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?


Thursday, November 28, 2013

You Are Here

Mile Marker 1414:

YOU ARE HERE.  On the map, the trail looks like a 3-mile triangle:  one path down, one path up, one path across the top.  It shows 15 waterfalls along the way, with heights that vary from 12 to 94 feet.

But the trail map doesn't really tell us what's ahead.

The Falls Trail at Rickett’s Glen is a wondrous walk through waterfalls.  It is also an AMPUTEE'S NIGHTMARE.

More stairs than
I can count!
Wobbly stone steps line the mountain trail --  each one more leafy and muddy than the next.  The path shoots one mile downward, tracing the edge of the wild water.  It winds along narrow cliffs, and then climbs a mile straight up.

The only thing between me and the rushing water below is a 14-inch piece of titanium.  (And no, it's not waterproof!)

For nearly 5 hours, I hike with friends and family -- a.k.a. my Secret Service Support Team -- Susan, Rocco, Jen, Mark, and trusty dog Jack.

It is November 9th.

I wanted a challenge to mark the third anniversary of the accident.  On this trail, I definitely get one.  To survive, I have to use every skill I've learned over the past 3 years!

Here's the TOP 10 List:

No railing alert!
Unstable ground alert!
Water alert!
10.  BORROW STRENGTH:  Just minutes into the hike, I face the first downhill stone staircase. 

“Um, I don’t think I should be doing this...” I say aloud.  It's the understatement of the century.   

But my team kicks into action.  “You can do it!” they insist.
Mark and Jack
run recon
on the trail ahead.
Rocco spreads his arms to form a safety net between me and the water below.  Susan lends me her shoulder as a guide.  Jen points out tree roots so I don't trip.  They have no idea how many stairs lie ahead or how much energy they’ll need for themselves.  But they lend me their STRENGTH anyway.  You could say it's how I've gotten so far on this journey!

9.  BE A PROBLEM-SOLVER:   When PT Deb first taught me how to get up off the floor, I grabbed onto any object in sight – a chair, a mat, an exercise machine -- but Deb made me let go.   She said those things wouldn't always be available.

“So can I push off the floor?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.  “The floor’s always available!”

Now, I search the trail around me for something to grab onto.  To my left is a steep drop-off into rushing whitewater.  To my right is the rocky wall of a cliff.  I choose the cliff.  

Dig my gloved fingers into any crevice I can find.  Grip it for leverage and balance as I take each step.   It's no railing, but hey, it's available!

8.  WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, ADAPT:  Three years ago in the hospital, Nurse Lucy taught me to get out of bed by pivoting on one foot.  Sure, I’ve come a long way since then, but ADAPTING is still a key mode of transportation.  

On this hike, some descents are just too large to step down.  What to do?   I hand off my trekking poles to Susan.  Lower my whole body onto the ground.  Scoot down those huge boulders on my butt! 

Damp jeans are a fair trade for safety!

7.  IF YOU CAN LOOK UP, YOU CAN GET UP:  When the trail narrows, we come face to face with another group of hikers.  Crowd in single-file so they can pass.  I line up both my feet, parallel, on a downhill mess of tree roots.  It overwhelms my Genium and my balance.  In a matter of seconds, I hit the ground -- this time, not gracefully or purpose!  

Everyone offers their hands to help.  But a few months ago, rehab buddies Robert and Binal taught me a catchy rule:  IF YOU CAN LOOK UP, YOU CAN GET UP.   

I look up.  Get up.  It turns out to be a theme of the day!

6.  REST IS RUST:   Almost 3 hours later, when we finally reach the bottom of that first shaky mile, we realize this hike is taking much longer than anticipated.  

“What time does the sun set?” Jen asks.  
"Are you kidding?" I say.  "What time do they send in the helicopter rescue?!”   

Every bone in my body is exhausted.  Yet through the trees, I can see the next mile -- an uphill climb -- as steep and difficult as the one we've just come down.  So I pull out a phrase that goes back to my earliest days with Prosthetist Tim:  REST IS RUST.   I gulp Mark’s orange Gatorade.  Force myself to start walking again.  

When we reach the first uphill stretch, my right quad muscle is already quivering.  I climb anyway.  There's no time to rest -- or rust --  at the bottom of this waterfall!

5.  NORMALIZE:   My mom used to ask me each morning, "How's your leg?"   Most days, especially in the beginning, the answer wasn't good.  Finally, we agreed she should just stop asking.  My job each day was to accept this new normal -- bad or good -- socket fit, phantom pain, and all. 

