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!

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.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mystery of the Sticky Knee

Mile Marker 1994:

Ever get a rock in your shoe?

A little pebble from the sidewalk, or sand from the beach, or wood chips when you're hiking?  You know the feeling.  The annoying poke each time you put your heel down?  How the tiniest stone feels like a boulder in there?   How, after just seconds of suffering, you stop to dump out your shoe and see what's inside?

Well, Mile 1994 sets a new standard for that.

The mystery begins in the morning on the treadmill at the rehab gym.

My Genium feels sluggish.  Lazy.  Like it's stuck to the ground with a wad of gum.

PT Deb passes by with one of her patients.  I wave as usual.  "Out for a stroll?" I call.  The patient smiles and waves back with her cane-free hand.

I keep walking.  Awkwardly.   It's just a slow start.  Walk it out,  I tell myself.  And I do.

But when Deb goes by on her second lap, I know something's up.  Each time my Genium bends, I have to flick my entire hip forward.  I roll my eyes at Deb.

"What's wrong?" she asks.

"We're having a sticky knee day," I tell her, motioning toward my left half.

But the human body is amazingly adjustable.  I shift my weight differently.  I take smaller steps.  Finally, I find a rhythm.  Despite the hassle, my Genium and I squeeze out 1.5 miles in 30 minutes.  Not bad for sticky knee day.

The rest of the day goes down uneventfully.  When I get home, I walk precariously through the parking garage to the elevator of my building.  Safely in my apartment, I examine each joint of my Genium, foot, and socket.  I check all the screws.  I run my finger over the line of black Sharpie that marks the angle of the knee.  I even strip off the whole system right down to the liner.

What's wrong with my alignment?  How did it get so messed up?  Should I call Prosthetist Tim?  What if he has to send my Genium back to Ottobock again?  What if we have to re-program a loaner?

I catastrophize.  Then I re-don everything and move on.

That night, friends Meg and Chad stop by for dinner.  We walk 3 blocks over the cobblestones and bricks of Old City to eat at Revolution House.  My gait is completely off.  Each step is unsteady.  It feels like I'm walking on tiptoe.  My knee releases too quickly, as if I'm in high heels.  From moment to moment, I check on my Genium like a sick child.  What's wrong girl??

After dinner, we head over to Franklin Fountain for the best ice cream in the city.   Although walking is tough, I push onward.  (Shades of Mile 380 -- Will Walk for Ice Cream!)

Yum!  It's worth the trouble!

When I plug my Genium into its charger that night, I promise it (and myself) that tomorrow be a better day.

It's a truth you learn early on as an amputee:  there are "good leg days" and "bad leg days" -- often without explanation.   And the brighter side of that truth:  sometimes things just fix themselves.

The next morning, I change into sandals.  When I tug the left sneaker off my Genium, I discover it.  The cause of all the fuss.  Not a rock.  But a SOCK.  A crumpled up white gym sock with a Nike swoosh on the ankle, rolled in a ball and tucked into the heel of my gym shoe.  Small and soft, but bulky enough to drive my Genium crazy!

In a flash, I remember 2 days ago at the gym, when I took off my socks and stuffed them inside my sneakers.  Guess I didn't pull both of them out!

Mystery of the Sticky Knee solved!

I text Deb to tell her.
"Good work Sherlock!" she texts back.

In almost 2,000 miles, you could say I've gotten better at detecting what's underfoot.  If I step on a stick, I can tell by the way my foot wobbles.  If the sidewalk is jagged, I can feel the push-back in my socket.  Yet many sensations are still out of reach.

Those are the mysteries that keep me on my toes!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I'm Back!

Mile Marker 1970:

How appropriate that as I reach Mile 1970, my parents are turning 70!

For 3 weeks, I've been rushing around by car, on foot, and in the kitchen.  There are quiches to be baked, napkins to be bought, and sandwiches to be ordered.  Each morning, my inbox is filled with RSVPs as everyone converges on Philly for the big surprise party.

Aunt Patti generously agrees to host the party in her backyard.  She and I schedule secret meetings.  We pray for good weather.  And get it!  On the day of the party, it's 85 and sunny.  The garden is dotted with lawn chairs and lanterns.  Rainbows of flowers fill a dozen mason jars.

