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, March 27, 2013

After the Fall


Mile Marker 990:

I fall.

Simple as that. 

The cones come up too fast.  In an effort to stop, I squeeze the brakes suddenly without thinking it through.

Jared's just a few steps away, but I'm down before he can reach me.

I hit the blacktop on my left elbow, my foot still stuck in the pedal cage.   Then, psst! – the bike lands on my socket valve.  My leg's attached to the bike, but I'm not attached to my leg.

It's the first time I've fallen off a bike since the accident.


When I first learned to walk, Prosthetist Tim told me the amputated side was like a "cliff."  When your body's missing a limb, he explained, it recalculates its center.  You learn not to lean to the missing side; there’s nothing there to hold you up.

To walk with a prosthesis, you have to retrain yourself to trust the equipment on that side.

Biking takes it to a new level.  With my Genium's foot locked in the pedal cage, that side becomes a cliff again.  On wheels.

I topple over the edge.

Jared lifts the bike off my leg.  I’m a little banged up but nothing serious.  We laugh it off.

Yet in my mind, a sea change happens.  A new sense of urgency erupts from somewhere deep below.  I NEED to figure this out.  Right here.  Right now.  I CANNOT fall outside this sheltered parking lot.

Spoiler Alert:  If you like surprises, you might want to skip the next sentence.

I am planning to BIKE my 1000th Mile.

It seemed the perfect finish.  A way to come full-circle and show how far I've traveled.  Like a final exam.

So I've spent the last month preparing – tuning up my bike, strengthening my muscles, trying to work out the kinks of prosthetic pedaling.  I even bought a new helmet.  I was psyched for the challenge!

But in my rush to push forward, the underlying truth almost slipped by unnoticed:

BIKING IS DANGEROUS.  

It's the split-second difference between my old life and new.  Between leg and no leg.

Lying in the hospital, I relived that accident over and over again.  It played like a “helmet cam” video whenever I closed my eyes.  Night after night, I watched it and heard it and felt it.  The truck comes nearer, corners me in.  I reach out my arm as if I can stop it.  It is TOO CLOSE.  I hear the thunderous tires, the roaring motor, the thudding, sickening bounce of the axles.  I cry out.  And then I realize -- there is no escape.  I am GOING DOWN.  The panic strikes in my head and my heart.  I am knocked off my bike.

At Mile 990, that truth resurfaces like the remnant of a sunken ship.

If I bike again, there's no margin for error.  It must go well.

I move through the week, trying to digest this idea.  I stop at Whole Foods, do laundry, make dinner, check the mailbox.  But my mind is disconnected, like a computer busy running a virus scan.  I float through the motions, distracted and unsure.

Trying to reconcile what happened with what could happen again.

Late in the 990's, I find myself at the rehab gym telling friends Robert and Binal about this latest mishap.

Last week, I was fired up about biking.  Now my confidence is shaken.  I’m fearful.  And ambivalent.
 
Robert is a marathon runner and triathlete.  “Falling is the best way to learn,” he tells me.  He says that's the way he learned to use the pedal clips on his bike.  “After you fall, you learn real quick to plan ahead the next time.”

Each morning at the gym, I see Robert working his way back from his injury.  He stretches patiently, methodically, consistently.  He lifts each foot to walk farther and farther each day.  He knows exactly which muscles are strong and which need work.  He creates goals and tracks his progress.  His every move reminds me that recovery is a step-by-step process.

When the going gets tough, I look to the TOUGHEST people I know.  And Robert is definitely one of them!



A few days later, I bike again with Jared in the parking lot.  He sets out the cones and marks a line on the ground where I should start braking.  "To stop," he reminds me, "shift your weight to the right."  I turn the handlebars gently and lower my shoulder as he's taught me.  I straighten my right leg to guide me as I slow down.

I practice NOT FALLING.

Later my friend Mary and I load our bikes on the car.  We head down to FDR Park where there's an empty road with a wide bike lane.  

Together we do 2 loops.  We bounce through potholes and avoid mudpuddles.  We climb a gradual incline.   We dodge those inevitable bumps in the road.

