Progress for an amputee is measured in two ways. First in the growing realization that learning to live with a prosthesis is going to be a challenge combined with an eagerness to do what it takes to meet that challenge. If there is no realization of the severity of the challenge it will never be embraced. But if the challenge is not enthusiastically embraced it will never be met. My therapists have often reminded me that somewhere near a majority of people who take the trouble and cost to get a prosthesis never use it except for standing up off a wheelchair so they can immediately sit down somewhere else.
The second way progress is measured is by improvement in balance, strength, and gait. This, obviously, is the direct result of a decision to face and embrace the prosthetic challenge but it’s more than that. For me, progress has been most clearly measured in my graduation from wheelchair to walker to a four-pronged cane and now to a simple single pronged cane. The exciting thing about my new cane is that with it I can move with normal fluidity and speed on any surface. No one has to wait for me to catch up and some folks have to labor to keep up. The hydraulics in my heel combined with my cane give me a terrific boost. For example, on a downslope, my mechanical heel gives me s strong push forward onto the cane while my other leg catches up. Going upslope my hydraulics give me a definite edge since they receive my weight and then push me forward onto the cane which grabs whatever surface I’m walking on giving a boost to the other leg as it comes up. I’ve never been a fast walker but with a prosthesis and cane, my motion is probably more efficient than it’s ever been.
I still have a ways to go. My balance needs work and I’m always focused on getting stronger, but progress is being made. There were many long weeks when I didn’t think that would happen. Oh, I have dreamed of doing this, but part of me feared that it was only a dream. However, my core attitude was different and it’s still seeing me through. I recently expressed this to my therapist after an especially grueling session. She was wondering if I needed to stop.
“No way,” I said, “I came here to work!”
A dream filled my mind for more than a year. I could see it clearly: Following amputation of my left foot in the spring of 2017 I dreamed I would walk again. No, better than that I would go shopping, visit restaurants, explore trails, even play tourist at some of our world-class attractions here in the southwest.
The journey toward that horizon was long and tough. At first, I couldn’t even pilot my own wheelchair and transfers were sketchy at best. With rehabilitation, I learned to stand on my right leg. It took a year but at last, my left leg healed and I was fitted with a prosthesis. Now I could stand on my own two feet but that was about all I dared try. Then I learned that to get into physical therapy I had to be able to get around at least with help from a walker. So I got a walker and tried. Lo and behold I discovered I could walk.
I’ve been walking for almost a month now and I’ve graduated from walker to a cane. I can handle slopes and steps. I can assemble my own dinner standing at the kitchen counter. You might say much of my dream has come true and you would be right.
But make no mistake, life with a prosthesis has its challenges. Improvements in gait are incremental and vary day to day. Much depends on how the device is fitting today and that depends on me getting the sizers right. Sizers are socks that fit over the sleeve and under the socket. They come in several thicknesses denoted by color and fill the space between the sleeve and the carbon fiber exterior of the prosthesis. Sound technical? Getting the mix of sizers right is indeed technical. And that is just one of many day to day complications involved with this new life. So has my dream turned sour? Not at all! I can or will soon be able to do everything I dreamed of doing. I’ve simply discovered that I will always have to work at it.
It turns out that prosthesis life is just like life in general. You get out what you put in. You have to test and expand your skills daily. (I make sure the sun doesn’t set without me doing something I never did before.) You go to physical therapy because the stronger you are the more enabled and the less disabled you are. Today I approach the whole thing as a grand adventure. How far can I go, how much can I do? I’m not just referring to walking. What’s at stake in the adventure of post-amputation recovery is living, becoming the most productive person possible. But I suspect this is an adventure everyone is challenged to face in one way or another.