Everyone chips in.  Uncle Steve and cousins Kevin and Jeff set up the yard.  Mark and Andy bring beverages.  Joe carts in toys for the kids.  Stephen's on clean-up duty.  And Sam has the job of getting Mom and Dad to show up.  (The toughest task of all!)

At T-minus 1 hour, I race through the supermarket with a cart full of balloons.  Breathless, I reach the bakery where our pre-ordered cakes sit waiting.

Back at the house, I carry out plates and boxes and bags.  I walk gingerly across grass and stepping stones.

But primarily, I direct and delegate like the conductor of an orchestra.  One that's been playing together for a very long time!


To understand this story, you need to know that I'm the OLDEST.  The oldest child.  The oldest sibling.  The oldest cousin.  The oldest grandchild.  I have always been the oldest in the family.

Circa 1986
When I was a kid, my mom called me "The Ringleader."  (She did it mostly when I was in trouble!)  

But it was true.  I was the organizer.  My siblings and cousins always looked to me for answers.  What are we doing for Mom's birthday?  What's the dress code for dinner?  Did you get Dad anything for Father's Day?   Of course this was followed by, Can I go in on it?

So on November 9, 2010 -- the day of my accident -- a curious thing happened.  I stopped being in charge.
 
My siblings and cousins called each other from across the country:
"What do we do?"
"Should we come to the hospital?"
"Should we drive or fly?"
"Have you heard anything?"

Everybody called everybody.  And, according to legend, at least one person remarked, "I don't know!  Rebecca always tells us what to do!"  (I mean I can't say for sure, but that's the way the way the story goes.)

As you probably guessed, they all figured it out.


Mark skipped work and came straight to the hospital.  Sam got in the car and began the 8-hour drive from Vermont.  Andy flew in from Chicago.  Joe and Stephen trucked in from the suburbs.  Cousins Betsy and Tracy traveled from Baltimore and Kentucky.  They all came running.

Even Riley Cate did her part!
As the days passed, Mark became my "big" brother.  Sam fielded my phone calls.  Andy helped move me to Magee.  Tracy accompanied me to the ER too many times to count.

Discharge day from Jefferson



Everyone called, everyone visited, and everyone kept my spirits high.

THEY took care of ME!





At Mile 1970, it's nice to be needed again.

Mark asks me how much beer to buy.  (I overestimate by a mile.)  Andy asks if we're getting a gift.  (I tell him to investigate our options.)  Tracy bunks in, as usual, at my place.  (She even has her own bedroom.)

But as the afternoon wears on, we're all getting antsy.  My parents were supposed to arrive a half-hour ago, but according to Sam's desperate text messages, they haven't yet left the house.  Lateness runs in our family, but we need the guests of honor!

At a loss, I call Mom's cell phone and leave a whiny voice mail.  "I'm at Aunt Patti's house.  When are you coming??  I'm waiting for you, but I can't stay much longer!!"  Over the past 3 years, she's received a string of messages like this one.  She knows my staying power is not what it used to be.  Today, of course, it's a hoax.

Finally they arrive, and we shout SURPRISE!  The day blossoms into the party we planned!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

We eat.  We sing.  We celebrate.  Kids swing in the hammock.  Friends chat with friends they haven't seen in years.
Lots o' neighbors!

Uncle Andy holds court :)


The 2 Patti's kick back!



Uncle Steve's first selfie!

It's so great to be together that even "The Ringleader" starts to relax!  My siblings and I gather together for a photo.  Just for fun, we line up in age order.  I take my place at the head of the line.  I'm smallest in height.  But with this group beside me, I'm tallest in pride!

Some things never change!

When the party's over and clean-up is done, Tracy and I arrive back at my apartment.  Every bone and muscle in my body drags with exhaustion.  It's been 16 hours in my prosthesis, almost all of them standing.  Tracy heads out to pick up sushi, and I go into the bedroom to take off a very tired Genium.

It's been a long day, a long 1,970 miles, and an even longer 3 1/2 years.  But as I release my socket and remove the sweaty liner, I'm still celebrating inside.

