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?


Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Mile Marker 1085:

When I left Chicago after college, someone gave me a puzzle of the city skyline.  I loved the photo on the box, but there was one problem -- inside were 500 pieces!

I'm terrible at puzzles.

Luckily, my friend Marla is a puzzle expert.  One very long evening, we assembled that Chicago puzzle on the floor of my living room.  Or to be more specific, she assembled the puzzle, and I sang along to James Taylor, impatiently eyeing the PUZZLE GLUE!

For more than a year after the accident, I recorded my memories on index cards:  images, dialogues, sounds, sensations, and fears.   As they came to me, I’d scribble them down and tuck the cards into a small plastic file box.  It was my way of taming them, of getting them out of my head.

I planned to pull out those cards one by one.  Spread them on the floor pyramid-style.  Arrange them into categories.  Organize those moments like I was writing a high-school research paper.

But to this day, I haven't even opened that box.  Puzzles still confound me.

At Mile Marker 1085, my parents and I walk down the carpeted aisle of a large auditorium.  For the second year in a row, we're attending Jefferson Hospital’s Excellence in Trauma Awards.

As we take our seats, Mom leans over to me.  “Is that Steve?” she says, nodding across the aisle.

I see a guy in a lavender shirt and tie -- good looking, short brown hair, easily 6 feet tall.

“I think so,” I whisper.  But I can't be sure.  Steve was a nursing assistant from way back in the beginning.

 A FALL RISK  bracelet --
 my only accessory!
Here is the piece I remember:
My IV pole hangs heavy with fluid.  My infected leg is suctioned to a wound-vac machine.  My blue hospital gown ("one-size-fits-most") is tangled underneath me.  I'm literally CAPTIVE in bed.

When I press the call button, Steve appears magically at my door.  He is the shape of strength and relief.

With help, I can take only a single step in any direction.  But Steve’s muscles fill the sleeves of his scrubs.  He can lift me, my equipment, and my bed if he has to!  More importantly, he comes in with a smile.  When I'm down, he cracks jokes.

Over time, those days have faded into the background.  But when I glance across the aisle, they come flooding back.

After the award ceremony, I chat with Dr. B.   He, too, is a face from the very beginning.  In November 2010, he’d just returned from duty as an army surgeon in the Middle East.

But the piece I remember is Dr. B standing over my gurney in Pre-Op.  He wears a surgical cap with a red and green pattern -- a chain of hot chili peppers.

Before each surgery, he inks his initials, A.B., onto the top of my left leg.  He reassures me he's seen infections like this before.  That the team will take care of it.  That I'm in good hands.

I hang onto his words as the anesthesia takes hold.

The rest I don’t remember.

Moving forward gives the illusion of putting things in order.  But this night at the awards, I realize how many pieces have slipped from my mind.   With more than 2 years and 1000 miles behind me, the memories are still fractured, random moments.
We sit down for dinner with other returning patients and families.  You’d be startled by the jigsaw pieces we bring to the table.  They're jagged, nightmarish, and dark.   A fall through an air conditioning shaft.  A late night gunshot.  A careening, high-speed car crash.  Images and feelings no one should have to remember.

The parts we can't assemble, our families fill in.  They're our witnesses.  In a split-second, their lives changed too.

But we also share laughs.  My dad tells everyone, "After the accident, Rebecca had perfect vision!"

As soon as he says it, I remember it's true:
When I first wake up in the ICU, I ask for my glasses.  Mom's been toting them in her purse for a week, just waiting for me to open my eyes and need them.

Glasses on, I look out the window.  The buildings are a blur.  Glasses off, the city's crystal clear.   I can see better without them!

Hanukkah 2010...
No glasses!
My brother Mark gets a kick out of it.  He downloads eye charts onto his phone.   Each day, he stands across the room, holding up the tiny screen.  “Can you read this?” he asks.  I always can!

When the surgeons do rounds, we joke that I got laser eye surgery as a bonus.   For 5 mysterious weeks, the world is in precise focus.  No one seems worried about it.  And no one has an explanation.

Then my right eye changes.  A week later, the left follows.  And one day everything beyond the door of my room is fuzzy again.

I put my glasses back on.

After 1085 miles, I'm still gathering pieces to this endless puzzle.  Some are tangible, like photos and medical reports.  They form the anchors and edges, the frame of the picture.  But the pieces buried deepest are the ones that worry me.  They come and go.  They don't hold their shape long.  In the beginning, I remembered too much.  Now I can't remember enough.

