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, February 13, 2014

61 Steps

Mile Marker 1555:

There are 61 steps to my grandfather’s bedroom.

The first 12 -- from his underground garage to the building courtyard -- are the steepest.  If you live in the city, there’s no such thing as free parking, right?  These stairs prove it.  My car parks for free, but my right knee pays the price.

At the landing, there's daylight.  The next flight is gradual and easier, each step no more than 5 inches high.  Still, my right leg drags the left.  For the last few weeks, I've been here nearly every day.

I cross the flat courtyard, slick with puddles and slush.  Early this morning, an ice storm coated the trees in glass.  But now it's 40 degrees, and that fairyland has turned into a hazardous, dull mess.

As a kid, I found magic in this city townhouse with 4 levels.

Now I just see 3 more flights of stairs:  one cement and two carpeted, with banisters that alternate from side to side.  Since becoming an amputee, I dread this climb.

But today it's not about the stairs, or about my leg, or about me at all.   My grandfather is at the top.

One of my favorites :)
When I was little, "Pop-Pop" worked for the Philadelphia Free Library.  He’d scour the boxes of old picture books, bringing me new ones each time he visited.  For hours, I sat cross-legged with those books on my blue shag carpet.  I read them over and over again.

As I got older, he taught me to play solitaire.  He danced at my Bat Mitzvah.  He let me drive his Dodge convertible to high school.   He visited me in college.  

My hero --
Winter of 1994
And in my mid-20's, when I broke my foot, he took me to the supermarket and out to dinner every Saturday night.




These days, he’s in bed most of the time.  He's smaller now, a miniature of the robust guy he once was.  But his cowboy hats still hang on the wall.   His button-down shirts are still in the closet.  His beaming smile is just the same.

When I walk in, he's always happy to see me.  As the rest of his body falters, his blue eyes stay as bright as ever.  He can’t remember his stories anymore.  And when he tries to talk, the words slip away.  He loses track of our names, our visits, and how we’re all related.  (I've become his "Little Girl," and Mark is “The Judge.”)  Yet he still lights up every time we walk in.

Mirror photography
by "The Judge"
“I love you,” he declares, leaning heavily on the word LOVE.  He puts all his strength into it.  Stretches out the words to prove exactly how much they mean.   He delivers this message generously, sincerely, again and again.


At Mile Marker 1555, I reach the top of the stairs and peek my head into Pop-Pop's bedroom.  His favorite CD, Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, plays softly in the background.   My mom sits on the edge of the bed, holding his hand.   Zita, his caregiver (and so much more), cradles his head from the other side. 

Today, his eyes are closed.  His breathing is labored.  Over the past week, he’s told us again and again, “It’s time for me to go home.”

“You are home,” we’ve assured him each time.

It doesn’t satisfy him.  He’s restless to leave.  He tells us his whole family is there.  That he hasn’t seen his wife for a very long time.   

He asks his caregivers, Zita and Mattie, to bring him his shoes and his pants.  He tells my mom to gather his wallet, his keys, and his Frank Sinatra CD.  After 88 years, these are the things he wants to take with him.

He tells us over and over again that he loves us.

But today, it’s time for him to go.  His sleep becomes deeper.  His breathing slows.  His eyelids flutter.  His hands get cold.  We feel him drifting away.

At once the room is very, very quiet.  The music has ended.

Zita wipes away her tears and slides the window open.  Beyond the screen, we hear more than just the dripping icicles.  Birds are chirping, a whole flock of them!   So unlikely on this February day....  

If I ever doubted what comes after, I don't anymore.

We're 61 steps up, as high as the treetops.  And if I've got it right, Pop-Pop’s even higher.

Can you hear us up there?   We love you too.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Future of Awesome

Mile Marker 1550:

Sorry XFINITY, these kids aren't watching TV.

They aren't spending their Saturday mornings on the couch streaming movies or pressing buttons to control the world from their smart phones.  Not this Saturday, anyway.

Instead they're rising early.  Filling up a classroom at Temple University.  Tinkering with dominoes and spools, straws and colored cord.  Sorting through mismatched pieces that look more like remnants of my brother's closet than like anything high-tech.

Over the next few weeks, these high school students will use their hands and minds to build a ROBOTIC ARM.

Awesome.

So what am I doing here?  Remember, I'm the girl who's stymied by jigsaw puzzles.  I don't attempt to assemble IKEA furniture.  I'm even terrible at Legos!

But today -- to these budding scientists -- I'm the human side of robotics.

I tell them the story of my own journey:  a bicycle ride that abruptly changed direction.  I tell them how I found myself immersed, unwillingly, in this world they find so fascinating.

I tell them how fortunate I've been to have access to experts in the field.  I explain the amazing technology that allows me to walk, bike, skate, and rock climb.  The tools that help me navigate sidewalks and stairs.   The mechanical and computerized components that move me forward every day.

I tell them that above all this technology is a just little leg that wants to be comfortable.  A 90-pound body that doesn't want to slip on the ice.

They listen and watch.  They ask thought-provoking questions...

Are you a different person now than you were before your injury?

Would it be possible to use prosthetic technology to enable other wheelchair-bound people, non-amputees, to walk again?

And one of my personal favorites...

Wouldn't it be better to have a socket that's breathable?
(Yes, that's genius!  Get started on it right away!!)

I don't have all the answers.  I can only speak from experience.  But I tell them one important lesson I've learned:  It's not a matter of can or can't.  It is simply a matter of HOW.

Luckily this belief already runs deep in their veins.  They're teenagers after all.

College students help run the program.  One tells me she wants to go into prosthestics.  I tell her about Hugh Herr at MIT Media Lab and other graduate programs around the country.  Another tells me how high school programs like this sometimes spur innovative research on a much larger level.  She says one group developed technology that's now used by NASA.

With encouragement and opportunity, these students will join our next generation of engineers, doctors, and prosthestists.  Their knowledge and problem-solving will have a ripple effect on our future.

But there's more.  By inviting me here before the inventing begins, their instructors hope to convey an important message:  Technology must be delivered with compassion.

I agree.  The most promising professionals I've met along my journey never forget the HUMAN TOUCH.

With questions, discussions, and demonstrations, the presentation stretches to more than 2 hours.  By the end I know the kids are itching for a break.  Still, they're told to line up and respectfully shake my hand.

Each one offers a genuine thank you.  Some ask more questions.  A few ask advice on future projects.  Others gather to talk to me afterward.

Robotics and technology are awesome.  These kids are awesome.

In the words of an engineer, I'm an "end user."  But this group understands.  Robot parts aren't a means to an end.

They're really the beginning.


Thanks to Temple Robotics Academy for the warm welcome!  Good luck on your journey of discovery!