When we get back to the parking lot, I do stops and starts.  At least 30 times.

I practice NOT FALLING.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel.  At this point, I’ve got about 10 hours under my belt.  As with so many skills, I'm a beginner all over again.

But biking is different.
I am vulnerable.
This is real.

Mile 1000 will not be a final exam.  It'll be a pre-test.

I hope it’s good place to start.





If you're around Rittenhouse Square this Saturday, stop by the Farmers' Market.  For MILE 1001, I'll be joining forces with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia to promote safety between bikers and motorists! 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

I Bike SEPTA

Mile Marker 980: 

I used to bike SEPTA.

My favorite thing about Philly's transit system is that the buses have bike racks.  For a bike commuter, they come in handy more often than you'd think.  Sudden flat tire?  Errant rainstorm?  No problem.  Just flag down a bus and hitch your bike to the front!

I am not yet ready to bike SEPTA again.

But I am ready to ride SEPTA.  And bike.  Separately.

 I bounce down 2nd Street, headed for the nearest EL station.  It's a rare "love-my-new-socket" moment.  Not to mention a welcome change from the snowy reaches of Vermont!

The sidewalk in Old City spreads before me like a patchwork quilt.  I scan the path ahead -- flagstone, brick, gravel, grates.  Each step's a gamble even on a beautiful day like this.

The familiar SEPTA stop rises in the distance, a roof-covered stairway leading down to the subway tracks.  This journey feels like uncharted territory, but it's really not.  In another life, I rode the EL to work every morning. A speedy, straight shot.  10 minutes, end to end.

When I moved to South Philly, the new commute required a bus and a train.  With wait time, it took almost an hour.

But BIKING cut the time in half -- and doubled the fresh air benefits!  In a pinch, I could always "bike SEPTA" home.

Now it's been over 2 years since I've done either one.  Those subway stairs seem daring.

I grasp the steel railing and descend carefully.  Over the loudspeaker, I hear the familiar announcement, "69th Street train making all stops."

The old me would've made a dash for it.  The new me doesn't dash.

"Doors are closing," says the automated voice.

I continue down slowly and finally drop my token into the turnstile slot.  I am underground.

On the dimly lit wall, there's a transit map -- ribbons of interwoven train lines.   I study it like a foreigner.

I'm going to 15th Street station.  It's a busy hub, deep below City Hall, where subway lines run together like tunnels in an ant farm.   I'm surprised to learn -- according to this map -- there's no elevator there.

There's one at 13th Street, 2 blocks before.  But that station isn't as familiar to me, and it's farther from my destination.  I weigh the options, known vs. unknown.  Stairs vs. elevator.  I choose stairs.

The next train cruises in.  "69th Street train making all stops."

I step inside.  So easy.

I slip into an open seat.  Still in shorts, my Genium's exposed for all the world to see.  But among the smattering of riders here, no one even glances in my direction.  It's comforting to blend in.  Just a normal commuter on a normal day.  I watch the darkness go by.

At 15th Street, the doors pop open again.

I follow the sea of people.  On the stairway I huddle to the right, hand on the railing, one step at a time.  Some folks rush past me, others just plod along behind.

There are 49 stairs to street level.

I emerge under the famous Clothespin, squinting into the sun.



The next day, I anchor my old college Schwinn to a bike rack on the trunk of my car.

For 20 minutes, I drive cautiously down I-95, glancing in the rear view mirror to make sure it's still attached.  (For the record, SEPTA bike racks are simpler.)

Thankfully, we arrive in one piece at Prosthetic Innovations.

I get myself "bike ready."  Elastic power belt to keep my socket secure, biking shoes to fit the pedal cage, and helmet -- well, for obvious reasons!

PT Jared escorts me to their parking lot, my training ground for the past 2 years.

The first time I walked without my crutches, I pushed out the door into this parking lot.  A spring breeze whipped it out of my hands and nearly knocked me over.  "Watch out for the wind!" Prosthetist Tim yelled after me.

