Last week I ran into a friend who I hadn’t seen since before the amputation. Her response to me was: “Darryl, I can’t believe how freely you are moving, I can tell in your movement, face and demeanor that a huge burden has been lifted.” This made my day. What she saw was my attitude and capabilities, and despite my situation, she never asked when I would be getting my prosthetic leg. She didn’t need to, as she saw I was doing well without it.
I have made the long and difficult trek over the mountain and plowed through the many hurdles arriving at the starting gate of the prosthetic leg process. Yes, it is now a place I can go, because it has become a reachable goal. While I am excited and know that the success of using the prosthetic leg has the power to completely transform my life. I also still tread on the side of caution. It is yet another journey down an uncertain path right on the heels of a major life-changing surgery. I am enjoying movement without pain and soon I will embark upon a whole new set of aches, pains and lifelong challenges that come with wearing a prosthesis. So, once again I will buck up and push through pain with the hopes of soon walking on two legs again.
A prosthesis is a manmade artificial body part that takes the place of the real one that is missing. Man recreating a lost body part to retain limb function has dated back to ancient times. The earliest prosthesis found was a wooden toe by the Egyptians. Throughout history prosthetic limbs have been vastly improved upon. Wooden parts have been replaced with plastics and carbon fiber, and electronics have been used to control arm/hand use and make artificial knee joints mimic the natural movement of the knee. “Our veteran population drives the many advances in the field of prosthetics, as the advancement in prosthetic technology has been prompted by generations of battle-scarred amputees who have made prosthetics a public priority.” With all this new technology in prosthetics, especially the leg, it has allowed amputees to return to their active lives. The natural limb however is an amazing machine that the manmade high tech prosthetics have yet to match.
With advancement in medical science, war, and airbags saving the lives of automobile victims who once would have died due to organ damage, we are now seeing more amputees than ever. Amputees are seen in the media almost daily. The Boston Bombing, in which a large number of people lost one or more legs, has given amputees huge media focus. We see athletes winning goal medals with amputations and almost weekly we see a new story of an amputee overcoming incredible odds and accomplishing insurmountable feats. Many of these success stories are made possible through the technological advances made in prosthetics. Seeing all this is fantastic and following the many stories of these people has most certainly given me hope for my situation. What we don’t always see are the challenges, physically and emotionally, that these amputees deal with every day.
In the last few months of my experience in discussing my leg and the amputation, it seemed as if many people’s perception of a prosthetic leg was that it was this magical device that was attached during the surgery. It seemed as if everyone knew someone who had a prosthetic leg and insisted that person’s life was all perfectly normal. From the perspective of the onlooker, the prosthetic leg does appear magical. They only see the amputee walking, running and engaging in life, and they don’t see the daily challenges wearing a prosthetic can have. I have lost count of how many times in the past few months I have heard “look at the Boston Marathon victims, they quickly got their prosthetics and their lives are back to normal.” I can assure you that none of these amputees’ lives went back to normal. Amputation is life changing and there is no going back to normal. They did what they had to do to overcome the challenges and return to active lives, but none of it was easy or magical.
While I might seem negative about this, I am not. I understand that the discussion of how wonderful prosthetics are these days was meant to make me feel better about my situation. It was just their quickness to dismiss talking about the real problem, the amputation, and go directly to the prosthetic that bothered me. To me it seemed as if people were missing the point that I was losing a leg. It seemed like they thought the prosthetic leg was the magic that would make it all better. As people ended the conversation and walked away on their two legs I couldn’t help but wonder: If they were the ones facing having a leg amputated, would the idea of a prosthesis seem so wonderful? Imagine needing to put your leg on every morning, showering on one leg every day and wearing a tightly-fitted contraption that causes discomfort and skin issues for the rest of your life. For me all this was my immediate future and I had to keep my focus on getting through the amputation. For me it was not about getting a prosthesis – it was about losing my leg to end a life of pain. It was about accepting my new life and learning to live without the leg. That was what I needed to talk about, not the magical prosthesis.