At an appointment with my optometrist, I recount the strange-but-true story of my post-accident eyesight.

He has an explanation -- or at least a hypothesis.  He says the anesthesia from so many surgeries relaxed the muscles of my eyes.  It literally flattened the curves that caused my astigmatism.  Weeks later, when the anesthesia finally wore off, my eyes tightened up again.

I like it.  The stories fit together like 2 perfectly matched jigsaw pieces.

Only 498 more to go...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Every Day

Mile Marker 1080:

Every day, it's tough to get started.

I used to be surprised when I woke up in the morning.  I'd see my crutches stacked against the wall, my prosthesis plugged in under the window.  Still??  I used to think.  I could hardly believe it.

Not anymore.  I'm used to it now.  I expect to see them.

But still, every day, there are a few moments when it just seems like TOO MUCH.

So I tell myself this:  Anything can happen today.

It's usually enough to get me out of bed.  I unplug my Genium, and it beeps to life.  One short blip if it's ready to go.  Or a long string of beeping complaints, like a tiny car alarm -- re-boot, re-calibrate, and try again.

"I know," I say.  "I don't like mornings either."

Every day, this routine weighs me down.  I massage my leg, apply various lotions.  Pull on the pull-bag.  Tug myself in.  First thing in the morning, my prosthesis feels heaviest.

But once I get moving, anything does happen.

Fearless leader
Chase goes first!
At school, the 6th graders are rappelling, and our team decides to join them.

I climb out on a ledge 3 stories above the street.   Heels in the air, I clutch the harness with both hands.

“This thing is secure, right?” I ask the belayers over and over.  They assure me I'm "double-belayed."  As a triple safeguard, they say, the rope is looped around the school’s rooftop air conditioner.  This third fact convinces me.  I cannot drag down an air conditioner!

Legs locked straight, I pivot over the edge.  As the weight shifts, my Genium collapses into the stucco. I hear a collective gasp from above, but I knew this would happen.  It always goes into "free swing" when I sit.

“Straighten your right leg!” the belayers yell down.  And I do.  

It's hard to say no
when kids are watching!
I hop along the wall, slackening the rope with each step.  By the end, I'm actually getting the hang of it.

I wish the building were taller!

A few days later anything happens again.

With Mary and Chris, I ride a loop around Kelly Drive.

It's fun but hard work.  On the first go-round, we pass a biker whose handlebars have come loose.  “Anyone have a wrench?” she calls out.

We put on the brakes.  (I've pretty much mastered stopping now!)  I hand my Allen wrench to Chris.  Turns out, it's handy for more than just my ANKLE!

The following weekend, I ride again with Susan, Rocco, and Mark.

Rocco gives us a lesson on the "fish ladder," a lock system that lets river life swim upstream over the waterfall.

Hey, learn something new every day...

All those miles push me further into my socket.  I spend several afternoons and evenings without my leg on.  Finally, I get a MAJOR tune-up from Prothestist Tim.

But even when I'm not moving, anything continues to happen.   Every day, I spy someone doing something amazing--

Robert takes his LONGEST walk ever.  Almost a mile in 2 1/2 hours!

Check the t-shirt...
Click to enlarge!
Dane learns to RUN!  He was the beginner amputee in Something to Chase.

And in the far reaches of Vermont, Baby Brennan starts to CRAWL!  Well, sort of.  (We're not picky on this blog!)

This morning isn't like every other day.   I wake up eagerly.  My Genium beeps without protest.  I prop my crutches against the wall.

It's Mother's Day, and Mom and I are stepping back into a tradition we left behind in 2010.  Anything is going to happen.  We are doing a 5K -- Race for the Cure!

The street is a sea of pink courage.

Zita cheers us on at
Mile One!
We walk and walk and walk.  The miles seem farther apart than ever.

We stop once to rest my leg, twice for photos.

It takes us 1 hour and 37 minutes to cross the finish line, but this year any time is our new personal best!

When the morning is over, we've covered more than 4 miles together!  Like so many moments these days, it's both an ending and a beginning.

There's no telling what tomorrow will bring.  So far, it looks like a normal workday.
A day like every other.
But you just never know.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Say What???

Mile Marker 1050:

In a certain public restroom in a Center City office building, I'm about to enter The Twilight Zone.   

