Seven weeks after my injury, I met my first amputee.
I mean VERY FIRST.
Sure, I was already an amputee myself, but I’d never met another one. If I had racked my brain, I could have probably come up with a few: a homeless woman outside the post office, the wounded Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump, an armless kid on TV who could eat and write with his toes.
Pathetic. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence!
Now I know amputees are everywhere. They’re nurses, EMTs, and police officers. Teachers, students, and office clerks. They supervise golf courses. They snowboard. They work on farms. Several are my very good friends. How, just three years ago, had I never met one?
Until Rob. I met Rob during my stay in the rehab hospital. A left “above-knee” like me, Rob was assigned to be my peer mentor. He stopped in after dinner one night to answer any questions I had.
I had NONE. I was riddled with pain from a limb that didn’t exist. My phantom toes felt like they were crumpled and crammed underneath my phantom knee. I was overwhelmed and panicked by wound care. I felt obligated to listen, but I really wanted him to leave!
Looking back, I’m sure Rob sensed my ambivalence. But my parents had questions, lots of them. Rob stayed for two hours. Even now, I don’t remember one thing we talked about.
What I do remember is this: Rob had come from work and the gym.
Today, that’s what sticks with me. The image of him in his rip-away gym pants. Rob goes to work. Rob goes to the gym. Rob is an amputee. That picture gave me HOPE.
Over the next year, I was fitted with a prosthetic socket, a C-Leg, and a Genium. In physical therapy, I learned to walk again – first with crutches, then with a cane, and finally with my prosthesis alone. It wasn’t a straightforward path, but the second year brought more independence. I went to work and to the gym — like Rob! I even volunteered at the rehab hospital.
As year three approached, I decided to become a peer mentor myself. I signed up for several trainings where I learned the responsibilities of a peer mentor, the importance of listening, and the different ways to provide support to new amputees. With other mentors-in-training, I spent hours on role plays and sample questions.
I quickly learned that being a peer mentor is a lot like being an amputee: UNPREDICTABLE. As my prosthetist said when he casted my first socket, “This isn’t small, medium, or large, and it’s not one size fits all.” The same goes for mentoring. New amputees are all different. Some ask questions; some tell stories. Some want to see my prosthesis and discuss their future. Others are silent and shell-shocked, like I was.
Mentoring isn’t just about imparting knowledge. More often, it’s about listening, guiding, and encouraging. Meeting new amputees where they are. Being who you are.
Trained or not, you never know when you’ll have the chance to make a first impression. It can happen anywhere.
Last summer as I was walking outside my doctor’s office, a man waved me down from across the street. “Excuse me!” he called, stepping off the curb, practically into oncoming traffic.
He reached me quickly, trying to catch his breath. “Can I ask you a question?” he said. His eyes went to my Genium.
“Sure.” I was used to comments from people on the street. Can you run with that? How much does it cost? Are you going to be in the Olympics? I thought I’d heard everything.
But this man spoke quietly. “Were you born that way?” he asked. “Were you born without your leg?”
The question caught me off guard. I told him no, I’d had my leg amputated after being hit by a truck on my bike.
He didn’t say anything in return, so I tried to listen with my eyes. This guy had all four limbs intact. He had darted across a busy street to talk to me. He wasn’t an amputee, yet he had that shell-shocked look.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
He pointed to the hospital behind us and then took a deep breath. “My wife and I just had a baby, and he was born without part of his arm.” I heard his loss, pure and raw like an open wound. “The doctor said he’ll never know the difference.”
“Do you think it’s true?” he asked me. “Do you think he’ll never know?”
What could I say? Giving him an answer – any answer – wouldn’t fix all that had gone wrong. It would have been like someone standing over me as I lay bleeding on the ground, trying to impart knowledge of life as an amputee.
So I admitted I didn’t know.
But I asked him more about what the doctor told him. I asked if he’d been given any resources or referrals. Then I wrote down my prosthetist’s number. “He’ll point you in the right direction,” I said. This man was sinking, and I wanted, with all my might, to throw him a lifeline.
Finally I asked if the baby was healthy. He said yes.
“Congratulations,” I said. “What’s his name?”
For the first time, the man smiled. And from the depths of his sadness and uncertainty, I saw a very proud dad.
When we parted, I wondered if anything I said had made a difference. But then I had another thought. Maybe I’m his FIRST AMPUTEE.
As I walked away, I tightened my quads and glutes. I put force through my Genium. I stepped solidly down the curb and across the street. I stood tall. I took one confident step after another.
Just in case he was watching.
Have you had any mentoring experiences? I’m still learning and would love to hear about them!
Follow my journey at www.my-1000-miles.blogspot.com.