How do we move forward?

My road came to an unexpected halt on November 9, 2010.

That morning, I was bicycling to work when a garbage truck turned across a city bike lane. I was in that bike lane.

I was critically injured in the accident. A team of trauma surgeons saved my life, but they had to amputate my left leg. I had a long road ahead of me, physically and emotionally, yet I was grateful to be alive.

An ending can be a beginning too. I started over.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Gradually I learned to walk again. So I began counting steps. Then miles.

Over time, that journey turned a corner. It became less about my own recovery and more about resilience -- the connection we all share.

Ten years later, I still take one step at a time. Yes, there are bumps in the road, but each step means rising to new challenges, adapting to change, and moving forward with hope.

Are you on your own journey?


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Oh Sandy!

Mile Marker 764:

Some piled sandbags.  I piled BOXES.

At my house, Hurricane Sandy began with a flurry of preparation.  Jen, Mary, and Chris dismantled the garden.  

Rocco and Susan carted off the patio table and chairs.  

Mom bunked in for the weekend.  As Sandy tossed the Atlantic, we tossed my belongings into cardboard cartons.

No extra points
for altitude!
But packing, I quickly discovered, requires endless standing.  Yet it accumulates NO MILEAGE at all!

As the winds speed up, the miles slow down.

Mom and I spend the days bubble-wrapping, padding with newspaper, and unearthing ancient souvenirs from the basement. 
Like the hat?
Never know what you'll dig up
when you're packing!

I discover a talent with the industrial-sized tape dispenser.  But Mom's the jigsaw expert.  As we stare into an almost filled box, she exclaims, “I know just the thing to fill that space!”  Then she descends 2 flights of stairs to retrieve a knickknack we noticed 6 hours ago.

By Sunday morning, as the rain and wind increase, we find ourselves in crisis.  Sandy hasn't even made landfall, but we’ve run out of newspaper and bubble-wrap!  We need to venture out.  But as a South Philadelphian, I've learned better than to give up my parking space before a storm.   

We’ll have to go on foot.

So we pull on hats and raincoats.   Mom changes her shoes, and I make sure my Genium’s water-tight.  Umbrellas in hand, we shove the screen door into the gusty wind.

In less than a block, our umbrellas flip inside out.  The rain’s flying sideways, swinging the tree branches above.  My balance isn't what it used to be.  When we cross the street, Mom grabs my arm.  Old habits die hard.

To protect against the wind, we flatten ourselves along the wall of rowhouses like secret agents.

Wawa, the local go-to convenience store, rises in the distance.  But we’ve yet to face our biggest obstacle.  Huddled against the side of a carwash, we look out into a parking lot of windswept rain, flowing puddles, and – yes -- distracted South Philly drivers. 

Mom clutches my upper arm.  I clutch the side of the building.  Together, we analyze the mess with all our secret agent power.   We giggle with giddiness and fear.

“Ok,” we both say.  “Go!”

In tandem, we march across the blacktop, transformed from secret agents to three-legged racers in a matter of seconds.  I watch the ground; Mom keeps us out of deep water.  We avoid the cars, but the rain drives directly into our faces.

Finally, we step up on the curb.  Relief.  A kind soul holds the door open for us, and we slip inside. 

WET FLOOR!  WET FLOOR!  My inner alarm system sounds.  But then I realize – it’s nothing compared to what we’ve just been through.  Oh, Sandy!

The store’s jam-packed with folks desperate for last-minute supplies.  Hoagies and cigarettes.  Crackers, milk, and ice cream.  A woman balances an infant in one hand and three paper cups of coffee in the other.  I expect a frenzy, but instead there’s excitement in the air.  A warmth and merriment like the night before Christmas.

We join the throng.  Grab a sack of ground coffee and a pile of newspaper.  A package of butter, some Cheez-Its, and a bag of goldfish crackers. The cashier takes one look at our soaking jackets and hands us extra plastic bags for the trip home!

We brace ourselves for the walk back.  But we’re wiser now.  While rain pours off the store’s awning, we plot our route.  It’s an epiphany – we’ll go UNDERCOVER!