Come with me.  You don't want to miss this.

At first glance, the place is unassuming.   Ancient tiles line the walls.  Rusty radiators fill the corners.  The stalls are worn-looking, white-washed one too many times.

I nod hello to the only spark of color -- a redheaded cleaning woman.

She’s petite with short hair and glasses.  For a second, she reminds me of my mom.  An extremely short second.

“What happened??!” she exclaims. “Ya broke your leg??!”  Her voice is like a very nasal duck.

As you've probably guessed, I'm wearing shorts.

“Um, something like that,” I mumble, closing the stall door behind me.  Not that it matters.

She continues quacking.  “I saw this story on the internet about a dog that had only 2 legs.  They were gonna euthanize it, but then someone wanted to adopt it.  And ya know what?  They taught it to walk on JUST 2 LEGS!  Isn’t that great?!?”

“Yeah,” I say, tugging up my shorts as quick as I can.

I come out to the sink to wash my hands.  The woman's quiet now, dusting along the radiator covers.

“Well, have a nice day,” I say, turning to leave.

“See ya later, HOP-A-LONG!” she quacks.

(Really, she called me that!  You think I could make this stuff up??)

Last week, I came upon this quote in a magazine:

Our bodies are apt to be our autobiographies.
--Frank Gelett Burgess

I thought first of tattoos -- like that guy from the movie Memento, who inked his body with memories, pieces of his life he couldn’t keep in his head.  

I’ve never been one for tattoos or body piercings.  I’ve never stood out with crazy hair colors or over-the-top styles.  

But spring has sprung.  Suddenly my Genium’s getting more airtime.
 It puts my story out there -- for anyone to see.

Earlier that day as I’m buying groceries in the supermarket, I reach up to grab a roll of paper towels.  There’s a gasp behind me.


It’s a little boy, about 6.  His eyes are huge.  Aimed directly at my Genium.

Mortified, his grandmother tries to steer him -- and her cart -- around me.

But I smile at them.  “You see my robot leg?” I say.  I’ve had this conversation so many times, it’s literally kid’s stuff!

He nods earnestly. “I saw one of those on TV!” he says proudly.

I know where this conversation's going.  We're about to discuss the latest Transformers episode.  But Grandma has other ideas.

As she drags him past the detergent, the little boy cranes his neck.  “Coooool!” he yells to me over his shoulder.

When I pass them again in the dairy aisle, we share a secret smile.

It’s just one of those days.  Everywhere I go, people have something to say.  Nothing horrible or scary.  It's just strange how all the comments pile up in the span of a few hours.  How the dialogues tattoo themselves on my mind.

Later in the evening, I turn into the parking lot of my building.

But I haven’t pulled close enough to the gate scanner.  So I open the door and stick the left side of my body out of the car to reach.  The gate buzzes open.

I notice two guys, neighbors, watching me from the sidewalk.  They’re friendly.  I’ve talked to them before -- I realize now, probably in jeans.

“What do you have, a leg brace or something?” one calls out.  He comes over for a closer look.

“It’s a prosthesis,” I say.  

He peers in through the open car door, where I’m getting my Genium situated again.  “My buddy has the same one,” he says.

This is highly unlikely, but I don’t say so.

He’s clearly impressed.  “You could be in the Olympics with that!” he tells me.  No sarcasm at all.

“I’m not so sure,” I answer.  “I don’t think my right leg could be in the Olympics.”

At that, he and his buddy both laugh.

The gate closes again, so my neighbor pulls a key fob out of his own wallet.  “Here you go,” he says, waving it in front of the scanner.


I finally drive in, rolling my eyes.  Checking the rear view mirror for a FULL MOON.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love spring, and I'm excited for summer. 

I can’t wait to test out my shiny new water leg!  I can't wait for the toes of my right foot to touch the sand again!

But I do have a body that reads like an open book.

One leg wears a prosthesis; the other has scars from surgery and a skin graft.  My middle section tells a story all its own.  (Remember Australia, A Bump in the Road, and Stitch(es) in Time?)

“Scars are tattoos of the brave,” a wise nurse once told me.  If it's true, I've got more than 15 marks of valor.

Good thing.  'Cause SHORTS SEASON is upon us...  
and there’s nowhere to hide!

You've gotta hear it to believe it...
Josh Sundquist, one of my favorite "famous" amputees, tells his own strange story: