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!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What's your story?

Mile Marker 7816:

Stay calm, breathe; you're in good hands, competent hands; these hands can save your life; they've saved others' lives, applied bandages, hooked up IV lines, removed pain; relax, that one drip will bring relief; inhale the tingling that feels like fireflies in your head; lie back on the clean, sterile sheet, newly spread across the gurney just for you; stay calm, breathe; relief is just moments away; brace yourself for the long haul; inhale past the tube in your nose and throat, scratchy and hard-to-swallow; embrace the heartbeat of the hospital; bandages on and off; new IVs every three days; nurses in and out, 7 to 7, like sunrise and sunset; stay calm, breathe; lie back against the raised head of your bed; press a button, help will come; the days will start and end and start again; time will crawl by; keep your eyes on the second hand of the clock, the one that hangs on the blue wall across from your bed (a blue darker and more muddled than the sea or sky); count the minutes, the hours till morning; watch the tiny DVD screen; stare out your doorway into the dim light of the corridor; close your eyes; stay calm, breathe.

I've walked more than a mile this morning to arrive at the Loews Hotel for a conference called Telling Your Health Story.  It's a fantastic event, a combination of journalism and medicine, all about storytelling and how it reveals the human side of health care.

The opening speakers, Michael Vitez and Dr. Naomi Rosenberg, teach narrative writing to medical students at Temple University.

"If it's not anatomy and physiology texts, students won't do the reading," they joke.  And so we read aloud together like they do in class, an essay by Jamaica Kincaid called GIRL.

It has nothing to do with medicine, and yet it has power.  It's a vivid set of instructions -- mother to daughter -- a collection of phrases and images, memories and responses, one after another in a rhythm that lets you feel the experience as you read.  (Read it for yourself here.)

Then they tell us it's our turn.

Think about your own role and why you're here, they say.  Write instructions for your role, in the style of GIRL

You have 7 minutes.  Go.

Remember the first paragraph of this post?

That's mine.

I admit it's not fully baked yet.  It takes every ounce of willpower to stop myself from editing it, but that's kind of the whole point.

It's ok if you don't have time or space to get it perfect.  This crowd doesn't either.  They're doctors and nurses, social workers and psychologists, journalists and writers, caregivers and patients who've been through their own health experiences, like me.  We're busy people, all of us, and yet we all have stories to share.

The line-up of speakers at this conference is impressive -- with potent writing already in their bylines.  Read a few here and here and here.  Take your time.  It's worth it.  Their stories pack a punch.

(And if you're interested, check out the story Michael Vitez wrote about my journey back in 2011!)

I listen from my chair, transfixed, for 8 hours straight.  In a rock-hard prosthetic socket, that says quite a lot.

At the end of the day, exhausted and energized, I ride the elevator down to the lobby with two young women.  One tells me she's applying to med school; the other, I learn, is in her first-year of med school.  At Jefferson.

"You spoke to our class," she says.  "I remember."

Again, I'm struck by the power of storytelling.

Stories linger long after we tell them.  They can teach in a way statistics can't.  They can affect policy, spur legislation, move us to unexpected conclusions, and connect us to people we may otherwise never have met.

When we grapple with a difficult experience, the story that remains is a snapshot of what matters most.

So... what's yours?  (Come on, everybody has one.)

And why not get it out there?   In an article or on a blog (or a comment on this one!).  Tell it to a friend.  Share it on social media.  Write it in a notebook.  Scribble it on a napkin.

You never know the difference it might make -- for you or someone else.  Or for the world.

You have 7 minutes.  Go.

Your story matters.  Tell it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Inside Out

Mile Marker 7650:

I'm on one foot, balancing my hip along the edge of a boulder.

My backpack is sprawled on the rock next to me, its insides spewing out everywhere:  harness, climbing leg, shoes, socks, towels, liner, alcohol spray, and more.  It's all I can do to keep from dropping my Allen wrench into the ravine 100 feet below.

But it's definitely the most beautiful
place I've ever adjusted my leg!

Ants scurry across the sloping trail as I fumble to get my socket back on.  Alex and Sam have hiked off to find our next climbing route.  They'll be back for me in a few minutes.

At Mile 7,650, I wanted to get outside, yet I forgot how challenging outside can be.

In Ralph Stover State Park, climbing turns out to be the EASIEST part.  After 4 years on gym walls, my skills are deeply ingrained.  Muscle memory takes over.  I recognize familiar patterns on the rock face, and I know exactly what to do.

On the ground?  That's a different story.

Balancing at the top is tricky too!

Alex and Sam are both more experienced than I am.  I watch as they competently place cams and set top ropes.  They check my knots and encourage me from above when I freeze up under an overhang.

When I can't find a stable spot to belay, Sam suggests I sit on a boulder, wedging my feet against the rock wall and my back against a tree trunk.  It works!

On another climb, he belays me from the top and then teaches me to rappel down.  For safety, Alex secures the rope in a "fireman's belay" from below.

Coming down!

I adjust my leg between climbs.  Once it's back on, Alex and I continue down the trail to where Sam has scouted out our next climb.

This is just the approach -- the path you take to reach the climbing area.  For most people, it's a simple trip from here to there.  For me, it's the hardest part of the day.

The trail tilts diagonally, higher on the left, lower on the right.  It's all wrong for my prosthetic side.  My foot catches on tree roots and trips over rocks.  I can't get enough traction to bend my knee.

I pause to think.  To plan.  To problem-solve.  To watch the sure-footed steps of other climbers passing us by.

"Wait," I say a thousand times.

Alex waits patiently.

I shift my trekking poles into one hand so I can grasp the cord of his backpack with the other.  Side-step, pivot, hip-hike.  Right hand on the backpack, left hand on the rock wall.  I feel my prosthetic socket loosen again, control withering with each step.

I think about the smooth floors and air-conditioned buildings where I do my best walking.

Inside I'm good, I think.  It's outside I struggle.

Seven miles later, the exact opposite is true.

Mile Marker 7657:

Inside, it turns out, I'm not good at all.

At Mile 7,657, I'm on my way to volunteer at an adaptive climbing night when abdominal pain kicks in.

It's familiar, but ambiguous at first.  I get pain sometimes.  It passes.  Sometimes.

Not this time.

Two hours later, my brother Mark drives me to the emergency room.

My old trauma team rallies to get me through triage and into a cubicle as soon as one opens up.  They start an IV to help with the nausea, vomiting, and excruciating pain.

"You need an NG tube," says Dr. M.  (Not the Dr. M. who admitted me in the trauma bay 8 years ago, but a different one, who was just a resident back then.)

That's him on the right, when he presented my case
at a trauma conference back in 2012!

Now, he and two new residents are standing beside my gurney, NG kit in hand.  They probably expect me to argue, or cry, or yank my head away.  Placing an NG tube is an excruciating process all its own.

But at this moment, I'll agree to anything.  I'll do ANYTHING to stop the pain.

They cue me to tilt my chin downward and swallow as they insert the tube.  An NG tube can relieve a blockage by decompressing the stomach and intestines.  In other words, it draws your insides out.

Relief from pain is the BEST feeling in the world!

I look over at my parents, who've driven more than an hour through torrential rain and detoured roads to arrive at the ER tonight.

Just like old times, I think.

It's difficult to talk with the tube in my throat, but I do it anyway.  "Can you believe this?" I mouth.  "Here we are again."

It's been 6 years, 10 months, and 25 days since my last hospitalization.  Almost 7 years.

This resets the clock.

In my drug-induced calm, I picture that sign that hangs behind the deli at Wawa.  You know the one.  It goes something like this:

And then I imagine a store full of employees throwing their hands up in futility... as the bagel guy slices off the tip of his thumb.

Here we go again...

The familiar routine is a reminder
 -- never take good health for granted.

It's what's on the inside that counts.

Mile Marker 7678:  

On Monday morning, I return to work.

I tread slowly.  Eat small bites at a time.  Take deep breaths to keep the anxiety at bay.

On the outside, this looks like bouncing back.  A mere 5 days in the hospital, taken in stride, sandwiched on either side by 2 hearty slices of normalcy.

The next weekend, we celebrate my parents' 75th birthdays.

Happy Birthday, M & D!

It's 3 days of fun, food, and field trips!

Like our matching t-shirts?? :)

We trek through Crystal Cave...

eat ice cream...

and play mini-golf.

(Well, some of us anyway...)

My health holds steady.  And while it takes effort on the inside, it's nice be outside -- with family -- and turn the focus outside of myself.

Mile Marker 7695:  

For an abdominal problem, this occupies a lot of head space.  You might say it throws me for a loop -- beyond the ones in my small intestines.

While it looks like I'm moving forward, I'm really in a holding pattern.  With each step I take on the outside, I can't help wondering -- what's happening inside?

In the first 2 years after my accident, bowel obstructions haunted my recovery.  They landed me in the hospital 6 more times.  I thought those days were behind me, but now it seems they're making a comeback.