That's I-95 ABOVE us!
 I-95 leads almost directly from the shopping center to my door.  Does it seem strange to take the interstate when you’re traveling less than a half-mile?  Let’s just say we stay under the radar…

At home, we peel off our wet clothes, proud of our mission impossible.  

Of course, as the storm progressed, we learned our adventure was nothing compared to what others wrestled with.  My brother Stephen’s apartment lost power, so he cooked eggs on his balcony barbecue.  My brother Mark timed dog-walks between green blobs on the weather map.   

In the suburbs, my dad fought off TREES that toppled like dominoes.

And many faced damage much, much worse.

But in my neck of the woods, Mom and I had it pretty good.  For 3 more days, we crumbled newspaper and sipped hot coffee.  The house proved as water-tight as my Genium.  And our cars remained steadfastly parked along the street.  

We’d beaten Sandy in our own little way.  And had a STORM of boxes to prove it!

Thanks to my team of storm-preppers and all-weather photographers (a.k.a. friends and family).  

And to Jon and Nancy for the endless supply of boxes!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Let It Rain

Mile Marker 733:

When a TRASH DAY collides with a RAINY DAY, it’s tough to get out of bed.

But I come downstairs early.
I gather up the last minute recycling -- an empty ice cream carton, Gatorade bottle, and Raisin Bran box – and drag the blue bin out to the curb.  One glance down the street paints a dim picture of the day:  gray skies, drizzled sidewalks, and brown garbage bags as far as the eye can see.

Will I miss this?  I wonder.

Only 4 more Trash Days till I enter the world of garbage chutes and parking garages... apartment gods willing.

As I head out to view yet another apartment, the rain becomes a downpour.  High winds sweep streams of water across the road.  I stash my car in a loading zone, pull my hood up, and race into the building.  (I use the term "race" loosely here.  My jagged steps are about as graceful as a runner whose socks are on fire!)

The monsoon lets up as I drive home.  But my mood doesn't.  The apartment was the worst I've seen so far.  I need to get out and WALK!

Slick sidewalks and slippery leaves are a bad mix for me and my Genium.  And if that weren't enough, it's now mid-morning, and the trash trucks are out in full force.  Slipping on wet pavement is one thing; slipping near the looming tires of a garbage truck, quite another.  Even their roar makes me shudder.

Still, I refuse to be stuck inside.  I’ve been trying to stretch my endurance, and with daytime getting shorter, it's hard to get the miles in.

Plus, just the day before, I promised my friend Jeff I’d bring donuts to his office.  That's 20 blocks round trip.  Almost 2 miles!

I decide the rain (and trash trucks) will not keep me home.

As I start off, I watch for clumps of leaves.  I time my steps carefully to avoid the pools of water under each curb.

When the trademark blue of Federal Donuts appears, I’m amazed at how quickly I arrived.

Inside, I inhale the aroma of batter-fried chicken, strong coffee, and exotic donuts.  At the counter there’s a young couple hovering over paper plates, licking chicken grease off their fingers.  I order a dozen donuts made up of “fresh hot” and “specialty” flavors: vanilla lavender, creamsicle, green tea, fig on fig, and spicy PB & J.

The donut box – flat and awkward – throws me off.  I try carrying it a few different ways before settling it on one forearm, keeping the other arm free in case I stumble.  The next block is like a self-guided physical therapy session!

I continue onward.  The sky is murky, but the rain has glazed everything else.  Sidewalk gardens pop.

Pumpkins glow.

Trees hang heavy with water droplets.

Leaves look like fallen rainbows.

When I finally arrive at Jeff’s office, he’s in the back with a patient.

“Donut delivery!” I call.  I'm happy to be there, finally!

And Dr. Jeff is happy to sign for the package!

On the return trip, the rain disappears completely.  Not so for the trash trucks.  I count three more.

What's the message?
Read the t-shirt!
(Remember surgery #15?)
But then a different truck catches my eye.  One with a more promising message...

Glad I didn't throw this day away!

Back home, I plop down on the living room couch.  Exhausted.

