I Can Only Swim in Circles

I was about to make a decision to permanently change my life. And before I could turn to the doctor and say, “do it”, my wife’s eyes welled up with enough tears to flood the doctor’s office and between sniffles, somehow managed to ask him to give us a few minutes to decide on this future together. As soon as the doctor left, I turned to my wife and sheepishly told her, “it’s time”- to which she promptly replied, “I don’t know if I’m ready”. This was the staunch reminder that this decision didn’t affect just me; she was going to forever be married to a man that would garner endless looks and attention for being part Tin Man along with all of the real-world challenges of living with an amputee. So, after a few heart-felt minutes of discussing all of the trials and tribulations that I struggled with over the last 20 years and what she has witnessed over the last 10 years first hand, we both decided that it was time to take that step.

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I can’t remember what it feels like to walk normally, but the last time I did was probably around the age of 8. I had painfully flat feet, which if born earlier would have deemed me unfit to be a soldier, even though modern medicine doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with plantar horizontalus (yes, my made-up term). But, in the mid 80’s flat feet were still considered a recipe for disaster and my podiatrist definitely transferred that concern to my parents who then invested in 2 different surgeries to create an “arch” in both of my feet, but these arches proved to be even less helpful to me than the golden ones that can clog your arteries. The surgeries, aside from the flat feet, were supposed to fix some latent pain I was feeling in the mornings, a pain which forced me to walk on my tip toes for the first 10-15 minutes of each day before being able to walk normally. That tip-toeing did go away, but I’m not convinced it was the surgery that did it and at this point may never know the original cause.

The first surgery went great, there was minimal scarring and I had grown enough that my foot and gait seemed to adapt seamlessly, but the second surgery which took place nearly 3 years later was supposed to provide me with a matching set of feet since they both now had surgically constructed arches except… they didn’t match. The result of the less than stellar sequel left a huge amount of scarring and calcium build up on the instep, which when wearing a shoe, made it look like I was wearing 3 pairs of socks. In fact, it looked so weird and out of place that one of my baseball coaches accused me of wearing my shoes on the wrong feet. Regardless of this anomaly, part of being young and tenacious is having the ability to adapt. And aside from the visual oddity of my foot and the increased difficulty in finding shoes that fit the enormous lump on my instep, my physical abilities were largely unaffected, or so I thought.

The crack in the dyke came in 1994, while engaging in an activity that should have been fairly innocuous under most circumstances, but wasn’t. Towards the end of my Junior year in high school, I developed a blood blister on the pad under my big toe from playing basketball in Birkenstocks, yes I was wearing socks with the sandals. But a blood blister is a fairly common occurrence for any part of the body that experiences considerable stress and tissue damage as a result of friction and should have healed without incident, since the remedy for healing a blood blister is simple enough; reduce stress on the area, leave it alone and let it dry out. Except at the invincible age of 17, I paid no attention to what should have been common sense and did none of that; I popped the blister and let it bake in sweaty smelly adolescent shoes over the next two weeks, having no idea that I was providing the perfect environment to incubate my own little microscopic garden of bacteria that would haunt the rest of my life.

What started off as a small wound that should have healed on its own, didn’t. That one blood blister was the snowball that grew in size by gathering all sorts of dirt, bacteria and other nastiness; only periodically thwarted by short periods of antibiotics and the use of crutches, but returning with a spectacular ferocity within a matter of months. No doctor had a good solution and no doctor was able to understand why an otherwise healthy young man was not able to heal what should have been a relatively routine wound, but the reality was that my biomechanics were thrown off by the corrective surgery to create an arch in my foot. The surgery that was intended to improve my quality of life changed my weight bearing in a way that no matter what changes were made, I was guaranteed to always put the full force of every step right into the wound thus preventing it from healing.

I played the doctor game for almost 20 years, trying to convince an endless number of physicians that they didn’t have the right bracchio amendo Harry Potter spell to fix my foot. And what’s worse is that I could see that my foot was dying. Nearly 20 years of infections had taken its toll. It was a dull gray, with a missing tendon that an infection so greedily ate as a midnight snack. It was swollen and misshapen. I spent each day hoping that by hiding it in a pair of awkward fitting shoes that it would fix the scenario, but the constant pain of each step on an open wound would not grant me any such solace.

So, after years of pain and nearing the edges of despair, 2013 was the year that I would get my life back. And before I continue, let me clarify something. I love life. The 20 years that I spent dealing with this dilemma was not a wall that stopped me from living my life, but was merely a constant series of annoying speed bumps that severely slowed down my progress and despite all of that unsteadiness, I still managed to keep my ambition and drive intact. But, even with everything that I was able to achieve during that time; career, family, kids, etc., I was concerned about the future and wanted to guarantee my quality of life from that moment forward. So, in the Summer of 2013, after one last failed attempt to save my foot, it was finally time to do what I had been trying to convince my doctors to do for the past 10 years and trade in my old decrepit, deformed, alien appendage for a titanium and carbon fiber limb that not only made me appear part X-Man, but guaranteed that I would not have to cut those 5 toenails ever again, definitely a win in my book.

 

As of this moment, four years have passed since I decided to trade flesh for metal and to be honest, I actually prefer having the false limb sometimes. It doesn’t get cold, it doesn’t hurt when someone steps on my toes, and it’s a great place to hide snacks. At the beach, I can take the limb off and hop around on one leg yelling shark, I can’t kick my wife in bed, and the residual limb takes up less room under the dining room table, but running is still a challenge and it’s not always ideal to have to put on my leg before I can get up and walk around in the morning- but the ultimate benefit is that I can finally swim again, even if it is only in circles.

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