Steps Toward Independence!

A year ago July, I had my last surgery from my above the knee amputation.  I had had my leg amputated on June 14, 2010 but within two weeks I developed an infection. Between June 30 and July 4 (our national Independence Day),I had four more surgeries to clean the wound. On the final cleaning, my doctor decided to remove an additional 1/16 of an inch of bone to be certain that all the infection was removed. I knew before the amputation that I was about to embark on a life-altering experience and I wanted to capture the experience in a unique way. Since I My Independence Flagstarted my amputation journey on Flag Day (June 14th), I celebrated by having all the nurses, doctors, physical therapists, and nurses’ aides who have helped me through my recovery and training sign my personal Independence Flag. It is amazing how many people it takes to get one amputee up and walking again. I thank everyone involved in my recovery and training and I support anyone who works with amputees. No amputee recovers without support from family, friends, and the medical community.

On July 8th last year, I was sent home from the hospital to begin six weeks of intensive IV antibiotic treatment. After a quick fifteen minute training session with a visiting nurse my husband was abandoned with a cheat sheet and supplies to be my full-time nurse. My husband was responsible for giving me IV medications, tablet medications, and for somehow getting me to eat which was the last thing I wanted to do. And then, like a saint, he would clean up the mess I made when everything he begged me to eat during the day made me violently sick to my stomach in the middle of the night.

Most days during the infection treatment, I prayed that God would just take me. Kind of ironic that after suffering six years with intensive arthritic pain what made me call out to God for the end was the constant taste of saline solution that I couldn’t rinse out of my mouth. The mere mention of it even now makes me queasy.  I pray I never have to relive such an experience nor put my husband through such an ordeal again.

By September of 2010 my husband exchanged his role of nurse for chauffeur. I began physical therapy. My left leg was weak. My hip was so tight from sitting in a wheelchair for six years that when I laid on my back my amputated leg (from now on to be referred to as my stump) pointed straight up in air. Participating in physical therapy involves a completely different kind of pain, it was both good because I finally felt like I was “doing something” and yet still hurt like a dickens.

One of the hardest exercises was just practicing standing up, back straight, eyes looking forward, hips level. Missing the bottom half of my right leg totally threw off my balance. If I wanted to “balance” myself and not hang on to anything I mastered what I called “the airplane” move. I would bend over at the hips with my back flat and my arms straight out to sides as if I was flying. My stump leg would be sticking out behind me like a rudder.  Over time I could hold this balance for a minute or two; long enough to gracefully bend over and pick up a dropped sock or pen. But the goal was really to stand tall and straight.

By the end of December 2010 I could lay on my back on the physical therapy table and my stump leg was “almost” flat with me. I still had to give it a little flex to get it to touch the table but close enough that the prosthetists said it was time to get myself fitted for my new prosthetic leg.

However, my story would be way too simple if I would have received a new leg for Christmas. The insurance company decided that they weren’t going to pay for my leg. They had a limit on what they would pay for a prosthetic. I was stunned and crushed. After all the hard work in physical therapy and making the mental and physical choice to amputate my own leg, the insurance company would not pay for the single piece of equipment that would “make” me whole again. It was inconceivable to me that when they paid for the actual amputation surgery they did not calculate that the cost of a prosthetic would be required.  After many phone calls to the insurance company, I gave up on them and prayed I could find another resource of assistance.

It was a cold, dark winter to begin 2011. I spent hours, days, and months investigating ways to pay for my prosthetic. Investigating government programs was a rat hole as both state and federal agencies were simultaneously in the process of eliminating and cutting back on programs to meet their budget limitations. Suddenly, it appeared as if my greatest challenge was not going to be my physical or mental strength to endure my illness but my success would come down to money. So close to the “finish line” I had hit an impenetrable wall that I could not climb over, dig under or walk around.

It was just after Easter, when I was checking with the insurance company on something as simple as a prescription and the customer service rep responded with something that caught my attention. She mentioned that with the new national healthcare programs some items had been reclassified in their system. I immediately told myself not to get up my hopes. I made phone calls as did my prosthetic provider and we both received the same information that the insurance company now classified prosthetics as durable medical equipment and my policy had no dollar restrictions for medical equipment. I’d already received several canes, walkers and wheelchairs over the years through the insurance company.

Just over a year after my above the knee amputation on June 14, 2011 I had my first fitting for my new prosthetic leg. You can watch my YouTube video of my first steps since Dec 19, 2005. Each step you see me take in that video was a fight for survival. There have been many days when I thought I would never walk again; but within minutes, I could hear my father’s voice whisper in my ear on the telephone. He’d tell me to remember where I came from. The family I have; the love that surrounds me. He would remind me that I’m stronger than the pain; I’m stronger than my illnesses. I could never have taken these first steps without the unwavering love and support of my husband and the prayers and love our family and friends.

My battle isn’t over. I have months of gait training and physical therapy ahead of me. Yet, I’ve had a taste of walking and I know that nothing is going to stop me now!