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!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Clean Slate

Mile Marker 2105:

I'm on my hands and knees scrubbing out the closets of my apartment.

The walls are scuff-marked and scribbled as if Harold and the Purple Crayon lived here before me.  But I'm determined to wipe them down.  Shelves are due to arrive tomorrow, which'll bring me one step closer to unpacking all these boxes.

For my cluttered home, the Jewish New Year couldn't come at a better time.   I know most of you don't celebrate Rosh Hashanah, but really, who couldn't use a NEW YEAR right about now??
  
In any case, autumn's a nice time to clean the slate.  How in the world did things get so dirty anyway?

My niece Riley Cate is an expert in that field.  Last week she ran her first "Spartan Junior" race.  At 4 1/2, Riley plays happily in the mud.  The soles of her feet are the color of charcoal.  She climbs bedposts and baby gates.  On any given day, she runs the gamut between circus acrobat and Pig Pen.

I didn't run that Spartan race with her, but it sure feels like I did.

It's been a year of obstacles and hills.  Losses and gains.  Plans and transitions.   One recent afternoon, I logged more than 4 miles just unpacking my apartment!

In case you're wondering, I did not cover 70 miles in the last 4 days.   I'm just running a little behind with blog posts!

For me, Mile Marker 2105 presents the perfect chance to start fresh.  Regardless of what you celebrate, September's a good time for taking stock.  A month to think about where we are, as well as where we're going.

If last year's slate is wiped clean, what would you want to write on your new one??

Here are my Top 5 this year:

It's my birthday!  Everybody wins!
BALANCE.  Earlier this month, a game of Pub Quizzo found me sitting directly between the winners and losers.  (Technically I was on the losing side, but I was granted asylum for my birthday!)   Along with unpacking, the last few miles have brought new job opportunities, a new haircut, and a new adaptive yoga class.  Through it all, I've realized how much extra stuff I carry around!  I'm still searching for balance -- between work and play, between holding on and letting go -- but it feels great just to breathe and let the equilibrium happen!

SWEETNESS.  Apples and honey are the foods of the season.  For our family dinner last night, I baked a traditional Jewish Apple Cake.   It's easy but takes multiple steps, which translates into lots of standing time!

So I'll add STRENGTH, too.  Peeling and slicing apples, preparing wet and dry ingredients, greasing the tube pan, and mixing the cinnamon sugar topping.  I can do it all thanks to the strength and technology that lets me stand long enough to spread the sweetness!

HOPE.  Yesterday I swapped High Holiday services for a prosthetic appointment.  (Maybe not the best footing to start off the new year, but it felt like a hopeful trade!)   A month ago Tim casted me, and now -- three fittings later -- we're finally honing in on a new socket shape.  Leg-wise, I've had a year of technical adjustments and malfunctions.  But with a new system on the horizon, the future of walking looks bright!

And finally, the most important word I'll inscribe:

HEALTH.

This week marks exactly 2 years (and 1,339 miles) since my last abdominal surgery.  That pretty much sums it up.

As I write this post, I'm thinking of 3 friends who, at this very moment, are struggling through their own journeys -- treatment for cancer.  Their wishes are modest:  to have their hair grow back, to get out from under their fatigue, to have a tumor so small the doctor can't feel it.  And of course, to live their lives cancer-free.

If you're lucky enough to be healthy, stop for a moment and GIVE THANKS.  Every healthy day is a GOOD DAY.

So clear your slate of daily annoyances.  Erase all the tiny challenges that monopolize your mind.   They are -- in the words of a wise surgeon -- bumps in the road.

When you're a kid like Riley, it's pretty easy to come clean.  All you have to do is soak in the bathtub!    But for us adults, the job's a little harder.  We have to stop and look around.  Dust ourselves off.  Get all our parts in working order.  And then walk onward, grateful for each step.

Happy New Year -- or whatever you're celebrating this season!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Halfway There

Mile Marker 2035:

Mark wants to hike Camel's Hump.

