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!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Let It Snow


Mile Marker 913:

10 years ago I had an apartment not too far from where I live now.

On a snowy night, I’d be traipsing around Old City’s colonial streets, hood pulled tight, jeans tucked into hiking boots.  As the white flakes piled up against the red brick buildings, I let time slip away. 

Now I don’t venture out till the sidewalks are thoroughly salted.   And even then, the only thing slipping away is me!

At Mile Marker 913, I watch snowflakes swirl in the lamplight.   They’re wet and cold against my tongue.  I feel my cheeks redden as they freeze on contact.

Things have changed in 10 years.  My body and home, my job and daily routine -- sometimes it feels like a whole new life.   

A snowfall is still exciting and magical.  But it’s mostly hazardous, slippery, and confining. 

Tonight, my Genium is safe and dry.  It is not tucked into hiking boots.  Instead, it's tucked underneath the dashboard of my car.  Despite its fancy functions, the Genium does not have snow tires! 

In this rush hour snowstorm, I’m heading home from work.  In 45 minutes, I’ve traveled exactly 10 city blocks.  Time is slipping away.

10 years ago I’d have cursed this wasted Friday night.  But tonight, I’m entranced by the diamonds fluttering above me.  Thanks to my car’s sun roof – or “snow roof” in this case – I too can be part of the fun!

And even though I'm not on a snow hike tonight, I've come far since the wintery weekend of Mile 305.   This year, as compared to last, I don’t worry as much about the weather.  My prosthesis is more comfortable, and even on a bad day, I'm not stranded upstairs.  My car stays parked in a low-maintenance garage, and I live in a neighborhood where the sidewalks will soon be clear.  Come tomorrow morning, I’ll be able to walk for real. 

That’s exactly what I do.  The next day, when the sun is high, I tread slowly and carefully through Mile 913.  What better motivation than a one-block trip to Starbucks? 

Gritty rock salt lines my path.  It’s not as pretty as glistening snow, but it gets the job done.   As I pass my neighbor Betsy's house, the colonial bricks have already dried in the sunlight.

Slush-covered curb cuts prove more dicey.  Melty footprints and tire tracks, I realize, aren't much better than ice.  I hold my Genium straight and tread carefully across Arch Street.  By the time I reach the other side, my whole body's rigid with tension.

A warm latté soothes the trip home.  To make walking easier, I head back on the opposite side of the street.  Even on a snowy day, the angle of the sidewalk is important.   

A patch of cobblestones stretches before me, not quite as dry as the bricks I passed before.  
I tap my toe into a puddle – trying to discriminate water from ice.

Finally, at the gate of my building, I’m flushed with both victory and relief.

Snow has lost some luster over the past 10 years.  Even on this brilliant day.

Think spring, Genium.  Think spring!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The World Outside


Mile Marker 900:

For three days in a row, I've FORGOTTEN to carry my pedometer.  The journey goes on anyway.

At the inpatient gym, I sit down next to a woman with sparkling eyes and a radiant smile.  In the few weeks I’ve known “Annie,” she’s gotten stronger and stronger.  She breathes better.  She walks better.  She lights up the gym, cheering on other patients – even as she takes step after step herself.

But on this day, Annie gets a yellow ribbon on her wheelchair, and her eyes fill with tears.

“What’s wrong?” her PT asks, concerned.

“I feel so safe here,” Annie says.  “What will I do without you?”

Yes, Annie.  I know.

The yellow ribbon means Annie's going home soon.  

Just minutes before, she was telling me about her family.  "I miss my grandbabies," she said.   But now I see there’s a part of her that doesn’t want to leave.

It’s been more than 2 years since I had a yellow ribbon tied around my own wheelchair.  

In that time, I’ve grown from inpatient, to outpatient, to hospital volunteer.  Still, that uncomfortable mixture of pride and sadness returns again and again.  I know how Annie feels.


In the business of recovery, each muscle takes its own sweet time.  The days crawl by with progress so slow, it sometimes seems to move backwards.  Then, all at once, everything comes together; your body’s moving as one.  Your energy returns.  Things are going swimmingly. 