My shoes are wet, and my instinct is to take them off.  But I stop myself.  I never walk without shoes -- my prosthesis hits the ground differently.  My real leg adjusts, of course.  But the angle change throws off the Genium's readings.  Each step turns into a swing, like trying to kick a field goal.

Also, my prosthetic ankle doesn't point and flex.  To account for it, I have to walk on tiptoe on my right side.

And then there's traction.  Think about how your foot grips the ground, bends at the toes so you can push off for each step.  A hard plastic foot just slides

While I'm sitting there debating this big decision, I remember a story my friend Wendy's kids -- Emma and Nathan -- told me years before.  They'd been playing at their neighbor’s house when suddenly the sky opened up and a torrential rainstorm poured down.

“We had to get home," Emma said, "but we were gonna get soaked.  So Mom told us to TAKE OFF our shoes!  And we all ran through the puddles in our bare feet!”

“Yeah!” Nathan said.  “We got so wet!”

Just telling it to me made them laugh all over again.  And listening to them, I could feel the pure fun of it!

I decide to spend the rest of this rainy day in COMFY SOCKS.  

So I tread carefully across the hardwood floor.  I keep to the toes of my right foot, flipping out my prosthetic knee with each step.  I even dare try the stairs, holding tight to both railings.

In almost two years, it's the first time I've spent an afternoon with my shoes off!

I may never dance barefoot through puddles – at least not with the current technology.

But I can walk SHOELESS in the rain... as long as I stay inside.

By the way, check out Emma and Nathan in the left-hand sidebar.  They've gone beyond puddles....  
They just ran 20 miles!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Moving On

Mile Marker 715:

It was 8:30 on a Tuesday night when my 24-year-old ears heard gunfire. 

In a single movement, I bounced off the couch and over to the sliding glass door.  

Who’s setting off firecrackers on Spring Garden Street??  I thought, stepping out onto the balcony.  (In retrospect, probably not the smartest move.) 

The firecrackers had ceased, replaced by a scream of sirens.

Streaks of red and blue lit up Spring Garden as a dozen police cars came to a screeching halt below me.  My neighbors and I shouted back and forth on our balconies, piecing together what was going on down there.

Inside, my phone rang, and I rushed to answer it.  Remember, this was 1993 B.C.P. -- Before Cell Phones.

My brother Mark’s voice echoed excitedly over the landline.  “Yo!  Can you see anything?!”  Mark lived a few buildings over, apparently in the obstructed view seats.

I carried the cordless out on the balcony to give him the play-by-play.

Turns out, it actually was gunfire.  A shootout that erupted over a botched hold-up at the corner ATM.  Two armed robbers were surprised by off-duty police officers.  One officer and one suspect were shot.  The other suspect got away.  I wondered how I would ever sleep again. 

Such was my thrilling life in Apartment 715.

As this year's apartment search shifts into high-gear, I pass Mile Marker 715.  The number seems appropriate somehow.  I’ve had lots of apartments, but 715 was arguably the best – barring a certain gunfire incident, of course.

In 1993, Apartment 715 marked a fresh start.  I’d just moved from Chicago to Philly.  I was excited to be near family again.  And I couldn’t wait to start my new job as a Learning Specialist and 9th grade English teacher.

715 was a 1-bedroom apartment in a high-rise on the border of Fairmount.  The lobby had a video store, deli, and fitness center with a hot tub.  The doormen -- Kareem and Melvin -- collected our packages, arranged our repairs, and awarded funny nicknames to our most frequent guests. 

I had friends in the apartments above and below me.  We swapped vacuum cleaners and ordered Chinese food.  We went sledding down the Art Museum steps.  We shared cabs to Old City bars at 11 p.m.  (Ah, to be 24 again!)

Nearly every night, I’d prepare my dinner plate and carry it up 4 flights of stairs to eat with my best friend Marla in Apartment 1115.  Or she’d bring her plate down.

My apartment was small, but mighty.  It hosted rest-stops for all-night skates.  It was even the birthplace for the now famous B.Y.O.P. (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) party!

Now at Mile 715, I’m searching for another perfect place to live.   Gone are the days when I treasured my view from the 7th floor.  When I dashed up the stairs with a piping hot dinner plate in my hands.