I can think of a million reasons not to go.  My socket's rubbing a red patch on my inner thigh.  My liner comes loose every time I get in the car.  I'm hungry, and we haven't eaten lunch yet.  Plus it's already 80 degrees, downright steamy by Vermont standards.

My brother Mark counters each problem with a simple solution.  "So you'll fix your socket," he says.  "So you'll put your liner back on again.  So we'll stop for a sandwich.  Plus it's shadier in the woods."

In the tailgate of the car, 4-legged, one-eyed Jack sits waiting  -- and wagging.  He's always up for a hike.

There's a part of me that truly WANTS to go.  I love hiking.   I love being outside.  I just don't like to FAIL.  And today, it is almost a sure thing.

I take it off to avoid further damage!
Eventually I run out of arguments and climb into the car.  Which of course makes my leg loose.

"How far is this place?"  I grumble as we get on I-89.

"Not that far," Mark says.  By Vermont standards, 50 miles is practically walking distance.

We drive.  And drive.  And drive.  As the minutes pass, my reservations increase.  I think about how hard it'll be to fix my leg on the trail.  I think about how long my strength will last.  I think about how disappointing it will be if we can't make it to the summit.

Finally the mountain -- Camel's Hump -- rises before us.  We pull onto a gravel road that takes us to the trail head.

Trekking poles in hand, I follow Mark and Jack to the beginning of the trail.  We sign our names in the trail book.  A wooden marker tells us it's 2.4 miles to the summit.

"That's it?" I say.  "I can do 2.4 miles."

"See?" Mark says.  Cleverly, he omits the counter-argument:  that we will also have to come down the mountain.

We begin hiking.  Or more accurately, Mark and Jack begin hiking.   I begin hiking MY HIP over the rocks and branches scattered along the trail.

Predictably, after a tenth of a mile, my liner leaks air.  The whole socket loses suspension.  Turns out, climbing a mountain is roughly the same as climbing a supermarket shelf.  Sound familiar?

I try to ignore it and keep walking.  But without suspension, my prosthesis swings heavy like a steel pendulum.  My foot skims the edges of rocks.  My steps get sloppier and sloppier.  Several times, I launch into a full-fledged stumble.

When we spot a flat boulder, I plop down on it, pulling the towel and alcohol spray from my backpack.  Quickly I peel each layer -- outer socket, inner socket, sheath, and liner -- off my sweaty leg.  Mark puts out his hand to collect pins and valves as I unhook them.  Jack looks on, confused.

I try to keep everything clean, but it's just not possible.  My liner collects soil like static cling.   The towel gets muddy with moss.  Finally, I give up.  I focus on just one thing -- getting it all back on again.

For the thousandth time, I tell Mark I don't think this is going to work.  But he's used to me by now.  For almost 4 years, he has helped me navigate some of the toughest paths.  And he's not about to give up today.

"Don't THINK," he says.  "DO."

I tell him he sounds like Yoda.

We begin climbing once again.  Other hikers pass us.  "Great day for a hike!"  they call out.  "It's worth the trip!"

I grit my teeth, which sort of looks like I'm smiling back.

We come upon a large boulder blocking the trail.  Mark climbs up on it and offers his hand, just as another hiker steps past us.  In a shuffle to get out of the way, my Genium's foot catches the edge of the rock.  Psst!!  That's it.  Air leaks into the liner and the whole system releases.  Again.

"My leg's off," I say.

"Never heard that one before!" says the passing hiker.

We find a different rock to rest on, and I repeat the whole costume change step by step.   Mark and Jack wait patiently.

When I re-don everything, I add a thicker sock-ply, hoping it'll tighten up the suspension.  We continue our uphill climb.  The socket loosens again but doesn't completely lose suction.  I discover a middle ground, not-quite-on and not-quite-off but decent enough to keep going.

a heart-shaped leaf...
As we walk, we discover little treasures.  The way the sun soaks through the trees...
...a Zen-like trail marker.





I even start to enjoy myself.

When we come to a challenging cluster of tree roots, I plant my trekking poles, set my eyes on the ground, and inch my way through it.

"Think how easy this would be if my leg actually fit right!"  I tell Mark.

"Don't THINK," he says. "DO."