Since then, I've used this blacktop to demo new feet, new legs, and new sockets.  To learn to walk and skate.  To step off curbs and swipe up stairs.  To try to run.

Now I'm about to BIKE.

It's been over a year since I rode my bike at the rehab gym.  With my most recent socket, I couldn't bring my leg up high enough to pedal.  I think this newer one will be better.  It's time to try.

In the off-season, my balance has improved.  Now, I stand steadily on my prosthesis and flip my right leg over the bike.  With a hip movement, I shimmy the Genium's foot into its pedal cage.  Then I reach down to tighten the pedal strap.

I hop, hop, hop with my right foot until the pedal is in a front position.  Then find my place on the seat.

Go!  I lift my right foot off the ground and start pedaling like crazy -- a kid who's just cast off her training wheels.

My turns are shaky and wide, but I'm riding!  We practice going left, then right.  Turning tighter and tighter.  Pushing with my right foot and pulling with my left.  Faster and harder against the pedals.

It works!




Except for a detail or two...

Every few strokes, my left heel catches on the pedal arm.  Not on every rotation, but enough to make for a bumpy, jarring ride.

As usual Tim has a solution. "When you walk, your toe has to be rotated 5 degrees out," he explains.  "But to pedal a bike, it should be 5 degrees in."

He gets out the wrench and shows me what to do.  We loosen 2 screws at the ankle and make the hairline adjustment.  Who knew 10 degrees could make such a difference?

I walk back toward the bike with a funny, toed-in waddle.

But the pedals flow better.  I feel like a biker again!


So why ride SEPTA?  Why BIKE?  And why now, at this point in the journey?

Directly across from the SEPTA station sits a café.  Over lattés, I meet with Diana from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.  We're both excited.

She's helping me plan a very special Mile 1000.

And the BIKING lesson?  Well, that's to make sure I'm not just spinning my wheels....

Finish line ahead!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hope

Mile Marker 975:

Hiking boots, check.
Gators, check.
Canine companion, check.

Support team, check!
ALL SYSTEMS GO for my first Vermont snow trek!

We set off from the house along a slippery slope.  My sister Sam and friend Chrissy walk in front.  My brother-in-law Gregg trails behind.

One knee bends.  One foot sinks deeply through 12 inches of wet, melty snow.  With a jerk of my left hip, the other foot follows.  It feels more like a soccer kick than a step.  In a matter of seconds, I land on my knees in the icy muck.

We've barely started out, so Gregg dashes back to the house.  He has an idea.

Ski poles.

We start out again, smoother this time. Step, drag, kick.  Step, drag, kick.  Each move anchored by two magical poles in the ground.



A small brown shepherd -- Hope -- bounds along in front.  With just 3 legs, she is more agile than any of us.

She loves hiking, but she's skittish too.  The ski poles make her flinch.  The same way trucks do for me.


"Hope is missin' one leg!" my niece Riley will tell you.

She'll point out that I am, too.  "You have one real leg and one pretend leg," she says knowingly.

Her eyes grow wider.  "A ROBOT leg!"

She's put these clues together herself.  At 3 years old, Riley is quite a smart cookie.  Her whole life, she's only known me as an amputee.


She can't remember Mile 15, when we were both learning to walk -- together.




A "missin' leg" doesn't seem to stand in Hope's way.  She hikes with the big dogs and even jumps the baby gate at feeding time.  But like other amputees I've met along this journey, she has a story of suffering and resilience.

Struck by a car and left on the side of the road, she gave birth to puppies.  All of them died.  Alone, she hung on for days.  When she was finally rescued, her back leg had to be amputated.

Today she startles easily, but bares no anger.  Through it all, she's somehow maintained the capacity to love.

And RUN.

Behind her, I take step after tentative step.  My Genium and I have never been out in the snow together.   We're protected by a thick sock, stable hiking boot, and knee-high Gator wrap.

Hope is bare-pawed.  She lopes easily in wide circles around us.  A natural in the snow.

Rays of sun come through the treetops, softening the ice beneath our feet.  Today it's balmy by Vermont standards.  Our jackets are light.  You can smell the blue sky.

Ski poles in hand, I pave a rhythm over twigs and under branches, through twists and turns.  My arms pump as hard as my legs.  It feels like cross-country skiing.

When we reach a plateau, Chrissy, Sam, and Gregg stop short in their tracks.  I'm 3 or 4 steps behind them, but when I get there I see why.   A silvery slope of ice, slush, and mud leads down to the trail below.

Sam gets her camera ready.  Whether I stay on my feet or not, I know we'll probably end up laughing!
The poles act as crutches.  I lean my weight to the right, and the Genium slides along.  Awkward but not as bad as I expected!

We continue toward the wetlands, a marshy lake in spring.  Today, it's a frozen expanse, dotted with footprints of dogs and birds.  Maybe even moose.

A new hill awaits, higher and steeper than the last.  I've climbed it many times with 2 legs, but it's going to be a challenge with one.

Hope races up as if to say, We've come this far.  Don't stop now!

Upward, the ski poles hook me in.  With the toe of my boot, I push against the snow.  Its depth keeps me moving.
We celebrate at the top!


Going down is another story.  Unpredictable -- a precarious mess of trial and error.   But whatever works!


Many nights, I dream about running.  Sledding.  Skating.  In sleep, I move spontaneously.  Easily.  Naturally.  Perfectly balanced.

As we make our way back to the house, Hope darts ahead.   She leaves behind a trail of triple paw prints.

Motion without boundaries.

She reminds me of my dreams.


A prosthesis does have
its advantages!
Inside the warm kitchen, Hope shakes water droplets from her fur.

I unzip my icy Gators, one by one.


It's been a sweaty and exhausting trip.  But one filled with possibilities.

I imagine trekking around Philly next winter, ski poles in hand.

The stuff dreams are made of.


Hope springs eternal, even in the snowiest mountains of Vermont.

Thanks to my human support team -- Sam, Gregg, and Chrissy -- for chancing this one with me.  And hoping for the best :)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SKATE WITH ME...


Three words I wondered if I'd ever say again.

Still got 30 miles to go, but what the heck -- I can't wait any longer!

With these last 2 years behind me, it's a thrill to just STAND UP on my skates.

Step by step -- like everything else -- I've slowly progressed from hanging in a harness, to playing in a parking lot, to dodging toddlers in a roller rink.  

The work's been hard and exhausting, but also FUN -- for all involved, I hope!

I'm not yet road worthy.   In fact, I can't even skate and talk at the same time!  (Landskater pals, that's probably hard for you to believe...)  

But I also can't think of a better way to celebrate the "end" of this journey!

So save the date... one month from now...


CELEBRATE 1000 MILES WITH ME!
Please join me for a rollerskating party!  (yes, really!)

Sunday, April 7, 2013
5:30-7:30 p.m.

Cherry Hill Skating Center
664 Deer Road
Cherry Hill, NJ 08034

Skate, blade, or just come out and celebrate!    R.S.V.P. by e-mail (my1000miles@gmail.com) or comment below so I can put your name on the guest list.

And, as always, thanks for cheering me on EVERY STEP of the way!

Check out this video of my SK8 outtakes...  Maybe a new beginning??
Click here to view this video

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Proud

Mile Marker 950:

About 100 miles ago, I tripped in the school hallway.

It was nothing dramatic.  But suddenly there I was -- on my knee and Genium – on the linoleum floor, next to a row of kindergarten cubbies stuffed with backpacks and lunchboxes.

I was shocked but unhurt.  And surrounded by a sea of splattered coffee.

Not my finest hour.

I have no idea what caused me to trip.   There were no hidden ruts in the floor, no littered worksheets or pencils.  Nothing slippery at all, except the stuff I spilled there myself!

A band of first graders rallied around me.  “Are you ok?!” they cried.

“I am, but my coffee’s not!”  I laughed.

Amputee Rule #1:  What goes down, must somehow get back up.  This is a lot easier to do if you're smiling.