The idea knocks me off balance, like an unstable hiking trail where I thought the ground was solid.

I try to think.  To plan.  To problem-solve.  But it doesn't get me anywhere.

At Mile 7,695, I'm at a standstill.

That's when Jasmine and I walk to the farmers market.

We walk and talk, and on the way home, the conversation finds its way to my latest bump in the road.  I tell her how unsettled I feel.  How weighted down by its resurgence.  How I'm struggling with what the future might bring.

"This problem isn't one and done," I tell her.  "There's a pattern.  It happens over and over again."  I give her a brief rundown of those dark days 7 years (and 7,000 miles) ago, before we met.

Her response surprises me.  "In 7 years, your body changes," she says.  "It's different now."


We compare this episode to the previous ones, and I see what she means.

This time the pain came on suddenly, not after days of struggle.  It resolved quickly in the ER.  I only needed an NG tube for 2 days, instead of the usual 4-5.  My digestion returned to normal in record time.

Jasmine is a pediatrician, but I think she might be onto something.

"Maybe it'll be 7 years before the next one," she says.  "Or 10."

"Or never?"  I chime in.

She agrees it's possible.  "It's time for a new pattern," she says definitively.

On the smooth-ish sidewalks of Old City, it's exactly the answer I was searching for.

Thanks Dr. Jaz!

My footing is stable -- for the moment anyway.  I don't know what lies on the trail ahead.  But maybe it's something different.

One good walk, and a dose of hope, turns my perspective inside out.

Thanks to Alex for the climbing photos, to my family & friends for always being there, and to my trauma team for (still) coming to the rescue whenever I need them!

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Small Town Steps

Mile Marker 7610:

"Do you want some candy?"

Um, no? 

Never take candy from strangers.

But this stranger is an angel-faced teenager in a tanktop, gym shorts, and flip-flips.  Her hair is pulled into a ponytail, held back by a cheap pair of sunglasses.  We're standing on the tree-lined sidewalk of small town Stroudsburg, PA.  And if that weren't enough, her mom's there too.

"Here, have some," she says.  "Really, I bought way too much!"

She holds out a white cardboard box.  Inside is a kaleidoscope of gummies:  fish, butterflies, ice cream cones, sharks, fruit slices and more.

She picks up a gummy fried egg.  "Try one of these.  They're really good!"

Um, still no thanks. 

But I appreciate the offer.

Gummy or not, it's hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.  I've just parked my car in the shadiest spot on Main Street.  And bonus -- in Stroudsburg, it costs only two quarters for a whole hour of parking time!

I'd been planning to go into the bookstore a few doors down, but this girl is determined to change my mind.  "You should go in there," she says, pointing toward the candy shop.  "It's sooo good!"

Twist my arm...

I open the blue painted door to a cold blast of air-conditioning and sugar.

The folks at the counter inside are as friendly as the girl outside.  They describe with pride how their shop is different from others.

"A box is $5.25.  Fill it with as much candy as you can fit.  Anything goes, as long as you can get the lid closed!"

I can see how that girl fell prey.  Buying too much is practically mandatory!

Rubber chickens not included :)

I pay with cash.  (With parking so cheap, I've got plenty of quarters left!)

I tell them Stroudsburg has the best parking deal I've seen in a long time.  They ask where I'm from.

"We were just in Philly last weekend!" they say.  They went to a museum and a restaurant, but parking was by far the most expensive part of the trip.

"Next time, we're parking in a fountain," the man jokes.  "I didn't see any no parking signs there!"

He's right.

Gotta love a town where they tell it like it is.

Mile Marker 7611:  

So what brings me to this mountain town, 100 miles north of Philly?  (I mean, besides meeting the locals...)

I'm here to help with the AlliedOP Pocono Amputee Support Group.

This is Kathy - who organizes the group!

All the group members arrive on foot - carbon fiber or otherwise.  Some use crutches.  Some use walkers.  Some stroll hands-free.

If you hang with amputees long enough, you'll realize everyone has a story.  Those stories aren't mine to share here, but they run deep and linger even after the group wraps up for the night.  In a span of 2 hours, the connections made can last a lifetime.

Mile Marker 7612:

The next morning, the air is fresh.  The streets are empty.  Birds chirp.  There are few cars and even fewer people.

In a breeze, I cover 1.3 miles!

I take my time, ducking into hideaways off Main Street.

Discover a bicycle garden in an overgrown churchyard...

A patchwork mural - painted by the local businesses...

