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, January 22, 2014

Winter Break

Mile Marker 1525:  

...and the top is down!
This time of year, a cold day in Florida is better than a warm day in Philly.

My windbreaker is zipped to the chin, and my gloves are on.  Dad's even wearing a sweater!  But who cares?  The sun is bright, the sky is blue...

At Mile Marker 1525, we're speeding along I-4 toward Clearwater.  Actually, our rental car – a suave Mustang convertible – is programmed to stay below 80 m.p.h.  So we're not really speeding.  On this fast-paced straightaway, we're hugging the right lane!

At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a rescue center for injured sea life, we gather on the wooden poolside benches.  Visitors around us are sporting the latest in Florida ski hats.  But the dolphins don’t mind the weather at all.

The most famous one in the pool, aptly named WINTER, swims gracefully, poking her smiling face through the water's surface.

She's beautiful, and I can't take my eyes off her.

It's like meeting a movie star
and a mentor all in one!
Remember the movie Dolphin Tale?  As a calf, Winter got her tail caught in a crab trap.  The ropes cut off her circulation, which resulted in the amputation of her tail and some of her vertebrae.


The movie tells the story of Winter's rescue and how the team at Clearwater Marine Aquarium worked with a prosthetic company to help her swim again.  It’s a feel-good film about dedication, inspiration, and love.

But there's one scene from the movie I'll never forget.  It's when the trainers first try on Winter’s prosthesis.

Winter swims around for a moment or two, and you think everything’s just fine.  For one magical second, you think that swimming with a prosthetic tail will come naturally to her.  That it won't be hard at all.   But then Winter starts wriggling from side to side.  She slaps the prosthesis against the water.  Finally, she all-out THRASHES -- clearly upset -- struggling and banging her tail against the side of the pool.  Trying to cast off that foreign machine.

The first time I saw that scene, I felt my face scrunch up and my eyes squint with tears.  I could barely watch.  “Take it off!  Take it off!”  I cried to the TV.   At that moment, Winter’s pain was mine.

As the movie goes on, Winter's prosthetist and trainers work together to adjust her prosthesis.  Slowly, they teach her how to use her muscles again.  To soothe her skin, they develop a special coating for the liner. ("Winter's Gel" is now used in human liners, too!)  By the end of the movie, Winter is swimming like a champ.

At Mile 1525, we get a glimpse into Winter's real life... and PHYSICAL THERAPY.

Trainer John sets out rubber mats beneath her in the water.  He gently presses against her spine to stretch her muscles.  One of the first lessons I learned as an amputee was to lie on my stomach.  Without that daily stretch, my hip flexor would become contracted and tight.  When I watch Winter swim, I notice her residual tail pulls forward, just like my little leg.  I’m not an expert on dolphin anatomy, but I'll bet it's the same deal.

Winter rolls onto her back so her trainer can take measurements.  At 8 years old, she’s still growing, so her prosthesis has to grow too.

When the measuring's complete, she squeals happily, eats a fish or two, and then shows us her tricks.  (Go ahead, take your own 2-minute Winter Break...)

After the show, I ask Trainer John if I can look at Winter’s prosthesis up close.  I tug up my pant leg, flashing my own robot parts.  The Genium glimmers in the sun.

“Just a second,” he says.  He glances around.  “Ok, follow me.  But act like you don’t know me!”

Dad and I trail him casually to deserted area of the deck.  The filming of Dolphin Tale 2 is in full swing, studio areas roped off with yellow tape.

Cool stuff!!!
Apart from the crowd, John hands me Winter’s prosthesis.  Amazingly, it’s a lot like mine.  There’s a liner that fits against her skin.  There’s a socket that fits over the liner and a sleeve that rolls on over that.  But in place of a knee and foot, she -- of course -- has a super cool hydrodynamic tail!

From John we get the real story, not the movie version.  Winter wears her prosthesis every day, but for no longer than 20 minutes at a time.  She swims much better without it.  The tail is necessary to keep her muscles in shape, but it irritates her skin and requires constant adjustment.  She's gone through many prostheses over the years.

In Winter's own words...

Sound familiar?

Dad and I make our way around the rest of the aquarium.  On the layered pool decks, we discover sea turtles, otters, sting rays, birds, and a few more dolphins.   Some residents are rehabilitated so they can return to their homes.  Others, like Winter, live here permanently because they wouldn’t survive in the wild.