So as much as the uphill climb overwhelms me, I try to accept it.  (A helicopter could never get down here anyway!)  

While my eyes stay focused on the ground below, Mark NORMALIZES what's ahead.  “Just your average stone steps,” he says matter-of-factly.  “You know... steep, uneven, muddy, leaf-covered…."   
He says it sarcastically, but really it's a survival strategy.  With a few simple words, Mark cuts those steps down to size.

4.  HAM IT UP:   Way back in the rehab hospital, when I was first learning how to get dressed on one leg, I looked down at my 5 remaining toes.  “Do you think I could get a pedicure for half-price now?”  I said to Nurse Tama.  She cracked up.  Later, she made me repeat it at the nurses' station.  Sometimes laughter is the best medicine!

On this trail, the farther we get, the GIDDIER we get.  I sing chorus after chorus of the country song,  "If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep on Going."   

When we stop for a photo, Rocco strips his shirt off.   Susan and I join him... well, sort of!
Faking a flash :)

Even in the midst of this huge challenge, we LAUGH a lot!


3.   DO LOOK BACK:  Each time we finish a rough stretch of trail, I pause for a second.  Catch my breath.  Find a stable place to plant my feet.  Then I turn my gaze down -- or up -- the hillside.  Wow!  I did that??   People always say don't look back, but a well-placed LOOK BACK can be powerful.  

Still, as we near the end of the uphill climb, fatigue overwhelms me.  If I had a choice, I'd lie down and burst into tears.  

"I'm not doing so well," I mumble.

“Just think where you were three years ago!” Susan chimes in.  And she's right.  At this exact time three years ago, I was nearing my 9th hour of surgery, with many more to go.  Sometimes a look back can put it all in perspective!

Best lunch view ever!!!

2.  KEEP COUNT For more than 2 years, I've been counting miles.  Today, we count waterfalls.  

"Number 14!" Rocco and Mark announce as we ascend yet another strenuous set of stone steps.  Then magically, a sign for a shortcut appears.  We need to finish before sunset, but if we take the shortcut, we'll miss the 15th waterfall.

Wait a minute!  If you count my fall (see #7 above), that makes 15 falls all together!  We realize we've done it!  We've seen 15 FALLS -- including mine!

If that's not a good excuse for a shortcut,
I don't know what is!

We stumble out of the woods just ten minutes before sunset -- exhausted and sweaty, but mostly relieved!   In the parking lot, we examine the trail map again from a new perspective.

For the first time, I notice colored markings: green for easy, red for more difficult, black for most difficult.  Our trail is black.  I point it out to everyone.

"Didn't you see that before we left?" Jen asks.


I'm glad I didn't.  If I knew how hard this would be, I never would have started.  

Kind of like the past 3 years.

Which brings me to the NUMBER ONE survival strategy...

1.  ONE STEP AT A TIME:  I’d love to tell you how beautiful it was to be among the majestic waterfalls.  But for the largest part of this 4 ½ hour hike, I really just watched my FEET.  Every edge of rock.  Every bumpy tree root.  Every inch of incline.

On a journey like this, you have to step over, around, and through obstacles as they come.  Activate every resource you can find.   Be thankful for the people, skills, and titanium that guide you along the way.

I'm learning that there isn't always a trail map.  (And if there is, it might not tell you what you need!)  The only way to go is ONE STEP AT A TIME.

I don't know where I'll be tomorrow, but I know one thing --

Today, I AM HERE.

And that's a lot to be thankful for!
Happy Thanksgiving everybody!  And Happy Trails!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

With Thanks

Mile Marker 1400:

This year, November rides in on a wave of GRATITUDE.

In Harrisburg, I speak at the Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation Conference.  In the audience are doctors, nurses, directors, and staff from hospital trauma centers across the state.   I describe my experience as a trauma survivor, the value of trauma care, and the way "my" trauma team supported our family. 

I can't help thinking how lucky I am.  To have made it this FAR.  To be able to THANK these professionals.  To tell them how much my family and I REMEMBER.

When October ends, things are going so smoothly, I'm convinced I'll cruise through November 9th, this upcoming anniversary.

Mary and I stop at Ben's house
on one of our jaunts!
I stretch my walks to 2 miles.  I buy my first pair of climbing shoes.   At work, I arrive earlier and stay later.  I go out to dinner.  I cook with neighbors.  At the rehab gym, I sweat - and laugh - more than ever!

Lest I forget, November makes its presence known.

