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!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Go/No-Go

Mile Marker 357:

I don’t claim to be an expert on flying. 

I do know that in order for a vehicle to get off the ground, about a million things have to go right.

Altimeters, fuel gauges, fluxcapacitors... (ok, I'm faking it here).... But devices like these all have to be fully functional for the pilot to make that crucial GO decision.  

For the plane to take off.

I do claim to be an expert on airports.  I can tell you the best place to stop for popcorn at Chicago’s O’Hare* and where to find the best deals in Philly's SkyMall.**  

I navigated across Paris’s huge Charles de Gaulle Airport, decoding signs en francais as I ran.   And in the tiny airport of Burlington, Vermont, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker when they could have just yelled it across the hall. 

Once, I even spent an entire night at the airport in Omaha, Nebraska.  (It was after my friend Elaine’s wedding, and I was with the Best Man, but that’s another story….)

Today’s story is this:  Traveling as a beginner amputee adds a whole new dimension.

Crutches, prosthesis, shower chairs…. Wheelchairs, hand searches, full body scanners… 

If the trip's to be a GO, each cog in the system has to be running smoothly.

So here’s the news from my personal flight deck --
THIS WEEKEND, FLORIDA IS A NO-GO.

I rented a shower chair and ordered travel crutches.  Reserved a wheelchair at the airport.   Even pedicured my toes.

But as any pilot knows, even the smallest mechanical detail can have huge repercussions.  If it’s not absolutely safe, the flight must be a NO-GO.

This week's detail is about the size of a quarter.  It’s not a piece of machinery although it is related to one.

A skin irritation.  What else is new?

Well, this one is.  And so is the prosthetic socket that goes along with it.

My new socket is called a “total suction” system.  It grips my leg without a liner.  It’s tighter around the hip area, which relieves pressure on the bottom of my leg.  Of course, now a new patch of skin has to adjust to the push and pull.

It hasn’t turned into anything serious.  In fact – with the prosthesis off for the past 3 days -- it’s healing up.  But at this point, there are too many variables up in the air.

Let me put it this way.  You would not want me flying your prosthetic plane.  (Not yet, anyway.)

Like a good pilot, I make GO and NO-GO decisions throughout every day, along every path, with almost every step.   At the supermarket, I brace myself during “produce misting,” so I don’t slip on the water.   At school, I hide out during bus dismissal so I don’t get plowed over by kids. 

Sure, the stakes aren’t quite as high as flying a plane.  But sometimes it feels like it.

Socket #4 brings new hope!
Last Friday, my new socket was ready for pick-up.  It came out of the Prosthetic Innovations workshop shiny, sleek – warm, even.  It was hand-crafted, custom-made, and fitted just for me.  I slid my hand over its smooth, black finish.

Prosthetist Tim helped me don it using a new “pull-bag” system.  I covered my leg with the blue, parachute-like sack.  With Tim’s guidance and tugging, my leg was suctioned into the socket.  So far, so good.

That night, I dreamed of running.

But on Saturday morning I had trouble sitting in a chair, and by Saturday afternoon an angry red circle had formed on my leg along the skin graft area.  I spent Sunday on crutches.  Mom came over to help me with laundry.  On Monday, Tim lowered the trim lines around the top and cut a “window” in the carbon shell to relieve the pressure.

Crèpes à la Cécile
Two more days of healing on crutches.  I sat tight in the house.  Plenty of time to finish schoolwork and enjoy crèpes with my friend Cécile.  

Plenty of time to make my GO/NO-GO decision for this weekend.

I hate to let my aunt and uncle down.  They’re the ones who sent me my “thousand miles” necklace just weeks after the accident. 

And it’s my cousin Tray’s birthday.  Last year, she spent her birthday weekend with me in the ER.   Since then, she’s lifted me up so many times with her bubbly energy; I’m amazed I’m not already airborne.

But it is just not SAFE yet.  They all understand.

Like a thoughtful pilot, I am choosing to wait.  It’s an inconvenience and a disappointment, but right now it’s necessary.

NO-GO.  I’ll take off later....
When all my parts are in working order.

----------------------------------------------------
FYI:
*You can find Garrett's Popcorn in Terminal 3.
**The Gap in Philly's SkyMall has fun travel-size scents for $4.00.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Coming Home

Mile Marker 350:

You know that feeling when you arrive home after a long day?   

That mixture of bliss and relief when you can finally pop off your shoes, change into sweats, and settle in for a night on the couch?

Mile 350 was sort of like that.


It started off with a bang.  Or -- more accurately – A CRASH.

A bicycle crash to be exact.