I've never been much of an "animal person," but watching these creatures strikes a chord in my heart -- the way they adjust to their new environment, respond to the trainers, and acquire new skills.  The way they're nurtured, loved, and rehabilitated as they heal.
Thelma and Louise --
Nurse Sharks :)

It reminds me of the care I’ve received over the past 3 years.  The doctors, nurses, prosthetists, and therapists who've been dedicated to my recovery.  And the friends I've made along the way, who start from scratch and refuse to give up.

When we leave the aquarium, temps are still the mid-50s, but it feels much warmer.  Palm trees sway in the breeze.  The air smells beachy.

Dad and I put the top down and head off to find Bright House Field, home of Phillies spring training.

We've seen Winter....
Can spring be far behind?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Coldest Day of the Year

Mile Marker 1510:

The news says today will be the coldest day of the year.

But daybreak is eerily warm.  Fog floats gently outside my window.  Sunrise isn’t sunrise, just a misty gray lightening of the sky.

As I leave for work, the rain turns torrential and steady.  Arch Street is a mess of puddles and potholes.  One brave soul -- green bike, black poncho -- pedals slowly into the wind.  

It feels like the whole world is crying.

Early in the morning, at Mile Marker 1510, my phone rings.   It's PT Deb.  She tells me Jen has passed away.

Today -- on the coldest day of the year -- my mind is numb.

When I chose the photos for my New Year's blog post, Jen was a natural.  Of all the friends of 2013, she truly exemplified the spirit of WALKING ON.  Of pushing ahead even when the odds were most challenging.

I met Jen when she was a brand new amputee, having lost her leg to cancer.   I watched as she regained her balance, stood on one leg, hopped with a walker.

In the beginning, she reminded me of myself:  scared but determined.  She named her leg “little leg,” like mine.  When she could walk on her prosthesis, she measured miles.   And told me about her adventures...

So I am walking down the street and a man starts talking to me about my leg.  Out of nowhere he kicks it to see if I could feel it.  I didn’t stumble but I thought that was nuts!

She even made the Magee calendar this year!
Yet over time, I learned how much STRONGER she was.  

Through complications and chemo, she pushed onward -- bought sandals, wore skirts, painted her toenails.  With help from her boyfriend Ken, she jury-rigged gadgets to meet every need: flashlights for dark hallways, pouches for water bottles, straps to carry her walker up the stairs.  She braved those South Philly sidewalks on her own, with or without her prosthesis.

When I needed COURAGE, I channeled my inner Jen.  Especially when I had to go legless.

Last September as I met Jen for a walk, I spotted her on the sidewalk with her new PINK HAIR. 

“I love it!!” I yelled, getting out of the car.

“People are always staring at my leg,” she said.  “I figured I'd give them something better to stare at!”

We practiced walking in the supermarket that day.  Jen tossed her crutches into the cart and tried using only her cane.  We made U-turns and reached for cereal boxes from high and low shelves.  Her appetite was returning, so we headed to the chip aisle.  At checkout, the clerk was so taken by our twin robot legs, she offered to snap a photo! 

(And I thought yellow sneakers were cool...)

Today – on the coldest day of the year – the wind chills warm memories.  I think how deceptive sunshine can be.   How it can brighten one land, while in another, a dark and dangerous storm rages.  Why was my body getting better while Jen’s was getting worse?

I am ANGRY.  Angry that Jen won’t be able to pursue her goals:  being an art therapist, turning a cartwheel, spending time with family and friends, living her life.

I am SAD.  Sad that Jen and I were just starting out.  I wish I'd done more.  Friendship grows slowly, but there’s not always as much time as you think.

Mostly, I am shocked by the UNFAIRNESS of it all.  Jen was kind and funny, optimistic and determined.  With a zest for life, she pushed past every limit.  After all the battles she faced, it’s most unfair not to win the war.

Today – on the coldest day of the year -- the temperature plummets.  Sixty degrees in the morning dips to 5 degrees overnight. 

We are huddled in a 4-door Subaru, heading north up the NJ Turnpike.   Julie’s at the wheel, Deb rides shotgun, and Lori is in the backseat with me.   They're all Magee therapists, but tonight we’re simply FRIENDS.  

Above the highway, the sky is clear and filled with stars. 

