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!

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Tooth About Trauma

(or How A Windy Night Landed Me In The Dentist's Office)

Mile Marker 1620:

The wind howls like a thousand ambulance sirens.  I lie in bed, shoulders tense, jaw tightened.  I toss and turn until the sheets are tangled.  At some point, I fall back to sleep.  That's when the sirens become ghosts.

In March 2011, the night after my 13th surgery, I had a terrible dream.  In it, I stood in the middle of a blizzard on a huge snowy hill.  Hundreds of sledding ghosts whipped by me from every direction.  The wind gusted as they whizzed down the hill.  Their screams screeched in my ears.  I knew I’d be hit, but I was immobile.  With my single leg trapped deep in the snow, there was nothing I could do to get out of their way.

I woke up in the ICU drenched with sweat.  Just 4 months earlier, I'd had my leg amputated, and now I'd just undergone major abdominal surgery.   My little leg quivered in the sheets.  My stomach rippled with metal sutures and adhesive tape.   My head ached with morphine.  And the suction sound of the NG tube -- that incessant high-pitched whistle -- followed me like a constant screaming ghost.  The dream made perfect sense.  I was utterly powerless.  There was no escaping the chaos.

At Mile Marker 1620, the cause is different, but the effect is the same.

A few weeks ago when I spoke to the staff at Hershey Medical Center, I told them that over time it’s possible to organize traumatic memories.   To tuck them neatly away.  To take them out when I want them, not when they want me.

Of course, that's not entirely true.  Sometimes the ghosts sneak out.

After 3 years, I've still got memories of the toughest days.  The theme music from Glee takes me back to sleepless nights in my hospital room.  The smell of Purpose soap reminds me of when my mom would help me get washed up each morning.  Even some physical sensations -- Ankle Blades and the Stone Sandal -- work like instant time travel.  They make me remember.

But they aren't threatening.  They don't recreate the FEAR.

This night does.  The wind shrieks.  I toss and turn, and clench my jaw some more.  At 3 a.m. I get out of bed.  Grab an empty bag.  Stuff my pillow, fleece blanket, iPad, phone, and water bottle into it.  I do these things in pajamas, barefoot, balancing on my right leg.  Then I shove the bag onto my shoulder and crutch into the spare bedroom.  It's smaller and quieter in there, somehow safer because it has no windows.

Exhausted and stressed, I scrunch my body onto the unopened futon.  One foot hangs off the end.  

I listen to Radiolab.  Grit my teeth.  Eventually, I sleep.

In the morning, a few things are obvious:
(1)  The ghosts have gone back where they came from.
(2)  I should have called my 4th floor friends and bunked in with them.
(3)  I probably broke a tooth.

By Mile 1622, I'm in the dentist’s chair.  Luckily the dentist happens to be my good friend Jeff.  He looks in my mouth, wiggles my teeth, and takes an x-ray.  Although my jaw still aches, he declares no major damage.  He tells me I’ve got a minor case of TOOTH TRAUMA.

“Trauma?" I say.  "I’m familiar with that!”   The diagnosis is oddly comforting.


When I tell him the story of the windy night, we end up laughing about the tiny futon.  I tell him I never could have fit on it with 2 legs!

I've built a safe home for my traumatic memories.  It's taken time and practice (and help from a skillful therapist).  But the truth about trauma is this:  when the lights go down, it sometimes leaks out.

More than three years later, there are still a few ghosts.

When they visit, I have to hunker down and bite the bullet -- although it might land me at the dentist.

When I leave Jeff's office, I'm smiling again.  The sun is high.  My mind is clear.  And, best yet, there's no wind at all.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Sweetest Place


Mile Marker 1612:

There's a certain sweetness in telling my story.

For weeks beforehand, I line up the events like ingredients on a shopping list.  From photos, I mix together a PowerPoint.  I decide what to include and what to leave out.  Dice or chop?  Stir or blend?  It's a constantly changing recipe, and only in the tasting, can I tell if I got it right.