In preparation for the conference, I study my own medical report for the very first time.  Up until now, I haven’t felt ready.  But three years have passed.  Plus, in front of all those doctors, I want to get the details right!

The summary is 3 pages long.  It's jarring to read because the events are terrible and, of course, they happened to me.  But I get through it.  I add "fractured pelvis" to my list of injuries.

That night, as I'm taking off my prosthesis, a random thought strikes:

I would like to send that medical report to the truck driver who hit me.  

I have the sudden urge to photocopy those pages, staple them together, fold them into thirds, and seal them into an envelope with no return address.

It’s not exactly anger.  And it's not revenge.

I just don't want him to FORGET.

Mailing that report wouldn't change a single thing for me.  He'd never know what I go through on a daily basis.  He'd never understand how this month forever divides my world into "before" and "after."

But at least he would REMEMBER.

The idea fades quickly -- a blip on the radar.  Yet the following week, November darkness creeps in again.  Whenever I stand, the edge of the prosthetic socket juts into my upper thigh.  When I sit, it presses angrily against my butt bone.  When I roll the liner off, I find red welts and puffy blisters.  Hasn’t my leg suffered enough?   

Then abdominal pangs kick in.  For effect, I guess.

Really, it’s not all that bad.  It's not the nightmare stuff of emergency rooms.  (Yet another reason to be grateful!)

Still, the disturbance makes me uneasy.   Breaks the momentum.   Weighs me down like a five o'clock sunset.

I guess that's November's way.

On November 7th, seven trash trucks cross my path.  Two of them come to halt, idling side by side in front of my car.  Their monstrous bodies swallow up the narrow street.  Throw a dark shadow over me and my Honda Civic. 

One truck finally pulls away, leaving an open lane.

I don't dare pass.  The countdown is on.

Finally it's November 8th.  As sunset nears, I feel an inexplicable pull toward the corner where this journey began.  

I’m on my way to the rehab gym, but as I drive south, I turn right on Washington Avenue.  A parking space opens up along the bike lane.  I take it.

I start walking down the sidewalk.  Without seashells in my pocket, I feel unprepared.  When I come, I always bring something to mark the space.  To remember what happened here.

When I reach 5th Street, a cluster of noisy students pass by.  They jostle and shove each other, laughing together as they wait for the light to change. 

An ambulance sounds in the distance.  No, I think.  It can’t be.  But the siren gets louder.  In a second, its lights come into view.  I see the red and white stripes of Fire Rescue -- the kind that stopped for me.  It zooms across Washington Avenue.  This time, it doesn't stop.

When it's quiet again, I inspect the street.  Between the manhole cover and the crosswalk, the blue footprint we painted at Mile 1000 has washed away.

I turn to the base of the lamppost, where I usually leave my shells.  With relief, I see one’s still there, jammed so far underneath, you can barely see it.  A crack in the pavement catches my eye.  In it -- scattered among cigarette butts and gravel -- are tiny shards of seashells in purple, blue, gray, and white.  Signs of remembrance.

I get down on one knee.  Pull off my gloves and dig those pieces out one by one.  I find more than a dozen.  Reassemble them on the sidewalk.

“Excuse me.”

There's a kid standing above me.  He looks about 13.  He’s wearing green and black gym clothes from the public school up the street. 

“Are you the one who got hit right here?”  he asks.

I get to my feet quickly, in total surprise.  "Yeah," I say.  "That was me.”

Silence falls between us.

“Were you here?" I ask.  "Did you see it?”

“No, my friend was.  He was on his way to school.  He told me about it.”

Another second of silence.

"I come back here sometimes," I tell him.  "It happened three years ago on November ninth.  That's tomorrow." 

Are we really having this conversation?   How could this boy possibly understand?   How could he even REMEMBER?

“Sorry that happened to you,” he says.

He can’t tell the extent of my injuries.  I'm in long pants and a sweatshirt, gloves and a hat.  On this night, I don’t look any different than anyone else walking by.

“Thanks,” I say.  “And tell your friend thanks too... for... thinking about me.”

He nods.  Continues on his way.

I watch him go.  Then continue on my way, too.  Once I start walking, I find the words I meant to say:

Thanks for remembering.

It's almost 4:30.  The sun will set soon, but when I look back, the sky looks just a little bit brighter.

The world remembers.

Thanks kid.  Thanks November.

I think I'm ready now.

Thanks to all of you who've walked with me on this journey.  For lending me your confidence, your courage, your skills, your strength, and your belief in every step.  But most of all, for REMEMBERING with me along the way.