This is when you get your yellow ribbon.
See mine?
It’s meant to congratulate.  But back in December 2010, in the days before my own discharge, I fell into a downward spiral.  The skills and independence I’d so happily welcomed suddenly turned against me.  Hope became anxiety.  Then full-blown panic.

To prepare me for going home, the rehab hospital scheduled a "practice outing."   That morning, I slid into my winter coat.  It felt tight and unfamiliar, lumpy against the back of the wheelchair.  

Therapists Colleen and Jillian met me in my room.

“Ready?” they asked.

I nodded nervously. 

We rode the elevator down to the first floor of the rehab hospital.  Gloves on, I propelled my wheelchair out the door and down the front ramp.  It was almost New Year’s, and I hadn’t been outside since early November.  Was this what normal people did every day?   The sidewalk, the sunshine, the cold -- it all felt like a foreign country.

With Colleen and Jillian’s help, I turned the wheels of my chair against the bitter wind.  We headed to a nearby hotel which had a gift shop and a lobby equipped with ramps and stairs.  All good tests for my newly-acquired crutch skills.

Inside, we stripped off our winter gear.  Jillian handed me crutches, and I navigated the new environment.  I hopped up carpeted stairs, lowered myself down inclines, and made my way among narrow aisles filled with stuffed animals and postcards.  We even tried out the stalls in the restroom.

But the biggest challenge proved to be on the trip back.  Sixteenth Street was three lanes wide.  At the intersection, cars turned directly through the crosswalk.   As I rolled into the street, I was so tiny; the cars around me, HUGE.  The rumble of traffic boomed in my ears.  My heart pounded.  The world erupted into total chaos.  

My mind fled to Washington Avenue where a certain truck's tires waited for me.  It was all I could do not to clench my elbows to my head and curl up like a hedgehog.

Being hit seemed the only outcome.
   
I pushed the wheelchair so hard my arm muscles burned in my winter coat.  Finally, I felt Colleen boost me up the curb cut onto the sidewalk.  We'd made it across.


You'd think such an outing would have bolstered my confidence.  But over the next few days, my stress level increased.  

Ahead lay the trip home.  How would I ever make it through the car ride safely?   If a traffic accident didn’t kill me, surely my own panic would!

With endless patience (and Kleenex), hospital psychologist Lenore coached me through scenarios, guided me through visualizations, and helped me find relaxing music on my iPad.  With her support, I told my parents I’d rather take the back roads home than the highway.

Going home was overwhelming, but there was more to it than that.

As limiting as hospital life was, I'd found a certain comfort in its routine.  My doctors, nurses, and therapists were at their best when I was at my worst.  Over exercise and meals, I bonded with fellow patients.
With Mom, Tracy, Mark,
and my new friend Val
So I knew how Annie felt when she got her yellow ribbon.  She did want to go home, but it was uncharted territory.

At Mile Marker 900, I watch this from the sidelines.  
I’m volunteering in the very same gym where I was once a patient.  It's been a long time since I looked out my window -- frozen with fear -- at the dangerous world outside.   But now there's another precipice ahead.

MILE MARKER 1000 looms on the horizon.  I've got fewer than 100 miles left.  It feels like the great unknown. 

As I sit with Annie, there's an emptiness in my pocket where the pedometer should be.  

Even after coming this far, I guess I'm reluctant to FINISH.

And why not?  This journey's provided me with structure and a goal.  Comfort in counting.  Not unlike the shelter of the hospital.

How can I measure progress if not mile by mile?   And then, what lies beyond?

Annie went home on Saturday.  And although I wasn’t there to see it, I’m pretty sure she got in the car. 

Because when it was my turn, I did too.

I need your ideas for the 1000th mile!
Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Please post ‘em!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

No Fear


Mile Marker 885:

Do one thing every day that scares you.
--Eleanor Roosevelt


My grandmother was a firecracker. 

She had hot red hair and a rebellious spirit to match.  "Dot-Dot," as we called her, walked fearlessly in 3-inch Candie's or yellow Reebok hi-tops.  Unphased by traditional grandmother images, she held her head high – especially when riding us on the back of her motorcycle!