The key ingredient... chocolate?
I'm excited to be here in the Sweetest Place on Earth.   But more than that, I feel fortunate to be in a place, physically and emotionally, where I'm able to share my story with others.


As my parents and I wait in the bright, windowed lobby of Penn State Hershey Medical Center, patients go by in wheelchairs.  Doctors in scrubs drink coffee at a nearby table.  On the other side of the room, a woman on a scooter tries to reign in 2 rowdy toddlers.  My mom says she can feel the anxiety here.  But to me it's just an atrium, spacious and airy.  In the middle of fields and farmland, it's nothing like the city hospitals I know so well.

An hour later, at Mile Marker 1612, I stand in an auditorium filled with doctors, nurses, and hospital staff.  Above me, on a screen the shape of a giant Hershey Bar, is my first slide:  A Thousand Miles:  Trauma from a Patient and Family Perspective.

This is Surgery Grand Rounds.

Kinda rolls off your tongue, doesn't it?

I'm impressed with many things here (including that cool title!).  I'm impressed with the story behind the town, the vision and teamwork that impacted the lives of so many people.  I'm impressed with the hospital, a sprawling and busy Pediatric and Adult Trauma Center.  But what impresses me most are the medical professionals who've taken an hour of their valuable time to come and hear me.

I begin with the basic ingredients:  a bike, a street, and a teacher heading off to work.  Then I add the garbage truck.  The right turn.  The injuries, the rescue, the surgeries, the hospitalizations.  The pain, the fear, the worry, the set-backs.  And all the people -- like everyone in this audience -- who competently and compassionately carried me and my family to where we are today.

I throw in the scary times, but I sprinkle in the sweet stuff too.   Like Australia and A Bump in the Road.  All the human and healing moments.  Three years later, those tiny details are the tastes I like best.

Halfway through the presentation, beepers go off like a barrage of oven timers.  Not one, not two, but a whole auditorium full!   I stop talking, but no one makes a move.  "That sounds like an emergency," I suggest.  "Maybe you guys should go."  A laugh echoes back.  So I pick up where I left off.  But then, 5 minutes later, they all beep again.  "It's ok if you need to leave," I say.  "Really, I've been there!"

I remember the stark white lights of the trauma bay.  The doctors' wide eyes hovering above my gurney.  I have been there.  I've been the patient in need when the beepers go off.

But I guess this time it's not a true emergency after all.

At the end of the program, we open it up to questions.  The first one is from Dr. Peter Dillon, Chair and Professor of Surgery.  "What was the most important aspect of your relationship with your team?" he asks.  "What did you need the most?"

I've been telling my story in one form or another for the last 3 years.  Yet this question takes me somewhere new.  Instinctively, I lean into the microphone and tell him the most important aspect was TRUST.   After 1,612 miles, I discover the secret ingredient that has flavored every interaction with my team.

Other questions and comments come from the audience.  This one gets a laugh:  "Do your parents feel like putting you in a padded room so they can go on vacation?"

Ha ha.  In the last 45 minutes, I've shown photos of biking and skating and rock climbing.  So it's a logical conclusion.  And reasonable too.  Like I said, my mom feels the anxiety in a hospital that's not even mine!

When a trauma occurs, it leaves vast and deep scars.  You lose your health, your independence, your confidence, and even your hope.  It's TRUST that gets you through.

The story starts out bitter.  But if you're very, very lucky (like I was), you find some sweet places along the way.



A heartfelt THANK YOU to the Trauma Team at Hershey Medical Center for the opportunity to share my story.  And for the skill, courage, compassion, and TRUST you share with your patients every day.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Comfort Zone

What do an ICY SIDEWALK and an ELLIPTICAL TRAINER have in common?

They're both outside my comfort zone!

Mile Marker 1575:  

Mother Nature dumps more snow on Philly.   For the last 2 winters, she’s been kind.   But now, in my 3rd year as an amputee, she declares, “No more kid gloves.  You can handle this!”