I wasn’t on the bike.  Not anywhere near it, actually.  And -- no worries -- the rider was fine in the end. 

But it was a frightening moment for both of us.


The night before all this happened, the corner of 5th and Washington called to me.   It’s not a place I visit often, but for some reason, on my way home from work I went out of my way to drive by.  And once there, I wanted to get out of the car.  To stand on that sidewalk and stare into the road where this whole journey had started.   But the sun was low, and I was alone.  I don’t walk at night anymore.  So I drove by.

Still, the next morning I woke up with a picture of that street corner in my head.  Maybe it was because I had an appointment with my surgeon Dr. J at 10 a.m.  Maybe it just was the prospect of needing another surgery. 

Whatever the reason, I gathered up some seashells and got in the car early.

Halfway around the block, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a book to read.  Sometimes the wait is long at the doctors' office, and you know I like to be prepared. 

I circled back around.  And as I did so, I thought,  What if I’d done the same thing on November 9, 2010?  What if I’d turned back because I’d forgotten something?  

We’ve all done it.  We’re off to work when we realize our cell phone’s still at home on the kitchen table.  We turn around.
  
I unlocked the front door, climbed the steps to the bedroom, and grabbed my book off the night table.  Done.   Back in the car, I started off again. 

As I approached the first intersection, I saw a woman whiz across in the bike lane.

When I turned the corner, she was on the ground.

My heart sped.   I rolled down the passenger side window and slowed to a crawl.

“Are you all right?” I called.

She was holding her wrist and crying softly.  Helplessly. 

I remembered that feeling.

I pulled my car on a diagonal toward the curb.  As quickly as I could, I got out and rushed over.

Her name was Elizabeth.  She was on her way to work.  She was wearing a helmet.  And she'd been riding in the bike lane.  She had no idea what had knocked her over.  There were no cars around, no ruts in the pavement.  She simply went down.

“It happened so fast,” she said.

“I know,” I said.  “I’ve been there.”

Aside from a torn jacket and wicked lacerations on her hands, she seemed to be ok.  I gave her some Kleenex and a bottle of water to clean out the dirt.  I offered to give her a lift home, but she said she lived close.  Slowly, she stood up to walk her bike back to her house.

She looked down at her clothes, “I guess I better change before work.”

We shared a sympathetic smile and parted ways.

As I got back in my car, I thought, What are the chances?

I drove to 5th and Washington.  Setting three shells gently below the lamppost, I rested my eyes for a few moments on that place in the street -- not far from the curb, just south of the crosswalk.  That patch of blacktop that's become so familiar I consider it mine.

An hour later, I saw Dr. J.  As it turned out, there wasn’t a long wait at his office.  I didn’t even open my book.

He entered the exam room with his usual "What's up, Levenberg?"   And I let the familiarity wash over me.  The easy banter.  The confidence of knowing you’re in good hands.  It warmed me with comfort, like seeing an old friend.

Is it wrong to feel safer in your surgeon’s office than you ever do at home?


I’ve gotten used to being on guard.  

Don’t fall.  
Be careful going down the stairs.  
Bring your phone in the bathroom just in case.  
Watch out for darting kids in the school hallway.  
Be on the lookout for pain and irritation.

Vigilance has become my body’s natural state.

It used to be, my favorite thing about coming home from work was taking off my shoes.  Now, it’s taking off my LEG.  

The freedom is not the same.

I never thought I’d yearn for those 15-hour days.  Those days of work, and errands, and biking, and skating, when I pushed myself so hard and long I thought I'd collapse with exhaustion on my way home.

But it’s the CHOICE I crave.  The option to do what I want, when I want, for as long as I want.  The energy to not feel trapped or tired.  The competence to care about life -- beyond my own body.  

And, of course, the welcome RELEASE that comes afterward.

Mile 350 gave me just a taste of that feeling.  It was like coming home.

I’m not sure why.  I just know that when I left Dr. J’s office around lunchtime, I had the courage to run an errand and stop for coffee.  

My mind was in some new-old place that felt vaguely familiar. 

And while I couldn’t take off my shoes when I arrived home, I was HAPPY.

It was a good place to be.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Signs of Life


Mile Marker 344:

In college, my friend Wendy and I had a tradition to mark the end of a Chicago winter.  We’d go down to the little patch of lawn in front of our dorm and spread out our towels on the dry, crunchy grass.  Then we’d lie flat on our backs.  All at once, we’d strip off everything -- jackets, sweatshirts, pants, socks, and sneakers – until we wore nothing but bathing suits!