When I was 13, she introduced me to city life – and WALKING.  She clipped her pedometer onto my waist band and pointed me toward South Street.  (Of course!)  Together we explored punk shops like Zipperheads and rainbow-filled 80’s stores like Heaven.

As she got older, it was harder for her to get out of the house.  So instead we'd order in Chinese food.  We'd talk about books and peruse gardening catalogues.  I'd show her photos from my adventures -- trips to France, Chicago, and Vermont.   We never mentioned it, but I wondered if she felt confined by what she could no longer do.


For me, 2012 concluded with a parade of rock climbing, rollerblading, and running -- or at least trying to!
Yes, that's Mark next to me!
Always...

On the last day of December comes the grandest experiment of them all.  ICE SKATING.  

(This addiction to fun is a slippery slope -- literally.)  

“I just want to try putting the skates on,” I say to my cousin Tracy as we make our way across the parking lot.  She knows there are lots of shoes that won't fit because my left foot can’t point its toe.

We rent our skates and give it a whirl.  On a bench, I unlace the left skate.  My Genium's foot goes in with surprising ease.  Test number one – PASS.

But then I stand up.  The pitch of the skate isn’t right.  It tilts the Genium forward causing my knee to buckle.   Because the heel of the skate is higher than the toe, the Genium thinks we’re going down a hill.   I switch settings on the remote control.  Which of the Genium’s four modes will carry me safely from bench to ice? 

Yoga mode!  (Yes, really.)  

In yoga setting, the knee becomes super-resistant and hard to bend, like dragging your leg through mud.  It's strong enough to hold the knee stable as I wobble across the rubber floor mats.  Hand on Tracy’s shoulder, I make my way to the rink.

But when I set foot on the ice, yoga gives out to jazzercise.  Without a grip on the soft floor, my Genium shoots out from under me.   I go into a disco move, John Travolta style!

Take 2.  I decide inline skating mode might improve things.  It'll allow the knee to bend with no resistance at all.  On the rubber floor, it made my leg too flimsy to control.  But on the ice, it works like magic.  (Thanks to Prosthetist Tim – a.k.a. Super Genium Programmer!)  With a built-in lock, I can even push off.  A bit.

Technology aside, for the first few laps the WALL is a bigger help than any Genium setting.  Tray and I stick close and hug it tight. 

Good friend Jodie was
even there to take a photo!
Then she lets go.

And I do too!

So what if my gait is tilted to one side?  So what if my right ankle aches from doing the work of two?  So what if I’m nowhere near as proficient as I used to be?  I am SKATING!

And when I finally stop and glance around the rink, I see that most skaters are slipping and sliding just like me!


Later that evening -- New Year’s Eve -- I’m surrounded by friends.  Just before midnight, we’re huddled in our winter coats on the corner of Front and South, amidst a crowd of horns, blowers, and glow-in-the-dark glasses.  Waiting for the fireworks.

It’s our tradition every year.  But this night is different. 

Just minutes before, my phone rang.  It was Mark calling.  He told me Dot-Dot had died.

As the first explosion lights up the sky, I feel tears coming on.   But the fireworks continue anyway.  The colors rise, slowly at first and then with more intensity.  The darkness pops with rings, and flashes, and brilliant chandeliers.

All at once, I realize this is her grand departure.  Dot-Dot is going out in true "Dot-Dot" style.  She’s found her freedom.


I did not inherit Dot-Dot’s rebellious gene.  In fact, some days there are so many things that SCARE me that I fall into bed exhausted.

But at Mile Marker 885, I know that a piece of her courage is with me.  It inches me forward each time I try something new.  As I strap on rollerblades or ice skates.  As I grab that first rock on the rock wall.  Heck, even as I shop for shoes!

My Genium and I will never be strutting around in 3-inch heels.  But yellow Reebok hi-tops?  Maybe.

And in Dot-Dot's memory, we'll boldly keep WALKING.

Wishing you a HAPPY, HEALTHY, and BRAVE 2013!