Before I can tell him to shut-up, there's a voice from behind.

"Does that thing have a knee function?"

We turn around.  It's the hiker behind us.  "You know, it might be easier if you bend the knee more," she advises.  Then she races by us.

Mark and I look at each other.  Thanks so much!  Cause we just found this "thing" sitting in the parking lot, and we were wondering how to use it....  

It becomes our joke of the day.

Two hours later, we come upon a winding path of boulders.  They're steep and daunting.  I hesitate at the bottom, wondering if this is even possible.

"Don't THINK --" Mark starts.

I interrupt him.  "I know...DO."

The phrase reminds me of something Prosthetist Tim says -- "Analysis Paralysis."   If you think too much, it keeps you from any movement at all.

I stop thinking about it and start to climb.  It's hard, but not impossible.  My quads and glutes fire like crazy.  Astoundingly, my socket stays put.  And Mark shoots this cool hyperlapse video while helping me up!

video

(Cake-walk, right?)

At the end of the boulders, we haven't reached the summit.   In fact, we're not even close.  I'm disappointed to learn we're only halfway there --  still a good mile from the top.

It's getting late, so we decide to turn around.  All day long, I've been begging to stop, but now I wish we could keep going.

The decent is remarkably easier.  Everything goes smoothly until a huge white poodle charges us from behind.  (Yes, a poodle!  Even Jack is surprised!)

"Yetti!  Yetti!  Come!"   We hear hikers yelling from behind us.

What a perfect name for a large, reckless poodle!  I think.

Then the dog brushes by me, knocking into my prosthesis as it goes.  I am mid-step.  The shove releases my socket.

Well, at least we're on the downside...

Mark and Jack pause with me one more time.  We are getting to be experts at trail-side socket changes.


When I remove my liner this time, a gentle breeze rustles the trees.   The tickle of air feels funny and unfamiliar.  It dawns on me that since the amputation, my little leg has never been exposed to outside weather.  It's always encased in multiple-layers of silicone and carbon fiber.  For one quiet moment, I pause and take it all in.   I stop rushing to fix things and instead enjoy the short spell of freedom.

As we finish the hike, I finally stop THINKING and start DOING.   I even stumble onto a new trick with my Genium.   Its stair-decent function helps me step down over tree roots!

We're almost back at the trail head when one last hiker bounces up from behind.

"Isn't this trail challenging enough?" he jokes.

"I'm taking it to the next level!"  I say, kicking out my Genium.  "Wanna try?"

"Thanks!  But I don't even know if I'll make it down with my own legs!"  he replies.

He does.  And we do too.

When all is said and done, we've hiked 2 miles in nearly 5 hours.  As we walk back to the car, I apologize to Mark for slowing him down.  "If I wasn't along, you could have made it to the summit," I tell him.

"Don't think so much," he says.

Late afternoon sunlight streams through the trees.  The fields around us are bathed in yellow and gold.

As you might have guessed, not reaching the summit is not really my thing.  I like to finish what I start.  And I THINK before I DO anything.  But maybe there's value in taking in each moment as it comes... without looking so far ahead.

For me, it takes a trusted brother (and his trusty dog) to hit the point home.

It's ok to go halfway.

Don't THINK... DO.

Even a short journey is worth the trip.  Can't say I'm fully converted, but maybe I'm halfway there.

It sure beats not going at all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Prosthetist-In-Training

After 2000 miles, you wouldn't think there'd be new beginnings.  But it's that time of year...

Mile Marker 2015:

In a quiet corner of a small suburban Starbucks, sits a high school senior with a mind for prosthetics.

Megan and I have connected through coincidence.  One of her teachers works for my mom's agency on weekends.  Megan expressed interest in prosthetics; her teacher told her about me.  And after a long string of e-mails, we finally meet.  Here, at Mile 2015!

Megan tells me her interest was sparked way back in first grade when she first heard about "the war."  By this, she means the War on Terror.  (Boy, do I feel old!)   Later, she found out about the Wounded Warrior Project.  Now she's taking advanced physics and applying to colleges with prosthetic programs.