We did this at the very FIRST sign of spring.  And if you know Chicago, you'll know those temps linger at 45, even when the calendar says it's May.

Sounds crazy, I know.  Until you’ve tried it.  On our towels, below that brisk lakefront wind, the sun beat down on us.  We found WARMTH!

 
That’s pretty much what happened as I hit Mile Marker 344 over the weekend.

I found Philly’s answer to that tiny plot of grass in front of my dorm.   

In Saturday’s sunshine, Rittenhouse square was dotted with picnickers and football tossers, dog walkers and coffee drinkers.  Crocuses were pushing their stems up through the soil.  It even smelled like spring.

I started off slowly, tentatively, around the park’s perimeter, staying outside the iron gates.  On the flat sidewalk there, the crowd flowed along in predictable directions.  No running kids or charging dogs.  No meandering sightseers to trip me up.

But halfway around, I just couldn’t keep out any longer.  Those curving paths and towering trees called to me.  So did the collective energy of the players, loungers, and wanderers inside.

The city had come out of hibernation.

So I walked in.  
And smiled.  
At everyone.  
And they smiled back.

But I DID keep my eyes
on the ground!

I didn't stumble or fall.  
Just smiled and kept walking :)






The next day I met friends for brunch at the Brown Street Pub.  It’s an up-and-coming place where the chef strolls out to chat about how you like his cooking.  (And he really wants to know!)

I glanced around the table at these 4 good friends I’ve known for years – Ruth, Carol, Karen, and Rocco.

And it occurred to me that NONE OF US has had an easy winter.  There’ve been medical issues, past, present, and looming ahead.   Ongoing ups and downs with work.  And the loss of a loved one still so raw it defies words.

Yet here we all were – together. 

Maybe things haven’t changed so much,  I thought. 
Or rather... maybe we’ll be OK, even if they have.

After brunch, we walked.   

Speaks for itself...
Not a marathon, but maybe 6 blocks.   Up and down the hills of Fairmount. 

Davey phones in from
New Zealand!




A short, slow route but more walking than I’ve done in a good while.


I was going to tell you it wasn’t as warm as Saturday.  But in a way it was.  

Surrounded by the courage and light of our little group, I could still feel the SUN.

Just like at the end of a Chicago winter.

Sometimes you have to search for signs of life.  Sometimes they find you.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Over the River, Across the Bridge



Mile Marker 339.9:

In the past 15 years, I've crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge by car, train, foot, bike, and skate.

Each time, its huge blue structure dwarfs me.  Miraculously suspends me in its iron grasp above the Delaware River.

But in reality it's just a quick trip from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.  On the other side of the bridge lie Philly's closest suburbs.  Shopping malls with free parking.  Restaurants.  Homes of good friends.


Early Wednesday morning, my dad and I headed over the bridge to consult with a doctor recommended by prosthetist Tim.

As we drove, I lamented that I was "stuck" on Mile 339.  In 6 days, I'd walked fewer than 5 miles total.

But as we ascended that giant bridge, our conversation stopped for a moment.

Just long enough for my mind to travel back to a frigid, sunny day in January 2010.  The day my colleague Casey and I chaperoned a crew of wide-eyed third graders to the New Jersey State Aquarium. 

Truth be told, our fun that day began long before the bridge.  As soon as we shepherded the kids out of school, their heads turned toward the cold winter sky.  They were drawn toward the mirrored windows of skyscrapers, the long neck of a construction crane, the flapping feathers of pigeons.

Casey and I dispatched our hands and voices to keep the kids tethered to the sidewalk.  Without us, they'd have surely blown away in a gust of excitement.

As we corralled them down the stairs into the underground PATCO station,  their oohs and ahhs increased by decibels.  Their bodies ricocheted off the walls as we tried to funnel them through the turnstile.

When the subway train screeched down the tracks, the kids covered their ears with their mittens.  But then the doors opened, and (much to our relief!) they marched aboard.

The pinnacle moment came as the train began its climb up the narrow edge of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

“We’re in ANOTHER STATE!” the kids cried.

Their exhilaration steamed up the train windows.  So much release – so much JOY – in being far from home.


Like many of the bridges in the area, the Ben Franklin has a toll only in one direction -- toward Pennsylvania.

Why?

Well, the longstanding joke in Philly is,  "Who'd really pay to go to New Jersey, anyway??"

But South Jersey is so quirky and endearing, it makes crossing the bridge worth the (half-free) trip.   It's the land of drive-thru car washes, root beer stands, and full-serve gas pumps.  It has small-towns with clock towers straight out of Back to the Future.  