Times have changed.  I've changed.  My needs are more complex now -- even though they sound simple on the surface.

This is what I say when I call a leasing office: “I’m looking for a low floor apartment with indoor parking.”

But when I visit each building, this is what I do:  I check the distance from the elevator to the apartment door.  From the apartment door to the fire stairs.   I count the steps I'd descend on my crutches in an emergency.  I look at the parking layout.  Will I be able to get to and from my car without walking in the snow?  I look for no-slip rugs in the lobby.  Check the bathrooms for easily accessible showers and tubs.  Check the kitchens for cabinet height.  (I’m not as good a climber as I used to be!)  

I have to be choosy.  Thinking NARROWLY now might open up a world of FREEDOM later.

And that's the whole point, right?  To find a place I can navigate with or without my prosthesis.  Where I can come and go even when the weather's frightful.  Where life will be just a tad easier and more comfortable.

This weekend as I'm wrapping up another round of apartment hunting, Mark stops by with his trusty dog, Jack.  I like to think Jack and I are kindred spirits.  He lost one eye as a puppy, but he doesn't let it cramp his style.

As the three of us walk around the block together, Mark and I talk apartments.

When we circle back around, Jack hops onto my front step.  Mark and I laugh.  He's recognized my house on his own!

"We're not going in, Jack!" Mark says.  "The car's over there."

Jack turns to look at us but doesn't budge, his front paws on the step.

"Come on,"  Mark says.  "We're goin' home."  He pulls the leash toward the car.

Jack stands still, watching me as I unlock the door.

I step inside, and Mark leads him away.  With his one eye, Jack peers back at my house again and again.

As if he knows just how I feel about leaving.  

It's time to move on.  I remind myself that Apartment 715 and Mile Marker 715 were both hopeful places.  

I think the new apartment (number to be determined) will be, too.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stitch(es) in Time

Mile Marker 676:

It's been a rough few miles.   One minute I'm buying hiking shoes, and the next I'm buying time before my 15th surgery.  

Autumn opens with a stretch of great walking weather.  I'm finally back to school.  My house sells quickly.  For a solid week, everything's going my way!

I'm walking!
Take that, PPA!
One afternoon, I leave my car behind and venture ON FOOT to run errands in the city.

At City Sports, I stumble on a pair of Merrill hiking shoes.  They’re gentle enough for sidewalks but sturdy enough for hiking trails.  Best of all, they've got traction for bad weather.

A cool guy named Taylor brings out my shoe boxes.  We start talking as I size up each pair with my right foot, then test the heel-to-toe pitch with my Genium. 

When I tell him the story of my leg, Taylor tugs down the neckline of his t-shirt.  He reveals a fist-long scar across his shoulder.  He was in a bike accident, too – just 5 weeks earlier.  He spent 2 weeks in the hospital and almost lost his arm.  Like me, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And like me, he was protected by his helmet.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he tells me.

It sounds like a song I used to sing.

This summer wasn't easy.  It's been months since I've viewed my life with such clarity and optimism.  But in that moment, navigating the city on foot, standing there in my new hiking shoes, I can't help but agree with him.

I am lucky to be alive.

Mile Marker 682:

Between shoes and surgery, there is a family-filled weekend.

My parents' house is overrun by kids.  Dad (a.k.a. Pop-Pop) barbecues burgers in the backyard.  For dessert, there's a birthday cake with my name on it!

Yo Gabba Gabba plays nonstop on the T.V., and there are endless choruses of Ring Around the Rosie in the living room.

Baby Brennan watches his "big" cousins, wide-eyed.  
Before dinner, a bunch of us take the kids to see the donkeys at the end of the street.

It's a quick walk, but with toddlers and dogs, our pace is more like shepherding sheep.

In her 2-year-old ragtag way, Riley Cate tells us when she's had enough.  I'm glad.  I'm ready to turn back, too.

By Sunday morning, my stomach pains push through.  I wake up worried, frustrated, and ANGRY.  So I push back.

I drag myself out for a hike with Mark, Andy, Nina, and Jack.  Sunshine spreads through the trees, and the Wissahickon air is a fresh change of pace.

