  Today?  

Well, this morning I was at my niece's birthday party.  Oh wait!  Do I have ice cream on my face?  Did I get some of it on my shirt?? 

Then I realize what she's looking at.  Of course.  I'm wearing shorts.

"Oh?  You mean what happened to my leg," I say.

Obviously.

So I tell her the story of what happened to me.  (The short version, anyway.)

I guess it should have been the first thing that came to mind.  But the crazy thing is, it wasn't!  In this tiny random interaction, I realize how far I've come.  It's taken nearly 7 years, and finally...

WHAT HAPPENED TO ME IS NOT WHO I AM. 

The accident, the trauma, the recovery -- who I was before, and every step I take after -- they're all parts of me.  But I'm more than the sum of those parts.

And the story is still unfolding!

At Mile Marker 5,575, I'm invited to speak at the New Waves in Trauma Conference at Jefferson Hospital.  I spend weeks planning my presentation, thinking about not just what happened to me, but where I am now, and all the forces that carried me there.

That last part is nearly impossible to put into words.   How the trauma team supported me through surgeries, bandage changes, and sleepless nights.  How they cared for me over and over again, as we made 6 return trips to the ER, each one reopening those traumatic wounds.  How they somehow made sure I came out the other side.

When Nurse Deb introduces me at the conference, she asks for a show of hands from the audience.  "How many of you know Rebecca?"  she asks.  "How many of you took care of her while she was a patient?"

In a room of 200, maybe 20 hands go up.  I feel like they all took care of me, but in reality, Jefferson is a large city trauma center.  Shifts change. Staff shuffles.  Seven years is a long time.

What happened to you?

For the first 10 minutes, I recount my story from November 9, 2010, the morning I landed in bed 32T of the trauma bay.

A lot has happened since that day!

After that, I describe what it FEELS like to be a trauma patient, and things my team said and did that helped "heal" those emotions.  I even replay the video from Mile 160, our first anniversary walk on November 9, 2011.

When I finish, a nurse from the audience seeks me out.  It's Aileen, one of the trauma nurses who took care of me when I was first delivered to the trauma bay.  Our conversation wavers between recalling the day we met and catching up on all that's happened since!

"I remember how we brought your mom in to see you before we intubated you," Aileen says.

It's amazing what she remembers.  Hearing the story from her perspective is like watching my own movie from a different camera angle.

After the conference, we gather with the Jefferson community for the Excellence in Trauma Awards.  My family and I attend every year, along with other trauma patients and families who return to celebrate with the people who saved their lives.

My last hospitalization was at Mile 700, almost exactly 5 years ago, but those memories run deep...

...deep enough to get a selfie with your surgeon!

At this year's event, I run into Tommy, a new amputee I've been visiting the past few months as a peer mentor.

We shared some of the same doctors and nurses!

I also meet Calvin, a trauma survivor who nearly lost his life in a car accident 18 years ago.  Now he's THRIVING, beaming proudly with his wife and children by his side.  We've only just met, but we embrace in a group hug.  Even as strangers, we feel like old friends.

"You're part of our family," Calvin's wife says to us.  "Our trauma family."

What happened to you?

I've worked hard to move beyond the trauma of the accident, but it has lingering effects on my life.  It's left me with scars:  a little leg, a prosthetic leg, crutches, a rocky digestive system, and emotions that flare up when I least expect them.  Yet it's also filled my world with opportunities and projects I could never have imagined.

Like being a hospital volunteer!

Most of all, it's connected me with people who've helped transform this tragedy into a tale that's cherished and hopeful.

These are a few of them!


So... What happened to you?

It's an interesting question, especially today.

I'm gonna wrap up this post because I've gotta run. (Figuratively anyway!)  In a few short hours I'll be attending my 30-year high school reunion.  Yep, it's been quite the week for looking back!

Class of '87... I'm in there somewhere!

Tonight, as I crowd into a party with some of those 300 classmates, I'm pretty sure "What happened to you?" will be a question on everyone's mind.  Not what happened to me, but what happened to all of us over the last 3 decades.

I'm excited to hear the answers.

And no worries on my end.

I've got a pretty good story of my own.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Bee You

Mile Marker 5479:

"That's not a SKIN leg!"

From across a cobblestone alley, I hear the most creative (and cutest) take on my prosthetic leg.

It comes from a 4-year-old girl with a shiny bob haircut.  She's pointing.  At me.

It may be September, but it's still shorts season.

My friend Jasmine and I have just stepped out of Fezziwig's Sweet Shoppe.  I'm holding a drippy, green cup of mint chip ice cream.  Jasmine, next to me, holds salted caramel.

I walk cautiously over the cobbles, even more so now that the girl's whole family is watching.  The little girl follows us with her gaze.  Jaw dropped.  Eyes locked on my Genium.

"Do you want to see it?" I ask as we get closer.

Suddenly she looks down at her sandals.  Embarrassed.  Or maybe just shy.

"It's ok," I say.  "You're right.  It isn't a skin leg.  It's a robot leg.  It's called a prosthesis."  She nods.  I ask her if she likes my painted toe nails, and her eyes shift to the purple polish.

We chat with her family for a few seconds more.  Then Jasmine and I continue on our way.

Not all legs are skin legs.

Although my back is to her, I'm pretty sure that little girl is still watching.  And digesting all she's learned.


Mile Marker 5480:

The next mile is at Philly Honeyfest where friends Davey and Carol are demonstrating how to extract honey.

