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A Stroll On The Boardwalk

by Pat Hackett

In July I was on vacation in Santa Monica, California with my husband and baby. We decided to go for a walk on the boardwalk. As we went out the door it was a beautiful day: sunny, temperature in the mid-seventies, and a breeze. The ocean provided a wonderful backdrop to the picture. In fact, the relaxed atmosphere was in sharp contrast to the turmoil I was feeling. This was no ordinary walk. I was outdoors on crutches for the first time in fourteen years!

I made it down three or four steps to the sidewalk without falling on my head. I found myself smiling at this minor accomplishment in spite of myself.

The friend we were staying with also has one leg, but she almost never uses a prosthesis. She was the major reason I was trying this experiment today. Her encouragement and seeing her walk everywhere quickly and smoothly on crutches without drawing a single stare or rude comment had given me the courage to try letting the world see me as I really am.

When I first lost my leg no one took the trouble to teach me to use crutches well. When I got my first prosthesis I found I was one of the lucky few who can wear an artificial leg from getting up in the morning until going to bed at night, and I put my crutches in the closet, vowing I'd never use them again. If I hadn't become pregnant last year so that it became uncomfortable to wear my prosthesis all day, I probably would have kept that vow!

Now as I started down the sidewalk I regretted my lack of practice. I was so unsure of my ability on crutches that I thought I would flop on my face at any moment.

But as we walked on I began to wonder what I had been dreading. The day was so pleasant it seemed silly to be afraid. I was soon feeling so much more confident that I began walking faster. In fact, I was walking so fast that for the first time ever my husband asked me to slow down.

One of the things that had kept me from trying this before was my fear of how people would react to seeing me without my leg. When I first became an amputee my father used to take me places in a wheelchair. One day we were in a mall and I heard one woman say to another, 'Look at that poor girl. She'll be like that the rest of her life.' I was embarrassed and ashamed, and never wanted to go through that again.

Now I could see a woman approaching us with her dog on a leash. There was no way to avoid her, so I decided to put on a brave face. When she got close I said,

'Hello. That's a cute dog. What's his name?'

'Tatum,' she replied, smiling. We exchanged a couple more brief remarks about her dog, then the woman walked on, still smiling.

Surprise! She hadn't said anything about my crutches. She hadn't looked like she felt sorry for me. For all I could tell, she hadn't even noticed I have a leg off.

We walked on for another block or so, then stopped at a sidewalk café for tea. The wait ress paid no particular attention to us, nor did any of the other patrons. The walk home after ward was uneventful.

All this may not sound like much of an adventure, but I was on cloud nine when we got home. I'd let everyone see me without my prosthesis, and no one had made a big deal out of it. Even though there were two of us on crutches and one leg, no one had stared or acted as if we were anything but normal women. I'd been accepted. I felt really good even though the long walk made me so tired I couldn't use crutches again for a couple of days.

When I could use them again, I even went swimming with my amputee friend at the swimming pool of a local high school. Ima gine that: I went out in a bathing suit only two days after my first public walk on crutches since 1975! I could hardly believe it was me, but again no one paid me any special attention.

For years I had myself convinced that my decision to use my prosthesis for all my walking was based on purely practical considerations. Crutches are awkward, I told myself, and they tie up my hands so I can't hold or carry anything.

Well, those practical consider ations are real, but I realize now they weren't the main reason I used my prosthesis all the time. I was mainly afraid of what people would think of me if they saw me without two legs, looking 'abnormal.' If I hadn't been, I wouldn't have given up activities I always loved, like swimming, where a prosthesis can't be worn.

I like my prosthesis. It's comfortable, and for me it is the most efficient way to get around. There'll never be a day when I won't prefer it over crutches for the bulk of everyday activities. But what I learned in Cali fornia - and should have known all along - is that I don't need my prosthesis to be a whole person in other people's eyes. I know now that I was always trying to look 'whole,' but I didn't need to do that. I am whole whether or not I wear an artificial limb.

Obvious as that realization may seem, I know why it took me so long to reach. Right after my accident I wanted desper ately to look and be two-legged again. Like every new amputee I was afraid of being different. But I didn't get any help dealing with the emotions I was feeling. I was only told that I would be getting a 'new leg.' When I got the 'new leg' I was terribly disappointed because it wasn't a leg - it was just an uncomfortable gadget that didn't feel or work right - but I clung to it anyway because it was a way of hiding my strange new shape. And I was encouraged to hide my shape by everyone from my parents to the staff at the rehabi litation center where I went for training.

Looking back over my experience I realize that my learning to walk again was not the most important or difficult part of my rehabilitation, even though it was all I was taught. Important as walking is, it's a minor skill compared to the ability to accept and be comfortable with myself, which I had to learn the hard way over so many years.

I am one-legged. That has been an important, unalterable fact of my existence for more than a third of my life. Yet I have been able to describe myself in those terms for only a few months. Before, I would have choked on the words, unwilling to acknow ledge the reality of my body.

I didn't receive one word of professional counseling in the hospital or in the rehabilitation center. Neither did my parents. No one helped us accept my new body image. They just helped us cover my image with a prosthesis.

I have seen textbooks which talk about a 'rehabilitation team' for amputees. Such a team is supposed to include counselors to help someone who has lost a limb adjust emotionally. These teams appear to exist only in theory: I never met an amputee who received any counseling.

I don't know why that is. It shouldn't really take that much to show us that it is all right to be amputees. It would help a lot if hospital and rehabilitation staff would just act as if we didn't have something to be ashamed of. Perhaps they think we wouldn't buy artificial limbs if we thought we were acceptable emotionally. Well, perhaps some of us wouldn't - although I doubt it - but I think it would be better if the prosthetists lost a few sales than it is for amputees to spend years with an emotional dependence on something which is only a mobility tool.

Why can't rehabilitation be for the whole person, helping the mind as well as the body? Is that too difficult? I would hate to think it doesn't happen because it isn't profitable enough.

This article was originally published in CHIT-CHAT, the monthly newsletter published by The Amputees' Service Association in Chicago . It is reprinted with the permission of the editor,

Bette Hagglund
(Fascination is no longer available)

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