It's obvious she's done her research.  She's already visited the prosthetics and orthotics lab at the University of Pittsburgh.  She has also called local prosthetic offices, trying to set up observations.  Yet remarkably, this is the FIRST TIME she's actually meeting an amputee who uses a prosthesis!

I give her a little intro to me and my Genium.  I tell her about its fancy tools -- its accelerometer and gyroscope, which sense my speed and the knee's angle in space.

Then I show her the remote control.  Between 2 Starbucks armchairs, I go through the Genium's various modes:

Basic Mode:  for walking, which adjusts on hills and stairs, and catches me if I stumble.

Cycling Mode:  which swings freely without any resistance at all so I can pedal a bike.

Inline Skating Mode:  which swings freely to a point, and then locks the knee so I can push-off on skates.

Yoga Mode:  which makes the knee "sticky" enough to hold my weight for yoga poses.

And Extended Standing Mode:  which locks the knee straight.

We discuss everything from surgery, to gait belts, to socket design.  Since I'm wearing shorts, I pull off the whole system.  I demonstrate how the liner, sheath, and socket fit together.  And how a vacuum keeps it all fastened.  Or in some cases, doesn't!

I slide my hand from bottom to top, from the ankle of the Genium to the carbon fiber of my socket.  Then I offer, in my opinion, the most important prosthetic rule.  "It doesn't matter how great your leg is," I tell her, "if the socket doesn't fit."

When we've covered everything I can think of,  Megan pulls out her own piece of paper.  "I hope you don't think this is weird..." she says, unfolding it.  "I wrote down some questions."

The paper is filled with information.  She has not only read my entire blog, she's taken notes!

I don't think it's weird.  I'm actually IMPRESSED.

An hour later, we've downed 2 Frappuccinos and discussed my entire story.  We've even discovered we have the same birthday!  (Which might explain our shared affinity for note-taking!)

"Are you overwhelmed?"  I ask her.  "Have I totally scared you away from prosthetics?"

"No," Megan says.  "I'm even MORE interested now!"


Mile Marker 2022:

Good thing.

Because a few days later, Prosthetist Tim calls to say my new liner is in.  I e-mail Megan, and she agrees to come along for the ride.  Her first observation!

She gets more than she bargained for.

Cutting edge -- and very exciting!
Tim brings out the new liner.  While past liners have irritated the incision and skin graft on my leg, this one allows us to place the vacuum seal at different heights to avoid the problem areas.   Plus, with the extra space it leaves at the bottom, Tim thinks he'll be able to cushion the socket to protect the end of my femur.  Yippee!

The liner fits well, so I hop into the casting room.  Literally.

Megan follows.

We both watch as Tim winds a sheet of green plastic wrap around my little leg, up over my shorts, and around my waist.





They're all the rage!

Then I don a pair of casting shorts which would look better on a Dr. Seuss character.




Finally, I stand as still as I can.  Tim dunks strips of plaster into a bucket of water.  He presses each piece, one-by-one, around my residual limb and under my ischium (or "butt bone") to capture its shape.

As Tim works, he provides ongoing commentary for Megan.  (Well, how do you think I learned so much about prosthetics?  He's MY teacher too!)

We wait a few seconds for the cast to dry.  Then Tim cuts the whole thing off, casting shorts and all.  He'll use the shape to make a mold for a clear "test socket."  That's the starting point for a new socket.

At the end of the appointment, Megan and I leave energized.  She has unofficially begun her prosthetic training.  In fact, she's probably learned more today than they'll cover during the first week of Prosthetics 101.

As for me, I'm optimistic about yet another new beginning --  one that might find me just the right combination of reliability and comfort.

Also it's September.  The perfect time to start something new.

Here's to a great school year!


Thanks to "Prosthetist-In-Training" Megan for the photos from this post, and for keeping me company during the last few miles :)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Things We Take With Us

Mile Marker 2000:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson


Mile 2000 gathers slowly like a quiet storm.

For weeks, I spy it brewing on the horizon.  The miles on my Fitbit roll forward.  When will I hit it?  What will I do when I get there?  A 2000th mile is something I never thought to consider!

