Some Assembly Required: Advice for New Amputees

My journey to becoming an amputee was sort of unusual. I wanted to become an amputee…well…”wanted” is a strong word. Amputation was the lesser of two evils and gave me the best chance of being able to return to work. Honestly, I was optimistic about my new life as an amputee. Leading up to the surgery, I was nearly ecstatic. I had found a surgeon who would not only perform the surgery, he learned a new procedure, myodesis, just to make my life easier with a prosthetic. I was ready to take on the world! Let’s do this!

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Then I woke up from the surgery. Once my pain was under control and I could reflect on my decision, all I thought was “OH GOD, WHAT DID I DO!?!” I immediately regretted my decision to amputate. The truth is that no matter how much you  tell yourself it’s no big deal, nothing can prepare you for waking up with a limb missing. It doesn’t matter if your amputation was due to trauma or illness: When you wake up and a literal piece of you is missing, your brain rejects the idea. Many people go into a tailspin.

My thoughts were racing. What had I done?? I was a monster! I begged my wife to leave me; she didn’t need the added stress of taking care of our kids plus a cripple. But…as things seem to do, these thoughts eventually passed. It takes time to come to grips with losing a limb. Many surgeons have observed that the loss of a limb is often grieved as hard as the loss of a loved one. After all, a limb has been a part of you all your life, and now, as when a loved one dies, it’s just gone. You have to allow yourself to go through this process. There is no short cut, and it’s not always a straight line. Many times people jump around the five stages of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance). Some people make it through unscathed, while others get stuck at a stage and can’t move on. I myself bear the psychological scars of denying the stages of my grief, both from my accident and from my years as a paramedic, serving as a “Grief Mop.”

The good news is: This Too Shall Pass.

Most of the new amputees I have had the honor of speaking with and mentoring have had the same fears and questions:

  • Life as I knew it is over.
  • I can’t even look at my limb.
  • Who am I now?
  • WHAT IF?: What if I can’t use a prosthetic, what if it hurts, what if people laugh, etc.

These are the four biggies that I have come across. More good news is that there are people out there to help you traverse this minefield of self-doubt and fear. I have come to see that there are two major types of fear in our lives: the fear that drives us and the fear that binds us. The first fear pushes us to tackle adversity and move forward with our lives. It’s the second type that requires a little more finesse. I remember, as a kid, looking over the edge of a mountainside in rural southwestern West Virginia, holding a grapevine in my hand and listening to the chants of my cousins telling me to swing. My two types of fear were having a full-blown brawl in my head. Part of me wanted to go for it and show them all how awesome I was. I’d go first on the vine and show that it was strong enough to hold us and that I’m not scared of anything. The paralyzing fear, on the other hand, had glued my feet to the ground. There were too many variables that could go wrong. I could get hurt. I could embarrass myself. Worst of all, if I fell and ripped my new jeans I’d get spanked AND grounded. The fight continued until I took a deep breath and went for it…and it was exhilarating. I was like Tarzan. I swung out over the edge of the hillside and back. It was my first memorable dose of adrenaline. I was hooked. The biggest part was taking that step—overcoming the fear of What If and stepping out. The second type of fear, the fear that binds us, has no place in your life. I’m not saying that you should take every risk that comes your way, but you have to let go of the What If mentality.

As a lower limb amputee you will have to trust that your prosthetic is where it’s supposed to be. Fear tells you to watch every step, to always confirm visually that the prosthetic is on the ground and all is safe. But while doing this gives you a better chance of being safe, you miss out on all the beautiful scenery life has to offer. I say look up, look around at your surroundings. Will you fall? Sometimes. But as I have learned from a young lady I had the chance to mentor, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight!” (Love ya, Allie!) People may see you stumble, and some will try to help, some will laugh (hey, being realistic, some people are just mean…unless it’s a good friend; then I expect them to laugh!) and others will pity you. The question is: What are the chances of seeing these people again? Slim? Then who cares? You’ll see them every day? Then show them how strong you are and how much you improve with time.

I titled this post “Some Assembly Required”. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek. As an amputee, you’ll have to get up every day and decide whether you’re going to strap on that prosthetic or let it sit in the corner. Some days I want to let it sit. I won’t lie, with two years in and some days, I sometimes want to throw that prosthetic out the window. I want to kick and scream about how life isn’t fair and curse the heavens for taking my leg. Then I get up. I put my leg on anyway. Because today might be the day I change someone’s life. Today might be the day I inspire someone to not leave their prosthesis in the corner. To reach for more. We all require some assembly, and in the case of the amputee community this can be both physically and mentally. I’ll leave you with a mantra I have adopted for my life. For when I don’t want to put my leg on, when I want to kick and scream, when life just feels too hard, when my PTSD dementors are trying to drown me with the regrets of the past…:

You can take this problem (whatever it may be) and let it be who you are. Let it take over your identity completely and it will be all you are. OR…you can take your issue and make it PART of who you are and use it to change the world.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff Lowes says:

    When I got to the line, “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” I knew I had to leave a comment. A close friend of the family gave me a gift after the amputation of my left leg (making me a DBK, as the right had already been taken). I believe it was supposed to be a bracelet, but it was entirely too small for my man-wrists, so I now wear it (always) on the pylon of my left leg. Engraved on its surface is the phrase, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” It always serves as a reminder of those who love me, as well as the proper attitude to maintain. Excellent story, sir. I’m glad that you’re doing better.

    Like

  2. Dotty Lang says:

    Thank you I’m a new amputee due to illness and I’m learning how to walk again. I needed to read this and feel I can do this.

    Like

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