...and an off-beat cafe that's not yet open.
(I like this town.  I'm actually EARLY here!)

As I make my way back to the car, I come upon an intersection where a silver SUV sits at a stop sign.  I'm not the fastest walker, so I wave him on.

But no -- he stays right where he is and motions for me to cross first.  Then he rolls down his window.

"Excuse me," he says.  "I don't want to bother you, but can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."  (I can kind of guess where this is going...)

"What kind of leg is that?" he says.  "My brother has a prosthetic leg.  He was hit by a drunk driver back in the 80's..."

I tell him about my leg and how it works.  We talk about the difference between an above-knee amputee (me) and a below-knee amputee (his brother).

Car still idling, he describes that brother, and then another brother, and still a third brother.  His tale is tragic, but there's something encouraging about the way he hands it over so genuinely to a complete stranger.

That stranger is me.

And I have to admit, I feel lucky to receive it.

Mile Marker 7613:

The 2+ hour ride back to Philly gives me a chance to think.

Along the way, I get lost in a Dirtbag Diaries podcast that echoes the last few miles.

Check it out here.

It's about Jonathon Stalls who, after growing up in the car-driven suburbs, decides to combat isolation by WALKING across the U.S., powered only by his own two feet and the stories of pedestrians around him.  He talks about the connections that are often broken in our high-speed world but can be rebuilt by slowing down, and walking.

He's created a movement called Walk2Connect.

For me, walking depends on pain, distance, weather, and a thousand other factors I never considered before I became an amputee.  Day to day, I depend on my car much more than I like.

Still, there's something about getting out there -- especially on a prosthetic leg -- that encourages conversation and builds connection.  When I visit a place, I want to be PART of it.  Walking helps me do that.

Strangers don't have to be strangers.  With a few miles on foot, I got taste of this town (not to mention its candy).

Walk on, Stroudsburg.

One step at a time, we'll find common ground.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Club, the Universe, and Everything...

Mile Marker 7584:

What do space travel and a book club have in common?

Well today, snacks.

I'm not talking about astronaut ice cream or Tang.  I didn't plan far enough in advance for either of those.  (And by the absence of "space food" at Target, I'm guessing that's not where NASA shops either!)

Instead, I gather up provisions found within a mile of my Earth-bound apartment:

Green earth...

dusty moon...

stellar salad...

shooting stars...

and dark chocolate galaxy bark!
(recipe here)

We even have moonshine -- in space age Dixie cups!

This summer, I can't get enough of the moon landing coverage.  Maybe it's because I wasn't born yet when it happened the first time around!

Growing up, my brother Mark was always the space buff.  He built model rockets, went to Space Camp, and even traveled to Florida to watch a space shuttle launch.

He did take me to Mars once... in 3-D.
(Bonus, Matt Damon was there too!) 

I love the inspiration of space travel.  First footsteps.  Moonshots.  The idea that we can solve impossible problems through teamwork and collaboration.  That there's a future out there, and it's expansive and hopeful.  That, despite our differences, we all share the same tiny corner of the universe.

Maybe that seems like a dramatic segue to a book club, but stick with me...

This month our meeting is scheduled for July 20, the exact anniversary of the moon landing.  And the point of the book club is to read outside our comfort zone.  To push our own boundaries. To pick up books we wouldn't typically gravitate toward.

Remember my 19 for 2019 List?  Well, if reading is an escape, then reading outside my comfort zone is like venturing beyond the Earth's atmosphere -- without the hassle of a prosthesis in a space suit!

Here's how our book club works.  We pick a theme each month, and within that theme, everyone picks a book they want to read.  We explore new genres, share books around, and go off on tangents that lead to interesting destinations.

By the way, it's true -- books do open doors.  The month we read graphic novels, I discovered a whole new world in the comic book store across from my apartment!

Coincidentally called Brave New Worlds!

This month's theme is sci-fi, for obvious reasons :)

The conversation wanders from Ray Bradbury, to Ursula Le Guin, to time travel books with bad endings.  After we've stuffed ourselves with space snacks, I tell everyone I'm working on a blog post about the group.  The thing is, we cover so much ground, I can't quite put our meetings into words.

"Describe the book club in 7 words or less," I say.  (Hey, if we can put a man on the moon, I figure we're up for this challenge.)

Natalie, our most voracious reader, immediately comes out with this:

"Books, boys, jobs, travel, life, and... cheese."

There you have it.  Books, the universe, and everything.  Cheese included.

