Friday, April 26, 2013

show your mettle (metal) : limb loss awareness

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In the United States, we aren’t accustomed to seeing blown off body parts lying around the street.  Then we saw the coverage of the bombing in Boston.

While mercifully only three lives were lost – three too many – nearly 300 people were injured in the blasts. As 26 April, at least 14 of those injured – or 5% -  have had limb amputations as a result of their injuries. So far.

That’s almost the same percentage of total Americans who currently live with limb loss. In a country with nearly 314 million people, over 2 million people – roughly 6% - have had an amputation of some sort.

The Amputation Coalition is celebrating April as Limb Loss Awareness month, and have designated April 27th as Show Your Mettle Day. This is an occasion when all amputees are encouraged not to hide their prostheses, but to proudly reveal their courage to the world.
Amputees like war fighters, diabetes survivors, accident victims, my mom….

Mom was in her late 40s when she lost her leg. Although “lost” is a misnomer. She had to make the difficult decision to have it removed. Which might be even more gruesome. Imagine having to say, “Please, doctor, I would like to have my leg chopped off below the knee, thank you.”

Before her accident, she ran circles around everyone. She was a hard-working lady who slept maybe four hours a night and didn’t know the meaning of “can’t.” When we went for walks, she outpaced us teenagers and taunted us over her shoulder to catch up. She taught us how to play roll-the-bat with ghosts on base, and how to walk a barrel down the hill and across our back yard.

She was irrepressible and unstoppable.

She was in the stockroom of the fabric store she managed. She needed to retrieve some special order fabric for a customer from a high shelf. Little Miss “5 Foot 2, 105 pounds soaking wet” grabbed the 12 foot ladder, pulled it over, and climbed up to grab the bolt of fabric. Like she had many times before.

But this time as she grabbed the fabric, she lost her footing.

In the mere seconds it took before she hit the concrete floor, time slowed to a crawl for her. Time tends to do that when we are faced with certain death.  

She was falling head first, and recognized that if she didn’t somehow right herself, she would never survive the fall.

She reached out and grabbed a shelf on the way down, turning herself just enough to land full-force on her right heel. Immediately her right foot was shattered, and the bones in her right leg splintered and rearranged into angles no human limb was meant to endure.

At first, her surgeon tried to save her right leg and foot. He rearranged her leg bones, took additional bone from her pelvis in an attempt to repair her foot, and then put a cast on the whole enchilada. The pain in her pelvis was excruciating, the pain in her foot and leg almost blinding.

The unstoppable woman was stopped in her tracks. But at least she was alive.

After a few months, it was clear that the surgery was not a success. Her leg muscles started to atrophy and the bones were not healing correctly. It was time to make a serious decision. Wait a little longer, or cut her losses, so to speak?

Thank God my dad was still alive then. As always, he was right beside her all the way. After all, this wasn’t the first life-and-death situation Mom had found herself in, or even the first body part she had to part with. She wondered, only half jokingly, how Dad could live with half the woman he married. He just held her in his arms and said, “I didn’t marry your leg, I married you. And you are still all the woman I need.” Or something along those lines.

So she decided to have her right leg removed below the knee. Imagine going under the knife knowing you will wake up without one of your major limbs. And praying they take the correct one.

That was nearly 20 years and many, many prostheses ago. She gets along pretty well, probably better than 90% of the people her age. In truth, unless you knew she had a prosthesis, her gait would never give you a clue.

Unfortunately the pain didn’t go away when they took the leg. Phantom pains are common and difficult to resolve. How do you relieve pain in a non-existent foot? And then there is the ever-changing residual limb to deal with.

Mom will be 70 this year. Prim and proper, she is reticent to show her prosthesis or her residual limb (the much preferred alternative to ‘stump’) in public. Not one to be house-bound, she taught herself to drive with her left leg, removing her right leg and placing it on the passenger side of her car.

Her faith in God, her constant connection with the land, and her seemingly boundless energy have kept her going. And thankfully she still has a healthy sense of humor. How many mothers can threaten to beat you with their leg?

A few months ago, she called to tell me she had been in an accident. Driving in the country one pitch black night, a deer ran out of the woods and into the side of her car. Thankfully she maintained control of the car and even the car was unharmed. But she was pretty shaken thinking about what could have happened.

She said, “All I could think of was if I ran off the road into a ditch in the dark, my prosthesis might fly into the back seat where I couldn’t reach it. And there I’d be, alone and in the dark.”

“Without a leg to stand on.”

As she laughed, she said, “Aren’t you blessed to have a mother with a healthy sense of humor instead of one poor-mouths all the time?”

Yes, Mom, yes I am blessed. You may be half the woman you were when you were born, but you’re all the mother anyone could ever want.

And you have shown me your mettle every single day of my life.

Thank you. 

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