To top it off, my new shoes perform well.  With a walking stick -- and lots of cooperation -- we make our way through mud, down hills, and over rocks.   

I get by with a little help
from my... brothers :)
Nina and I guide
each other
across the dreaded pipeline!

We wrap up the afternoon with cheesesteaks from D’Allesandro’s.

And it's all uphill from there.

Mile Marker 698:

The next 5 days bring intense pain, sick time from work, a trip to the hospital, and finally surgery.

Dr. J stands beside my gurney.  Here we are again.  In pre-op.

I’m in a blue gown, covered with layers of heated blankets.  I have one of those sterile shower cap things on my head.  You’d think by the 15th time, this would all be routine.  But I'm jumpy and close to tears.

“Relax,” he says.  “When we’re finished you can have all the ice cream you want.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“Oh wait," he jokes.  "That’s for tonsils!”

Ha ha.  I smile nervously.

I trust my team implicitly, but I can’t help imagining the things that could go wrong.  Slights of hand. Shifts of attention.  Infections or bleeding that could end things way too soon.

When the anesthesiologist wheels me toward the Operating Room, I’m more alert than usual. 

“Shouldn't you give me that stuff that makes me sleepy?” I ask.  He stops, mid-roll, to squeeze a syringe into my IV.  I am such a control freak.

As we come through the doorway, the OR is bright and cold.  And much smaller than I remember.

A nurse named Nancy greets me warmly.  “I remember you from when you first came in!” she says.  “We almost never get to see our trauma patients again!” 

She asks if she can give me a hug.  Of course, I say yes.  You can never have too many friends in the Operating Room.

When I wake up 6 hours later, there’s PAIN.  Lots of it.  Dr. J tells me things went well -- how many of my surgeons had hands in this operation -- but I won’t let him get a word in. 

“It hurts so much,” I mumble over and over in a fog of anesthesia.

They switch my meds, and the pain dulls.

Mile Marker 700: 

Four days later, it’s time to put my prosthesis back on.

Stitched up, I can barely bend over, so I teach Mom to work the pull-bag, tugging gently right then left.  Later, I teach nurse Sarah.  As a morale-booster, Prosthetist Tim stops by for a visit.

At first my whole body is swollen with fluid, so it’s tough to get in the socket.  The next day I’ve lost weight and volume, so it’s tough to stay in the socket.

Legs unsteady, I inch slowly down the hallway, a pillow clutched to my abs.  It feels like I'm walking on stilts.  It feels like my insides are going to fall out.

When I start on clear liquids (yes, again), Deb and Mark stock me with tea from Dunkin' Donuts.  Lemon and extra sugar.

One day after school, Chase and Shawn come by with belated birthday treats.  I missed our "night out," but we'll have another one.  My room fills up with flowers, balloons, and cheer.  I absorb the energy.

Before this surgery, I proclaimed to my family and nurses, “Number 15 is The Fix!”

It seemed so simple at the time, but now I’m not so sure.  Recovery is a gray area.  It’s like a big waiting room -- at my parents' house -- where I lay around reading books and magazines, unsure when things will get better.

One slow afternoon, Mom takes me out to Barnes and Noble.   I try to ignore the tugging in my abs, the fatigue that weighs me down, and the wiggling in my very loose prosthesis.

I browse through fiction, focusing on each title and cover.  Customers walk by me.  To them, I look no different than anyone else.

They don't know how TORN APART I am on the inside.

Surgery number 15 may indeed be "the fix," but the mere existence of a 15th surgery has opened my eyes to something else.  I've realized my surgeons are not Gods or magicians; they are just very skillful humans.  They do their best to unclog and untangle, patch and mend, but in the end the fix might not last forever.

I wonder what the 700's have in store.  I want to pick up where I left off --  To get back to work.  To search for a new place to live.

To be proud and productive.
To remember EVERY DAY how lucky I am to be alive.
And of course --  To have all the ice cream I want.  (Tonsils or not, it couldn't hurt!)

Thanks to Andy, Nina, Mark, and Dad for this post's photos!