But there's no time to dwell.  Summer is ending, and I'm rushing around trying to tie up its loose ends.... new jobs, day trips, dinner with friends....
Go Pitt!

In the midst of it all, my friend Matt makes a most courageous return to college!

And then one morning, the sky breaks.  I wake up at Mile 1996.75.   Today is the day.  The storm is here.

But it's just me.  On a Thursday.  With 3 1/4 miles to go.

I haven't piled sandbags or battened down hatches.  I haven't organized a celebratory event.  I haven't gathered friends or family.  I haven't fortified myself with a PT on a motorcycle.

I walk anyway.

Right off, I bang out 2 miles on the treadmill.  But I'm restless and giddy at the gym.   My stomach stirs like thunder, and my steps are lightning quick.   With one more mile to conquer, I leave Magee for parts unknown.  (Well, not really... but it does feel that way!)

I get in the car and drive toward my old neighborhood in South Philly.  When I see a bicycle chained to an iron gate,  I park and begin walking north over the bumpy brick sidewalk, past rowhomes and flower pots.

I follow the bike lane.

At the corner of Washington Avenue sits the firehouse.  The one that sent Tanya to my rescue.  I pause for a moment with respect and thanks.

Then the light turns green, so I step swiftly off the curb.  When I reach the opposite side of the street, there are still 8 seconds left on the blinking walk signal.  Eight seconds!  Things really have changed!

I cross 3rd Street and then 4th.

One step after another, less than a half-mile to go.


I try to remember how it felt to be biking along that November morning.  To be living the last moments of my old life.   But it's not easy.  The sky today is stormy, not sunny.  The landscape is fresh with summer flowers.  And the white lines of the bike lane are worn away.

My feelings from THEN get all mixed up with my feelings from NOW.

Finally, I arrive at the intersection where this story began.  This is it.  Mile Marker 2000.

I breathe in.  Take a look around.  The new condos on the corner are finished, complete with chairs on each balcony.  The crosswalk is empty.  The footprint we painted at Mile 1000 has long since washed away.

There's no sign of what happened here.

Traffic passes unaware.  A trash truck roars by, painted red and yellow with a mosaic of fall leaves.

Gently, I set down a pile of shells and stones.  Some are from the beach.  Some are from my own collection.  A tiny shell, pink and cracked, is from my grandparents' house.  It goes on top.

I don't come here often, but when I do, I think about my old life.  This is where I feel closest to my leg.  Where I remember the things I left behind.

So much has happened in 2000 miles.

It may sound silly, but today as I stare out at the blacktop, there's this inner dialogue where I tell my leg how much things have changed.  How much I've changed.  There's so much I want to share...

I wish you could meet the people who've inspired and challenged me, those who've walked with me along the way.  I wish you could see my whole new world and where this journey has taken me.


I wish you could feel every step I've traveled on my NEW leg.

I guess, in any journey, these thoughts are par for the course.  There are things we leave behind and things we take with us.

As I stand there, the light turns green and then red again.  I wait for some boy to come along who remembers the accident.  Or a group of colorful bikers to pedal me away.  Or a PT on a motorcycle.

All that materializes is a storm cloud overhead.

So I leave the shells on the sidewalk and take one more step.  Then another and another.  When I look back, the intersection is still there.

But so is where I'm going.

As I walk away, I wonder why today of all days -- at such an important milestone -- this place didn't "give me" anything.  A souvenir.  A signal.  A new memory to add to my old ones.  Something to take with me.

A few tears start to well up.  Through them, I spot something shiny on the sidewalk.

A penny.  Heads up.


In that flash of copper, I see 2000 miles that never, ever would have happened if so many forces hadn't come together at exactly the right place and time.   The firehouse, the trauma center, and the PT gym.  Hiking trails, boardwalks, and bike paths.  Family, friends, and fellow travelers who've kept me marching on.

A storm so perfect and powerful it grows new life with each step.

If that's not a takeaway, I don't know what is.

I gather up all that strength inside me and keep walking....

On toward 3000.