Happy 70th Mom and Dad!

I'M BACK.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Thousand Words

Mile Marker 1920:

A picture is worth a thousand words.

I've always had the desire to capture a moment in time.

Don't leave home without it!

For my 8th birthday, I got a Technicolor instamatic camera with a flashbulb on top.  Later I progressed to a Polaroid.  And finally at the end of 8th grade, I saved up enough babysitting money to buy a real 35mm camera, a Nikon FG.

Like everybody else, I've now gone digital.  Yet I still carry my camera everywhere.  A tiny Cyber-shot, so small it fits in my pocket.  If it's on my prosthetic side, I don't even feel it!

But today, at Mile Marker 1920,  I'm on the other side of the lens.

(Last year's issue!)
This fall, my story is going to be featured in the "Be Well Philly" issue of Philadelphia Magazine.  Yes, the whole city is going to read about my last 3 1/2 years!

The article is about overcoming health challenges and adapting to life as an amputee.  About the journey of a thousand miles and beyond.

A few weeks ago, reporter Gina Tomaine interviewed me.  The tale flowed easily -- in WORDS.

But now there's a PHOTO SHOOT.

A thousand questions run through my mind....

How does one dress to be in a magazine?
Who am I after nearly 2,000 miles?
What does OVERCOMING look like??

They stack up high like my pile of old t-shirts, none of which is presentable enough for modeling!

After much deliberation, I choose a pink tank-top, denim shorts, and black sandals.  I simply decide to be MYSELF.


Photographer Adam Jones has the job of telling my story in photos.  Or photo.  Of all the pictures he takes, the magazine might choose just one.

We meet on Penns Landing.  The plan is to catch the sunset, but there's a storm on the way.  It's so windy Adam uses sandbags to weigh down his light set.

I climb up on the stone wall above the choppy Delaware River.  Behind me, the sky is steely gray.  My hair whips everywhere.

I stand tall, hands on hips, while he snaps photos from the ground below.  His flash lights my face like the sun.  It feels awkward at first.  Walkers watch us as they pass by.  They smile and wave.  So I start waving back.  And when Adam lets me peek at the photos, I see what the image portrays:  CONFIDENCE.

Next, he has me walk along the top of the wall, one foot in front of the other.   The wind gusts, but my Genium and I hold steady.  (I tell Adam about PT Deb and all our balance beam practice!)   Then he shows me his camera, and I see what we were after.  My Genium's blurred; my hair flies out behind me.  Pure motion.  MOVING FORWARD.

Finally, he has me raise my fists high above my head.  (Rocky style!)  We repeat this pose over and over again.  My arms shoot up and down, each time with more force.  I get into it.  I feel the victory!  And when I see the shots, I understand why.  This is what OVERCOMING looks like.


We move to Boathouse Row.  Once again, Adam sets up his equipment and snaps photo after photo, working toward one that will tell the whole story.


Between shots, I see myself through his lens.  High above the Schuylkill, as tall as the Philly skyline.

It's then that I realize my clothes didn't really matter.  The photos capture not only what's outside, but what's inside too.   A thousand miles and beyond.

The whole process -- settings and poses, camera and lights --  makes me feel like a STAR.

That's me in there!

I wish my friends along this journey could join me here.  Everyone who's dealt with injury or illness.  Anyone who looks in the mirror and sees disability.  I wish they too could be in front of Adam's camera.  To feel this boost.  To have their doubts fall away.  And to believe in themselves like I do right now.

He gets his photo.

The one that's worth a thousand words.

(Of course the magazine won't be out for a while.  Cliffhanger, I know!)

Back in the parking lot, my little Cyber-shot is still in my pocket.  And it's itching for a turn.  So I ask this real photographer for.... What else?

A SELFIE!

Adam takes my little camera, extends his arm, and presses the shutter.


What'd you expect?  He's a professional!

Maybe this isn't our "thousand words" shot.
But it definitely captures the moment!


Stay tuned for the Be Well Philly issue.  
Coming soon to a newsstand near you!

In the meantime, check out Adam's website!