This group -- and each book we share -- makes me want to take chances and imagine possibilities.  Do anything.  Go anywhere.

All good fuel for a trip to the moon.

Or wherever the pages take you.

Happy 50th, Apollo 11!

Read on!

Want to read along?  Stay tuned for a new feature on the blog -- a page called "Book Shelf" -- launching soon! 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

One-Way Ticket

Mile Marker 7566:

I have a new philosophy:

It's better to go than not to go.

I'm sure there's a famous quote that could express it in a catchier way, but I don't want to take the time to search for it.

At Mile 7,566, I just want to go.

Peach picking, that is.

It's not that much to ask.  A one-day trip, 35 minutes south of the city.  Even if we stop for breakfast -- which we do -- we'll be back by mid-afternoon.

I plan for the challenges.  It's hot enough to sweat out of my leg, so we leave early.  Farmland is bumpy, so I wear sneakers.  I carry water, a small towel, and plenty of leg supplies.

We arrive at Linvilla Orchards just as it's opening up.  The sun is low but already feisty.

We catch a ride into the orchard.

Surprise #1:  There are no peaches.

I mean technically there are plenty of peaches, but they aren't ready to be picked yet.

Instead, we head down the dusty road toward the plum trees.  It IS hot.  It IS bumpy.

But if I can take a photo, it's can't be too bad!

Surprise #2:  Climbing skills come in handy.

The trees lie in valleys between patches of grass, so each time I step in to grab a plum, I sink into a ditch.  The ripest plums are up where the sun shines.  I need to be taller.  So I turn my hip in toward the trees just like I turn toward the rock wall.  I push up onto my right tiptoe, fingers grazing the branches just for balance.  I can reach!

Bonus, it's shady under here!

We gather red and yellow plums and, on the way back, pristine apples too.

Summer apples?  Who knew?

Of course, our adventure wouldn't be complete without an awkward leg moment.  (No surprise there!)

Today's leg adjustment happens back at the car.

Three omelettes and one traffic jam later, we arrive home and start baking.  Mary slices up plums to make healthy oatmeal muffins.

Recipe here :)

I roll out my FIRST EVER pie crust. (Surprise #3:  It's not that difficult!)  Ellen mixes the filling:  plums, blackberries, honey, and cinnamon.  We sprinkle the top with raw sugar.  An hour later, we have a rustic blackberry-peach galette - with plums instead of peaches.

Recipe here :)

Surprise #4:  It turns out amazing.  In fact, the whole day does.

Mile Marker 7572:

That trip to the orchard comes just as my climbing friends from across the country are boarding their flights to France.  The 2019 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships are about to begin.

Last March, I placed 3rd at Adaptive Nationals and qualified for the US Paraclimbing Team for the second year in a row.

But this year I decided not to go to Worlds.

Why?  It was scheduled for July.

I don't do well in the heat.  My body gets overheated quickly.  I feel sick and dehydrated, and I struggle to keep my prosthetic leg on.  When I checked the July temperature for Briancon, France, it looked hot.  I was afraid of the discomfort and the problems I might face.

I was afraid the challenges would outweigh the fun.

Now at Mile 7,572, I am struck with a serious case of FOMO.  Fear of missing out.  And as I scroll through my Facebook and Instagram feeds, I see I am missing out.  I wish I were there.

I wish I were part of this team!!

I've been living with a disability for 8 years now, and I don't typically regret missing out anymore.  Energy is a precious resource I've learned to conserve.  I can't do everything, and I'm OK with that.  Usually.  But not right now.

Right now, I am missing out on an adventure with my favorite people in my favorite part of the world -- largely because I was afraid of the heat.

This morning I hear it's 48 degrees in Briancon, France.  Everyone is wearing jackets.

I'm in Philly, where it's closer to 90.  I put on my team jersey from last year's Worlds in Austria.  It feels a bit foreign, but it's one small way I can support the team.

Later in the day, I show up at Prosthetic Innovations for a "leg check."  It's just a formality.  My new leg is working perfectly.

I tell Prosthetist Tim how I made the wrong decision about Worlds this year.  He nods knowingly, and then puts into words exactly what I've been feeling.

"All we get is a one-way ticket," he says.  "Gotta make the most of it."

Leg adjustments.  Attitude adjustments.

He sends me on my way!

I want to find surprises in my path.  I want to face the challenges and still have fun.  I want to spend my one-way ticket until it's dog-eared and faded like it went through the washer in the pocket of my traveling shorts.

A day trip?  A journey across the ocean?

The answer is yes.  I want to go.