I'm not so sure about that.

No,  I want to
STEP OUTSIDE!
In mid-February, school closes for 2 days in a row.  By the third day, I'm restless.  I've made plans, but do I dare venture out?

My friend Kelly, a fellow amputee, posts on Facebook that she has just shoveled her driveway.   Go Kelly!!  That's just the spark I need....

I lace up my boots, start the car, and steer out of the parking garage.  Fortunately, I don't even have a driveway to shovel!

The streets are glazed with slush as I head across the city.  When I find a parking spot along the curb, cars drive by, splashing my door.  Nervously I wait to get out.  I watch the sideview mirror till I can’t see any more headlights.  The time is NOW.

In one swift motion, I unlatch the door and swing out my Genium.  I push up into a standing position, and close the door as quick as I can.  Sliding my glove along the car, I make my way toward the sidewalk.  My heart is pounding.  I hate being this close to traffic.

Uh-oh.  A foot-high snowdrift blocks the curb.  If I sink into it, I'll fall for sure.  (Walking in deep snow is like marching, a skill I haven't yet mastered.)  So I inch along the parked cars until I reach a shoveled-out space at the corner.

I was too panicked to get
a photo of that stretch of ice,
but it looked kinda like this one!
There, I face the next obstacle -- a 20 foot stretch of sidewalk that looks more like an arctic tundra.  I draw in a deep breath and begin shuffling along it like I'm walking on glass.  Land each step as light as a snowflake.  One false move could cause an avalanche.  That avalanche could be ME.

Finally I reach the parking kiosk.  Relief!  But only for a second.  I realize, at that moment, I'll have to cross that sidewalk twice more – once to put the parking ticket in my car and a second time to get where I’m going.

Here's a handy map (courtesy of my friend Shelley):


Ugh.  Magic better happen after this adventure!

This winter, more than ever, the walls of my comfort zone confine me.  I stay indoors when I want to go out.  I drive when I'd rather take Septa.  I circle the city in my car, checking the sidewalks, afraid to walk on them.

Ok, I admit it.  The entire month of February lies outside my comfort zone.

It makes me angry and frustrated.  But at Mile 1575, there's a new force pushing against those walls.  If Kelly can do it, maybe I can too.

And today, if I do stay on my feet, I'm pretty sure it will be worth the trip.  For the first time in 3 years, I’m going to see Ed.  

Ed was a volunteer at the rehab hospital when I was there in December 2010.  Each morning, he greeted me with a warm smile as I’d wheel into the dining room for my breakfast tray.  Back then, EVERYTHING lay outside my comfort zone -- even coming to breakfast.  But Ed stretched those boundaries just a little bit wider.

“When I can walk again,” I'd tell him, “I’m going to come back and be a volunteer like you!”

And for more than a year now, I have been going back.  Each week, I volunteer at the rehab hospital, keeping patients company as they undergo therapy in the gym.
The reunion is worth it!

When I think how far my comfort zone has expanded in the last 3 years, what's a few more yards of ice??



After that trek, I log the next 25 miles mostly indoors.  But getting out in the winter makes even the smallest steps feel like a victory.

Friends Ruth and Asa help me navigate the snowy city.





In Washington Square, I find my favorite picnic spot buried under a sea of white.



And my first sip of lavender green tea tastes like much-needed spring.

Little by little, as if by magic, the snow disappears.


Mile Marker 1600:

The temperature hits 40 for the first time in months.

My friend Robert shows me his latest accomplishment -- the elliptical trainer.  He's inspired me before.  But his newest idea pushes at those walls, just like Kelly's snow shoveling!

At Mile 1600, Trainer Ian gives me a quick tutorial.  PT Colleen suggests putting my Genium in "free swing" mode.  PT Deb sticks Dycem on the pedal to keep my left foot in place.

I grip the handrails, push back against my socket, and step onto the machine.   In "free swing," my Genium is as flimsy as a piece of spaghetti.  But it works.  As I push the pedals forward, it comes along for the ride!

