Shortly after my left above-knee amputation in January of 2020, I read an article in InMotion, the Amputee Coalition’s magazine. The gist of the article was that after limb loss, simply “being” can be enough. I saved that article because at the time I read it I did not feel very able and was questioning how I was going to be able to just “be”, let alone thrive or excel in my new reality. But as I look back on this past year, I have come a lot farther than I could have imagined.
I’m an active person. I co-own and operate a 200-seat restaurant, 15 barrel brewery, and a 45-site campground and event space, all in Brattleboro, Vermont. I enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, traveling with my wife, and generally being outdoors. I play guitar and love to ride my 1976 BMW motorcycle. One of my biggest joys, though, is running. I know for most people running is not a “joy”, but for me, it’s my solitude, my meditation, my focus, my “unplugged” time. I ran four marathons from 2013 to 2016, all but the last one in under 3 1/2 hours. So in 2016 after a half marathon in Northern Vermont, I noticed a lump on the side of my left knee. I was a little concerned. “No problem,” my doctor said, “it’s Synovial Chondromatosis, a benign cartilage disease. Don’t worry about it, if it gets bigger, starts to hurt, turns blue, then come back and see me”. Well, two years later and another lump and some softer tissues on the back and side of my knee, my doctor saw a problem. This was not the same issue any more. She recommended I see an oncologist in Boston, even though she assured me it was not cancer. Well…it was cancer. I had a rare form of bone cancer called Chondrosarcoma. Luckily, it was isolated to my knee. Unluckily, it was all over my knee. The options we’re to try to save the leg and face the prospect of chemotherapy/radiation and lots of follow-up operations, all with the best-case scenario of having a “tube with a foot” that would grow hair, but not do much else. OR, amputate above the knee and begin a new life as an active amputee with a prosthetic leg. It was a no-brainer. My doctor told me I would be the poster child for prosthetic legs.
To say it’s been easy would be dishonest. Reading through my journals from those early days is a strong reminder of how miserable I was in the beginning. But I had the incredible support of my wife and children and friends and began to meet people from my new “tribe” who helped to lift me up and get me back on my…foot. I am persistent, driven, and committed to live my life as I did before- and then some. This past fall I was granted a running blade from the Born to Run Foundation. In reciprocation, my brewery agreed to make a beer to help support the foundation (That beer, a blood-orange Gose, with salt and coriander and designed for runners, will be called Born 2 Run and will be released in May of this year). Shortly after receiving my blade, I began my journey back to the paved roads of Vermont with my dog by my side…needless to say, it was a disappointment for both of us as I was only able to run 50 yards at a time. My dog wandered the nearby field while I ran back and forth to and from the car, crashing to the pavement on more than one occasion. The first lesson I learned was that simply being a runner does not make you an instant “blade runner”. After further research, I found it takes but a few weeks to learn the mechanics, but years to build the stamina.
As disheartening as that was, a couple of months later I had another turn of good fortune that allowed me to return to another great love: Snowboarding. As winter came and I was facing the prospect of watching an epic snow season from the sidelines, a high school friend who had worked in the ski industry for over 20 years and knew my story, gifted me a water/snow leg through the generosity of her Grandmother’s foundation. Unlike with the running blade, snowboarding came back quickly and after a few weekends, I felt as much “myself” as I had since I lost my leg. In fact, due to the expert training of my coaches at Adaptive Sports at Mount Snow, I may have even improved on some of my skills. I won’t say it wasn’t without its pitfalls. There were days when it felt like it wasn’t working right or my prosthetic was on wrong or I’d wipe out again and again just getting off the lift. At times I felt like an aging prizefighter who didn’t know when to quit… ”just stay down, it’s over!”. But feeling the wind on my face again, seeing the trees, a blur on either side of me, and hearing the crunch of snow beneath me as my board cut sharp turns into the hill, was blissful and I would at times actually forget I was missing one of my legs.
As the snow season wound down my motorcycle mechanic helped me to install an automatic shifter on my motorcycle to get me back on the road. As with most things as an amputee, muscle memory does not always translate to expert execution. As I sat on the bike again for the first time and moved my prosthetic leg to the footpeg, I felt it all coming back to me and as I gently rocked side to side, feeling the weight of the bike, my hands on the handlebars, listening to the engine purr, I relaxed. As soon as that familiar feeling washed over me, I promptly listed slightly left and, unable to get my foot off the footpeg, fell over onto the pavement. Luckily, my friend turned around at the last minute and eased the bike to the ground as I rolled onto the gravel drive. But that too will come and I’ve since managed to take a few nice rides, albeit with a new respect for what can go wrong.
I have met a number of amputees who say losing a limb was the best thing that ever happened to them. I thought there had to have been something wrong with them before they became an amputee. I now understand what they are talking about, even though I may not have fully embraced that sentiment. I will say what I have learned is that obligations should not be excuses for NOT doing things you want to do. Life is long and full of opportunities. We deserve to enjoy it and there will still be time for work. The choices I made as a fully able-bodied person often defaulted to work and I missed out on time with my children, my wife, and my friends. I missed out on time to go on vacations, go snowboarding, ride my motorcycle, go kayaking, paddle-boarding or try new things. No more! Now, when I am presented with an opportunity, I take it!
So, in a few short days, I will embark on a cross-country journey to Dallas, Texas, to begin a 9-week intensive training session at the Adaptive Training Foundation, to get me back into running form. This too would not have been possible were it not for the thoughtfulness of my friend and now mentor, Melissa DeChellis, of the foundation Adaptively Abled. She believed in me and despite my skepticism, encouraged me to apply. She had been through the program and said it changed her life. With her endorsement, I was accepted and am now about to embark on an adventure that I never would have imagined had I not lost my leg.
The word “invalid” comes from the Latin word invalidus, meaning “not strong”. “Disabled” means essentially the opposite of able. These two words don’t mean anything to the amputees I have met. And while I was ready to accept these words to define my new existence, I now realize none of us are simply willing to just “be”. We may not become Paralympians or expert snowboarders, kite surfers, motocross riders, mountain climbers, bodybuilders, or marathon runners, but knowing that we can if we want to is the most powerful knowledge of all. The world is opening up in ways it never has. I’ve met a group of people who are as dedicated to each other as they are themselves. I’m excited for what my future holds and I’m proud to be a part of this resilient, inspiring and motivated community. And, yes, I’m so thankful to be, just as I am!