Davey and Carol are old friends of mine.  They're also local beekeepers.  Really local.  They live in South Philly, my old stomping grounds, just blocks from the Italian Market.  My house had a garden, but theirs has a roof deck -- where they've installed 4 beehives. 

My friend Jen and I watch as they insert a hive frame into a huge urn called an extractor.   Davey turns the crank, and a syrupy stream of gold oozes from the spout.


Carol hands out popsicle sticks.  We use them to catch the honey.

It's as sweet -- and as raw -- as it gets!  Fresh from the hive, there are chunks of honeycomb floating in it, along with a few scattered bee legs.  I get the feeling there are a few "ampu-bees" back at the hive :)

Davey scoops up a pea-sized wad of the mixture and places it on the edge of my finger.  Part honeycomb, part honey, and thankfully, no part bee.  "It has a consistency like chewing gum," he says.

Just then, a wide-eyed little boy looks up at me with a huge toothless smile.   I'm expecting a comment about my robot leg, but that's not what impresses him.  It's that I know the beekeepers!

I offer him the honey in my hand.  "Wanna try?"

Without missing a beat, he sticks out his tongue and laps it right off the end of my finger.  Yep, we're "bee-ing" friendly.

In case you're wondering what roof bees make, well, here's the final product.  100% Pure.  100% Raw.

100% Made on a roof!


Mile Marker 5515:

A few miles later, Mom and I grab breakfast with two of our good friends, Zita and Mattie.

For my birthday, Zita brings me a copy of Pantsuit Nation, a book filled with essays and photos from the Facebook group of the same name.  (Maybe you've heard of it?)  While the Facebook page originated to support Hillary Clinton, the need to celebrate our differences is even stronger now.

Pantsuit Nation is beautiful book.  I highly recommend it.

Especially pages 190-191.  Go Zita!

Being ourselves is about more than explaining prosthetics to kids or raising bees on a city roof.  It's about being who we are, however it might look and wherever it might take us.

I'm not afraid to show my prosthetic leg, or talk about it, or answer the many questions that come my way.  But I'm self-conscious too.  I haven't walked well in months.  When people look at me, I hope they see more than my gait.  I hope they see that I'm living my life.  A good life.  Challenging and complex, yet rich and rewarding.

Kind of like harvesting Roof Honey.

So BEE YOU.  There's strength in diversity.

And you never know the sweetness it might bring.


Thanks Jen & Zita for the photos.  For more beekeeping adventures, check out Davey and Carol's blog here!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Mountain Time

Mile Marker 5400:

Halfway between Woodstock and Thornton is a place that runs on mountain time.

When the sun rises, I'm awakened by real birds, not the artificial "birdsong" of my iPhone alarm.  And instead of walking to get coffee, I drive 9 miles.

It's worth it!

In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I'm sharing a house with my parents, my sister Sam, her husband Gregg, and nieces and nephew Riley, Brennan, and Dylan.  In case you lost count, that makes 8 of us.  So while it's quiet and serene outside the house, there's a constant hum inside.  The TV surfs between Sprout and CNN.  The washer and dryer tumble with endless loads of towels.

And Dilly wakes up long before the birds!

She's cute, so we let her slide!

I'm used to living on my own and doing what I want, but on this trip the kids set the pace.  We're on mountain time.

We befriend bears.

Climb rock walls.

Bungee jump.  (Safely!)

Get lost in life-size mazes.

And ride a gondola high above the world!

At Lost River Gorge, we hike a one-mile boardwalk.  It has a thousand stairs, cascading waterfalls, and a suspension bridge that makes Mom nervous.

The trail is lined with boulder caves carved by glaciers long ago.  Determined to follow the kids, I cover my Genium with plastic.  While my parents hang onto Dylan, the rest of us squeeze between stone walls, belly through passageways, and snake over puddles.

More than once,
I get stuck between
a rock and a hard place!

Each cave comes with unique challenges.  How will I tunnel under that low-hanging rock?  Hoist over that boulder?  Slip through that tight spot without releasing my socket? 

And of course, where's the best place for a selfie?

By the time I emerge there's an audience.  When I crawl bear-style up a wooden ladder, I accidentally knock my hip against the edge of a boulder.  Luckily we have a 7-year-old commentator to capture the moment.  Turn up the volume.  Here's a replay...



In the mountains, there's time for everything.  I even catch up with my old friend Bob, whom I haven't seen since long before the accident.  He and his family live about 50 miles from here, which by mountain standards is pretty much next door!

Exactly 2 years ago, I wrote a post called Small Happiness.  More than 2000 miles have passed since then, and that happiness has grown exponentially.

Riley, who took her first steps when I did, back at Mile 15, is now entering 2nd grade.

Brennan (born at Mile 436) is our newest kindergartner.

And prosthetist in training!


As for Baby Dyl?

On our last night in the house, she disappears.  While Dad's outside at the grill, and we're hustling to get dinner on the table, Dylan is suddenly no where to be found!  We can hear her little voice, those soft baby babbles, but we don't see her anywhere.  That's when she peeks her nose over the second floor landing.  Mom and Sam race up the winding stairway to find Dylan sitting at the top with a proud smile, pleased as punch with her newest accomplishment.  Her first time climbing stairs alone!

It's summer here, but autumn is on the way.  Already the night air smells like Halloween.

Time flies.  Seasons pass.
Things change.  It's good to take a break and enjoy them for a while.

That's the beauty of mountain time.