I start out tentatively, arms braced on the center handles, eyes glued to my left foot.  Gradually, I find a rhythm.   One hand at a time, I reach for the machine's moving arms.  Take my eyes off the Genium for one split second and then another.

At day 3, it still looks more natural than it feels.  My arms work overtime, and my left foot isn't quite stable.  But at least I'm moving!

Deb and I even have a little FUN with it...

video

Of course, leaving your comfort zone is much easier when you've got your team around.  Slip-ups are laughable.  And anyway, pedaling the elliptical is nothing like walking on ice!

But it is something new.

Each time I cross that boundary, a tiny bit of fear melts away.  Step by step, mile by mile, the desire grows.  I want to travel farther and farther.

Does magic really happen out there?

Maybe, maybe not.   But sometimes, I discover a burst of confidence.  Sometimes, I get a good workout.

Or sometimes -- as in the case of the arctic tundra -- I realize just what I can handle.

And that knowledge holds a magic all its own.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

61 Steps

Mile Marker 1555:

There are 61 steps to my grandfather’s bedroom.

The first 12 -- from his underground garage to the building courtyard -- are the steepest.  If you live in the city, there’s no such thing as free parking, right?  These stairs prove it.  My car parks for free, but my right knee pays the price.

At the landing, there's daylight.  The next flight is gradual and easier, each step no more than 5 inches high.  Still, my right leg drags the left.  For the last few weeks, I've been here nearly every day.

I cross the flat courtyard, slick with puddles and slush.  Early this morning, an ice storm coated the trees in glass.  But now it's 40 degrees, and that fairyland has turned into a hazardous, dull mess.

As a kid, I found magic in this city townhouse with 4 levels.

Now I just see 3 more flights of stairs:  one cement and two carpeted, with banisters that alternate from side to side.  Since becoming an amputee, I dread this climb.

But today it's not about the stairs, or about my leg, or about me at all.   My grandfather is at the top.

One of my favorites :)
When I was little, "Pop-Pop" worked for the Philadelphia Free Library.  He’d scour the boxes of old picture books, bringing me new ones each time he visited.  For hours, I sat cross-legged with those books on my blue shag carpet.  I read them over and over again.

As I got older, he taught me to play solitaire.  He danced at my Bat Mitzvah.  He let me drive his Dodge convertible to high school.   He visited me in college.  

My hero --
Winter of 1994
And in my mid-20's, when I broke my foot, he took me to the supermarket and out to dinner every Saturday night.




These days, he’s in bed most of the time.  He's smaller now, a miniature of the robust guy he once was.  But his cowboy hats still hang on the wall.   His button-down shirts are still in the closet.  His beaming smile is just the same.

When I walk in, he's always happy to see me.  As the rest of his body falters, his blue eyes stay as bright as ever.  He can’t remember his stories anymore.  And when he tries to talk, the words slip away.  He loses track of our names, our visits, and how we’re all related.  (I've become his "Little Girl," and Mark is “The Judge.”)  Yet he still lights up every time we walk in.

Mirror photography
by "The Judge"
“I love you,” he declares, leaning heavily on the word LOVE.  He puts all his strength into it.  Stretches out the words to prove exactly how much they mean.   He delivers this message generously, sincerely, again and again.


At Mile Marker 1555, I reach the top of the stairs and peek my head into Pop-Pop's bedroom.  His favorite CD, Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, plays softly in the background.   My mom sits on the edge of the bed, holding his hand.   Zita, his caregiver (and so much more), cradles his head from the other side. 

Today, his eyes are closed.  His breathing is labored.  Over the past week, he’s told us again and again, “It’s time for me to go home.”

“You are home,” we’ve assured him each time.

It doesn’t satisfy him.  He’s restless to leave.  He tells us his whole family is there.  That he hasn’t seen his wife for a very long time.   