Once again, I completely understand why so many people were so quick to bring up the prosthetic leg. In most cases they were shocked at the thought of amputation. They didn’t know what to say and they wanted to say something positive that would make me feel good. I just couldn’t go there. I had to block the prosthetic leg out. I had this massive mountain to cross before I got to the prosthesis and that was all I could deal with. I had to get to the operating room for the surgery, I had to allow strangers to knock me out and let a surgeon cut off my lower leg. I then had to wake up and face my missing leg. I had to get through pain and recovery and I had no idea how bad it would be. So many things can go wrong after an amputation surgery, so I had to hope there would be no complications. I would then have to live with my decision regardless of the outcome. All that was too big of a monster and I just could not focus on the other side of the mountain (the prosthesis) with so many unknown obstacles in the path.
I made it to the other side of the mountain so now the first thing many people ask is, “When are you getting your prosthetic?” Well today, I began the prosthesis process by having the casting done to make the socket for my temporary leg. There was no doubt this was an exciting milestone, but for me it still isn’t all about getting a prosthetic leg.
Six years ago I went from an active healthy man to having a leg injury that stopped me from walking, and it took over my thoughts. My head became a like a drain with a hair clog. First the decision to fuse my ankle got caught in the clog. Next, the relenting pain after the fusion. Add in trying to figure out not only how to fix my leg, but how to get a new job too, and the clog just kept growing. I have lived from surgery to surgery hoping for resolve. Each morning for the past six years as I lowered my legs over the side of my bed, I would carefully stand on my leg to see if it would be the day the pain would finally end. The pain never ended, it only got worse. I felt like my life was in this never-ending suspended mode. Add on the decision of whether to amputate or not and still the clog just kept growing. Would I ever get to a point where I could say “this is how it is” or would I forever live waiting to find the “Drano” that would dissolve the clog? At last the pain is gone and at this point the phantom pain is tolerable – I even have periods of time when I have no pain at all. So after living with the pain, not knowing how this would end and the decision to amputate clogging my head, for the first time in six years the clog has been dissolved. The leg is gone and it’s not growing back. I can finally just grab my crutches and go without giving my leg a though. Yes, I am fully dependent on crutches, but my movement is fluent, free and painless. For the first time since this whole leg debacle began I have resolve.
So yes, of course I am excited and I will put whatever work I need to into achieving amazing things with the prosthesis. On the other hand, the prosthesis is still an unknown; will my residual leg tolerate it? I still have not been given any guarantees. So, I am not looking forward to going back to having my head constantly clogged with thinking about my leg and what tomorrow, next week or next month will bring. I also have not been sitting around waiting for my prosthetic leg to resume life. From the start I adapted the attitude – if it needed to be done and I could find an adaptable way to complete the task, I found it and did it. I amazed myself many times in what I was able to accomplish with one leg. My life in the past few weeks has been full, productive, and with tolerable pain despite missing a leg. The prosthetic leg will bring a whole new set of challenges and yes it will improve my life, however right now I am just enjoying having things as they are and having a well-needed break from thinking about trying to walk on my leg.
With all the advancements in prosthetics they most definitely have vastly improved the lives of amputees. I too hope to reap the benefits of a prosthetic leg and I will, but I had to go into this amputation with realistic expectations. I have never been told definitively by any medical expert that I will be able to successfully use a prosthetic leg. I couldn’t because there was just no way to know what the outcome of the amputation would be. Even today I was told by my prosthetist “We have no way of knowing how you will respond to the prosthesis.” So I had to go into the amputation believing I had tried everything I could and that amputation was my last hope. For my own sanity I had to go into this not banking on the prosthetic leg giving me back my ability to walk freely without pain. I went in with a positive attitude and determined that I would still live a full life with only one leg, regardless of whether I used a prosthesis or not.
I have made it to the starting line of the prosthetic journey. My recovery has been remarkable, which has given me hope. I am ready to take on the challenge of the prosthetic leg and excited to see where it will take me. I will be successful because I understand that the “magic” is not in the prosthetic leg, it’s in my attitude.
My friend was correct. A huge burden has been lifted. The decision to amputate is no longer looming and the painful leg I have dragged around for six years is gone. Having the pain gone has improved my life significantly, and the prosthesis will be the icing on the cake.
The following quote sums it all up. “The key to happiness is letting each situation be what it is instead of what you think it should be.” ~ Mandy Hale
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