And you’ve gotta love a state that has a bias against LEFT TURNS.   In New Jersey, U-Turns rule.   Two wrongs may not make a right, but somehow two rights do make a LEFT.  

339.9 took me
into x-ray

After a morning in the doctor's office, a stop at the radiology lab for x-rays, and at least 4 U-TURNS thrown in for good measure, my dad and I hit another South Jersey special -- Ponzio’s Diner.

It was then I decided I'd had enough.  Mile 339 had dragged on for days.   Comfortable or not, I was ready to take the leap into the 340's!

So instead of choosing the closest parking spot, we chose the farthest.  The tenth of a mile from the car to the restaurant was worth every step.

My pedometer rolled over -- I'd hit 340.

Inside, I chowed down like I'd run a 5K.


Yes, New Jersey is another state, but the trip took only 20 minutes.  All I had to pack were a pair of shorts and some alcohol spray so I could remove my prosthesis at the doctor’s office.

Good thing, too.  Traveling any farther has become a challenge.

In two short weeks I'll be heading to Florida for my cousin's birthday.  It's just a weekend trip, but there's much to do to be prepared.

Ponzio's interpretation of
uncomfortable travelers :)
I don’t mean laundry and packing (although those need to get done, too).   I mean renting a shower bench, buying collapsible crutches, counting out medication, organizing lotions, reserving a wheelchair….

The tasks cue up like travelers ahead of me in the airport security line.

And as usual, so do the uncertainties -- getting around the airport, sitting on the plane, climbing in and out of a pool on one leg??   New experiences are rarely comfortable.

I used to be a seasoned traveler.   I want to be again.  I tell myself it'll only get better with practice.

Kind of like TURNING LEFT in New Jersey.


I wish I could soak up the newness like those excited third-graders.

They’re in fifth grade now.  You’d be amazed at how tall they are.  But you’d be more amazed at how often they still talk about that train ride over the bridge! 

How they peered out the front windows onto the rising metal track.  How they looked down and saw the river churning below.  How they screamed and raised their arms like they were on a roller coaster.

And best of all, how they landed in ANOTHER STATE!

Over the river, across the bridge... 

340's here I come!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Take Two

Mile Marker 335:

If you think back on your life, you can probably come up with at least one "do over" moment.  One event or conversation you'd re-live if given the chance.  A minute or two you'd like to replay just a little bit differently, a little better than you did the first time.  

My guess is that LEARNING TO WALK doesn’t rank real high on that list.

Why not?  We all know your first steps were sloppy.  You wobbled across the room unsteadily.  You toppled onto your butt before your mom even had time to grab a camera.

But the thing is, you don't REMEMBER it.

I don't remember my first steps either.  But I'm fairly certain that when I toddled into the walking world, my mom wasn't giving pointers like, “Take a bigger step with your right foot.”  And I'd bet all the stock in Apple that -- in September 1970 -- my dad was not capturing the proud moment on his iPhone!


But none of us will forget TAKE TWO. 

One year ago today, on February 11, 2011, I re-took those first steps at Prosthetic Innovations.

And this time, I remember every detail.   Nervously letting go of the parallel bars.  Jerking my little left leg through each step.  Tripping over that C-Leg like it was stuck in the mud.

video


It was a momentous Friday, indeed.  Nestled inside a dark winter of ER trips and hospital stays, it was the one shining star.  The one we all hoped would guide me into a brighter future.

But like the first time, this moment took us by surprise.  Mom was at work.  Dad was out running an errand.  He returned half-way through my first lap.

Luckily, prosthetist Tim knew what to expect.  He had everything under control -- teaching me how to walk and shooting cell phone video at the same time!

That night, my family and I sat around the kitchen table.  We enlarged the video till its grainy picture filled up my laptop screen.  We played it over and over again until we'd memorized every chuckle, every breath, every helpful tip from Tim.  I posted it to Facebook.  Then I watched it some more.  And when all was said and done, we agreed:  It was the BEST DAY in a very long time!


Now a year has passed.  Yesterday at PI, I took my newest test socket for a spin.  So far, so good.

I also caught up with buds (and fellow clients) Brian and Zach, whom I hadn’t seen for a long while.

But there was another celebration going on -- one even bigger and better.  I mean "FIRST STEPS" better!

I met Bob.

Yesterday, four months after his traumatic accident on October 10, 2011, Bob re-took his first steps.

Bob is a bilateral amputee -- one above-knee, one below.  For every one of my steps, Bob TAKES TWO.

I watched as Bob took his first stroll outside the parallel bars.  I saw him figuring out how to place each foot against the ground.  Those sweaty palms, those uneven steps.  That hard-to-control knee.  I remembered all of it!