He asks his caregivers, Zita and Mattie, to bring him his shoes and his pants.  He tells my mom to gather his wallet, his keys, and his Frank Sinatra CD.  After 88 years, these are the things he wants to take with him.

He tells us over and over again that he loves us.

But today, it’s time for him to go.  His sleep becomes deeper.  His breathing slows.  His eyelids flutter.  His hands get cold.  We feel him drifting away.

At once the room is very, very quiet.  The music has ended.

Zita wipes away her tears and slides the window open.  Beyond the screen, we hear more than just the dripping icicles.  Birds are chirping, a whole flock of them!   So unlikely on this February day....  

If I ever doubted what comes after, I don't anymore.

We're 61 steps up, as high as the treetops.  And if I've got it right, Pop-Pop’s even higher.

Can you hear us up there?   We love you too.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Future of Awesome

Mile Marker 1550:

Sorry XFINITY, these kids aren't watching TV.

They aren't spending their Saturday mornings on the couch streaming movies or pressing buttons to control the world from their smart phones.  Not this Saturday, anyway.

Instead they're rising early.  Filling up a classroom at Temple University.  Tinkering with dominoes and spools, straws and colored cord.  Sorting through mismatched pieces that look more like remnants of my brother's closet than like anything high-tech.

Over the next few weeks, these high school students will use their hands and minds to build a ROBOTIC ARM.

Awesome.

So what am I doing here?  Remember, I'm the girl who's stymied by jigsaw puzzles.  I don't attempt to assemble IKEA furniture.  I'm even terrible at Legos!

But today -- to these budding scientists -- I'm the human side of robotics.

I tell them the story of my own journey:  a bicycle ride that abruptly changed direction.  I tell them how I found myself immersed, unwillingly, in this world they find so fascinating.

I tell them how fortunate I've been to have access to experts in the field.  I explain the amazing technology that allows me to walk, bike, skate, and rock climb.  The tools that help me navigate sidewalks and stairs.   The mechanical and computerized components that move me forward every day.

I tell them that above all this technology is a just little leg that wants to be comfortable.  A 90-pound body that doesn't want to slip on the ice.

They listen and watch.  They ask thought-provoking questions...

Are you a different person now than you were before your injury?

Would it be possible to use prosthetic technology to enable other wheelchair-bound people, non-amputees, to walk again?

And one of my personal favorites...

Wouldn't it be better to have a socket that's breathable?
(Yes, that's genius!  Get started on it right away!!)

I don't have all the answers.  I can only speak from experience.  But I tell them one important lesson I've learned:  It's not a matter of can or can't.  It is simply a matter of HOW.

Luckily this belief already runs deep in their veins.  They're teenagers after all.

College students help run the program.  One tells me she wants to go into prosthestics.  I tell her about Hugh Herr at MIT Media Lab and other graduate programs around the country.  Another tells me how high school programs like this sometimes spur innovative research on a much larger level.  She says one group developed technology that's now used by NASA.

With encouragement and opportunity, these students will join our next generation of engineers, doctors, and prosthestists.  Their knowledge and problem-solving will have a ripple effect on our future.

But there's more.  By inviting me here before the inventing begins, their instructors hope to convey an important message:  Technology must be delivered with compassion.

I agree.  The most promising professionals I've met along my journey never forget the HUMAN TOUCH.

With questions, discussions, and demonstrations, the presentation stretches to more than 2 hours.  By the end I know the kids are itching for a break.  Still, they're told to line up and respectfully shake my hand.

Each one offers a genuine thank you.  Some ask more questions.  A few ask advice on future projects.  Others gather to talk to me afterward.

Robotics and technology are awesome.  These kids are awesome.

In the words of an engineer, I'm an "end user."  But this group understands.  Robot parts aren't a means to an end.

They're really the beginning.


Thanks to Temple Robotics Academy for the warm welcome!  Good luck on your journey of discovery!

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.

Winter is a DOLPHIN AMPUTEE.

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...)

video

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.