I think about Jen.  I wonder how she felt at the end of her journey.  I wonder how she feels now.  For the first time in my life, I wonder what comes after

At the funeral home, a fireplace heats up the foyer.  The room is crowded with family and friends.  Conversation and laughter reverberates.  There are posterboards of photos, frames on the tables, a patchwork of Jen’s 36 years.  As we make our way around, we discover easels of Jen’s artwork, as vibrant and colorful as she was.   

Jen’s family and her boyfriend Ken embrace us.  They feel like old friends, as warm and welcoming as Jen.

I follow Julie, Deb, and Lori toward Jen’s casket.  I don't have much experience with viewings, and I'm nervous about this part.  When it’s my turn, I take a long, quiet look at Jen.  In a beautiful yellow blouse, she looks just like herself -- porcelain skin, freckles, pink hair.  Her little leg is hidden.

I lean closer.   And somehow, like a whisper, the words come.

I’ll miss you.

I wish we could walk together.  Now your strength will move me forward.   I'll power my steps with your indomitable spirit.   I'll mark my miles with your creativity.  When I need adventure, I'll seek out cartwheels and pink hair.

Your impact will always be with me.

Even on the coldest days of the year. 

My heart goes out to Jen's family and friends.  Wishing you peace, love, and healing in the days ahead.  xo

To read Jen's blog, click here.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Year of the Friend

Mile Marker 1500:

Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.

-- Rachel Naomi Remen

At the stroke of midnight, there's nowhere I'd rather be.

Even though the windchill is in the teens.  Even though the guy in front of me is spilling beer over his head.  Even though my leg is on crooked.

Even with all the "what ifs" and "should have beens" along this journey, I'm exactly where I belong.

Here.  Standing with friends on the sloping sidewalk of Delaware Avenue.  As fireworks burst overhead, we talk and laugh and hug and kiss...

(...well, some of us kiss!)

We're ringing in 2014.  TOGETHER!

In case you missed it,
the Word of the Year is

When the year draws to a close, people always write lists:  Best of 2013, Worst of 2013, Movies of the Year, Artists of the Year, Words of the Year...

I thought about writing my own list to share highlights of 2013, but there were just too many!

2013 was a year without surgery.  It was a year of walking and climbing and hiking.  A year of swimming and biking and skating.

It was a year of rediscovering mountains, water, and snow.

A year of travel to Chicago, Florida, Vermont, and New York.  A year of making history.

There were lots of adventures, to be sure.  But when I look back, what I see most are the FRIENDS who came along for the ride.

As kids, we were cousins;
as adults, we're friends :)

As I near Mile Marker 1500, Tracy visits Philly.  She's a runner, a cyclist, and an energetic walking partner.

In the days after Christmas, Tray and I zigzag the holiday streets, searching out the best window shopping.  We go rock climbing and then grab lunch at Pizza Brain in Fishtown.

Eventually we find a routine.  Tray runs through South Philly while I work out at the rehab gym.   That's when I truly cross Mile Marker 1500 -- on the treadmill.

But better yet, that's when Tracy gets to meet my workout friends!

Beth toasts the New Year
Yes, Jeff is AWESOME
(click to read his shirt)

Tray even gets a taste of rehab herself!

Friendship is a theme of the year, but it's not new on this journey...

The quote at the top of this post -- in case you're wondering -- is by a doctor and professor at U.C.S.F. School of Medicine.  For more than 20 years, Rachel Naomi Remen has been teaching the HUMANISTIC side of medicine.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.

As I learned more about Dr. Remen's philosophy, it got me thinking about the doctors, nurses, and therapists who, through a thousand small gestures, have become more than just professionals.  They've become FRIENDS, supporting me in all that I do.

Whether I skate...

...or walk...

...or bike!

Like good friends, they FORTIFY me.  Always in the nick of time.  Always moving me forward.   Always with CARE.

But this year is different.  The road finally goes both ways.

I go back to the hospital to visit one of Dr. J's current patients, a brand new amputee.  I talk to a class of first-year med students.  I volunteer at the inpatient rehab hospital.   I loan my bike to PT Deb so she can teach another patient to ride.

Really, there's no limit to friendship.  The impact goes on and on.

So I'm calling 2013 YEAR OF THE FRIEND.

Old friends came together to celebrate.

New friends created new traditions.

Together we WALKED ON

and ON!

I'm not sure where the NEW YEAR will lead, but I know my friends will light the way.

Thanks to all who walked with me!

Here's to a healthy and bright year ahead!
HAPPY 2014!