I propped myself into a half-kneel and then onto my feet.  

“I can tell you guys are great helpers," I said.  "How 'bout if you get some paper towels from the teachers’ bathroom, so we can wipe this up?”

They scrambled for the bathroom door.  I fetched a trash can from a nearby classroom.

Then the kids and I got down on our hands and knees (yes, down again!)  to mop up the damage the best we could.

When all that remained were a few sticky spots, the kids reluctantly returned to class.  The school day resumed as if nothing at all had happened.


The strange thing is that just minutes before all this, I’d been enjoying one of my PROUDEST moments.  I’d just returned from a 3 block walk to get coffee for me and my colleague Bethany.  That’s right.  I, Rebecca -- Genium and all -- had actually run an errand for someone else!

Alone, I'd fought the slanted sidewalk along Arch Street, balancing 2 paper cups in a cardboard caddy.  My black boots, tiny as pinpoints, hit the ground with each step.  As the coffees sloshed in their cups, that familiar rhythm sloshed around in my head.  Just don’t trip.  Just don’t trip.  Just don’t trip....

When I reached the glass doors of the school,  I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.  Possibly my first breath of the entire trip.  

Then, 15 paces later... BAM!  It was all over.


Last week PT Julie asked me to recall the proudest moment in my recovery.   I thought about the first steps I took without my crutches, the first time I pedaled my bike in the basement of the rehab gym, the first time I laced up my skates.  These were all very BIG proud moments.

But as the miles roll by, more often I think it's the smaller ones that keep me going.

At Mile Marker 948, I drop my car at Pep Boys.  (It had started making this weird whistling sound on the way back from New York.)  At the edge of the shopping center, I hail a cab and ride it into work.  My mind races with the risks of leaving my car behind.  What if I have stomach pain?  Leg pain?  What if I need to leave in an emergency?

At Mile Marker 949, I go to a doctor's appointment, then to the rehab gym, and then to Whole Foods to buy groceries. Yes, without stopping.  All in one day.  It may not sound like much, but it feels like a triathlon.

At Mile Marker 950, I sing the "new socket blues."  Getting used to a new prosthetic socket is like breaking in a skin-tight hiking boot.   But with the help of a terrific group of middle schoolers, I walk yet another mile.

With Maeve, Mia, and Diane!
And at Mile 951, I meet up with friend and fellow amputee Diane for a slow and steady stroll around the mall.  There's no better distraction from new socket woes than shopping!


There are so many steps in a mile, so many moments in a day.  It's the proud ones that hold them all together.

For me, they're often the least dramatic.  Getting out early in the morning.  Carrying groceries -- or coffee.  Leaving my car behind.  Persevering through an "uncomfortable" day.

When I take one step after the other, I do stumble sometimes.  It's true.  But the proudest moments remind me that life goes on.


At the tail end of these miles,  I return to the inpatient rehab hospital where I'm now a volunteer.  I'm still limping around on my new socket, but there's something here I have to see.

I take the elevator to the 6th floor, and tiptoe into the back of the conference room.  It's packed with wheelchairs and spectators.  Patients, doctors, nurses, and therapists.  Families and friends.  It's standing room only.

Up front on a makeshift stage, against a wall of windows facing the city skyline, sits former patient and fellow amputee Virgil.  With his band The Elgins, he's rocking out Motown Style!

I met Virgil last November when he was a brand new amputee.  Back then, his leg was so painful it often made him physically sick.  Maybe it still does.

But today, Virgil sings soulfully into the microphone.  His broad shoulders sway to the beat.  His eyes close as his voice rises to the final number, What a Wonderful World.

When the song ends, the room erupts into applause.  Although half the audience is in wheelchairs, there's no mistaking it.  This is a STANDING OVATION.

Afterward, I talk with Virgil.  Still in his wheelchair, he's not yet officially back on his feet.  He'll be fitted for his first prosthesis in the weeks ahead.

You might say he has many miles to go.

Virgil and Agnes --
2 proud graduates!
But this PROUD one will keep him moving.



Check out the Elgins -- click here.