By the second lap, I was practically bouncing out of my seat with excitement.  

Maybe you’ve heard of a “guest blogger?”  

I couldn't help myself.  Right then and there, I handed over my pedometer.

I'm honored to introduce this blog's first "GUEST WALKER"...  Bob!
  
video

Did you applaud??  I did.

With those steps, we passed Mile Marker 335.2.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind?

Nope.

If you ask Brian or Zach, or anyone from PI, they will tell you that every step is a BIG one!

HAPPY WALKING DAY, BOB!
Welcome (back) to the club!

The journey of a thousand miles begins with…. Wait!  You’ve already begun.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Always a Catch


Mile Marker 328:

The game's going on all around me.

But I'm a quarterback in a slump.  Easily blocked.  Sidelined on the bench.

When I'm not walking, my thoughts hang in the air like incomplete passes.  Even a blog post is tough to get together.

The end zone seems very far away.


Still, it's better than last year.   I watched last year's Superbowl sipping bottles of Boost.
   
All last February -- through every night of sickness and pain -- I stumbled into the bathroom on crutches uttering these words:

“I wish it were JUST MY LEG.”


Now, each night I dream of running and skating.  Of moving about the world easily and unrestricted.

Yet day after day, I find myself standing still.

 It is just my leg, and it also is not.


At the start of this journey, I imagined walking farther and faster as time passed.  I saw the months falling away and the miles racking up.  I envisioned new paths to discover, new trails to explore.  Each step would take me closer and closer to my goal, but yet...

There's always a catch.

Eight months into it, there’s still no schedule.  No predictability.  No moving on with anything.

I am on the DL.


Don’t get me wrong.  I’m plenty grateful.  This Superbowl Sunday was a blast -- a hundred times better than last.

Family flocked in from Vermont, Baltimore, and Chicago.  We gorged on our favorite football food:  barbecue burgers, bacon-wrapped dates, veggie lasagna, and meatballs. 

I even carved out a few short walks:

3 blocks hand-in-hand with my little niece Caitlyn.

4 blocks through the Italian Market with Andy and Nina.

5 blocks with Sam’s tiny sidekick Eloise.


From the nosebleed seats, this game would look pretty good.





But the week dragged by in INCHES, not yards.  I averaged less than one mile per day.

And if you watched the replay, you'd see --

Most of the time, I was NOT walking. 

Last Tuesday, I left work early when leg pain made it impossible to focus.  Friday night, my friend Jen and I settled in for sushi delivery (again).  And late Sunday, I sat exhausted on the bed while my niece Riley ran in circles till she was dizzy.   

I am so thankful for my friends and family.  And for my good health, otherwise.  

Still, lately, there have been more time-outs than time-ins.   

I try to remind myself that it's JUST MY LEG.  But more and more often, frustration and anger bring me to my knees.  My eyes well up with tears of fear.

“Do you think I’ll be able to wear a prosthesis AT ALL?”  I asked Tim at my appointment last Friday. 

He said yes and kept moving.  He’s casting yet another type of socket for me to try.  He doesn’t give up.

I believe him, but I am an IMPATIENT BENCH WARMER.  


This weekend, surrounded by nieces and nephews, cousins and siblings, I joined the bustle in the kitchen and the TV action in the family room.  I was part of the big game.  But I was also separate.

Partway through the second quarter, I went upstairs to take off my prosthesis.

“Come down with your crutches,” Mom called up after me.  Her stairs aren’t nearly as treacherous as mine.

“Not till Caitlyn leaves,” I said. 

Caitlyn is two, and our walk together that evening marked the beginning of our bond.   Big for her age, she’s really just a shy toddler.  I didn’t want her to see me without my leg.  I knew it would scare her.  She doesn’t yet have the words to understand.


So it’s February 7th, and it should be halftime by now.  But Madonna is nowhere to be seen.  I've only just passed Mile Marker 328.  Barely cracked the second quarter of this journey.  There’s a long way to go to 1000.

Each day, I put on my leg and hope for the best.  I wait for the coach to glance my way.  To give the signal so I can jump in and score the winning touchdown.

Unfortunately, like the Patriots, I'm learning there's ALWAYS A CATCH.

This week, I’ll try 2 more test sockets.  I’ll consult with 3 surgeons.

In a way, I’m lucky.  My team's even more clever than those ad execs for the Superbowl commercials.  I know they'll come up with a groundbreaking way to get me back on the field.
 

The season may be over, but at this point, I'll be happy just to WALK ON!