I recently received an e-mail from a friend of mine asking me to speak with Adrienne – not her real name – a woman born with a limb difference. She was tackling the light question of “What Do I Want to do With My Life?”, and sent me a thoughtful e-mail with a series of insightful queries on the topic as she tried to figure out how to carve out a career in the LL/D world.
I answered electronically and later spoke with her on the phone, nagging discomfort tugging at me all the while. I’ve always felt peculiarly unqualified to render such advice. She has lived her entire life with limb difference and is now strategically and intelligently charting out possible career paths based upon her interests and passion. On the other hand, if I were to honestly answer LL/D career-related questions based on my experience, I would answer as follows:
- coast through life for 26+ years, blissfully unaware that anything bad can happen to you;
- survive a transformative trauma that should, by all rights, kill you;
- fall into a LL/D career based upon the fortuitous mix of life and work experience that preceded 2.
Upon reading that, it becomes apparent to me why I don’t lead with it when people like Adrienne ask to speak with me. Any plan that relies on equal parts dumb luck and blind faith isn’t really a plan. It’s, to use a favorite word of mine over the last 3-4 posts I’ve written, delusional.
Last week I spoke about frustration. But this week, I want to switch gears, and focus on the opportunities that limb loss provides us. We don’t plan for these kinds of opportunities. We do rely on fortuitous circumstances and faith to realize them. Paradoxically, our “limitations” reveal what we previously thought impossible. Let me move from that teeth-gritting, it-should-be-the-caption-of-one-of-those-awful-motivational-office-pictures phrase to my personal experience to try and more clearly state what I mean.
life with limbs
I went through my first 26 years with every possible advantage and opportunity. The words, “tough living” do not come quickly to mind. I lacked nothing. And yet, I produced remarkably little of note during that time.
I grew up in a solidly middle-class to upper-middle class house. Good grades came easily to me through high school, and I was a three-sport varsity athlete. My mother and father called me The Prince. As in, “The Prince doesn’t need to clean his room as someone else will do it for him.” “The Prince need not bother himself with getting a job, someone will provide for him.” (In retrospect, this actually looks like a damn good life plan. Unfortunately, any link I have to royalty ended somewhere around the Battle of Hastings, so in post-Revolutionary America, it didn’t constitute a viable option.)
I gained acceptance into the same college that my father had attended, a high-quality liberal arts school in Massachusetts. I stayed away from coursework that could trip me up too badly, and focused on Shakespearean literature and modern American writers. (The transition from Richard III to The Crying of Lot 49 was, I will admit, jarring.) As a result, I pulled down respectable, though not spectacular grades, and contemplated post-graduate life.
I had no clue what I was doing. Or why.
Knowing only that I didn’t want to find a job, I applied and got into law school. I reasoned that the law degree would be useful, even though I had no particular desire to be a lawyer. And I survived a brutally ordinary three years at law school, taking courses that I hypothesized might prove useful in a future I couldn’t begin to imagine. (In fact, to the extent I had any roadmap for post-law-school life, it involved working for a professional sports league, and to that end, I took a full complement of labor law courses. I have never, and likely will never, spend one minute of my professional life doing this kind of work. So even the limited career targeting I did try to perform proved to be horribly off base.)
I found the experience largely mind-numbing, not because of the quality of the teaching (which was high) or the curriculum (which was robust), but because even I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. The word “clueless” best captures my sense of direction as it related to my future career. However, at the end of three years, I emerged with a piece of paper that others valued.
Shortly thereafter, my mother died after a failed battle with cancer. The weekend of her funeral, I ran into an old family friend who was a partner at a major Long Island firm. He told me to call him after things settled down, which led to my first professional job.
And so, having never taking an insurance course during law school, having never been interested in insurance at any point in my life, I now found myself behind a desk 12-14 hours a day learning the fundamentals of insurance law while poring over the hundreds of pages comprising a general liability insurance contract. This was not part of my master plan. Fortunately, even though I can’t say in retrospect that I found the work spiritually fulfilling, it was intellectually interesting. And I worked with great people. And that was enough to keep me coming back every day for another 12-14 hours.
The most painful professional adversity I encountered during this phase of my life was courtesy of the New York State Bar Exam. My skills lay in the area of abstract and critical analysis. The Bar Exam asked test takers to regurgitate staggering amounts of data. It was not a good match.
The first time I took the test, my primary memory is of the lunch break where hundreds of law school graduates crowded at a street corner pizzeria in 95 degree heat. The man behind the counter sweated so profusely that he gave the pie a new, unique topping. I considered asking for “One slice, hold the sweat,” but refrained. I should have, just for the entertainment value, as the rest of the Bar experience proved painful. I flunked.
The second time, I shared a hotel room the night before the test with a classmate who was, at best, a passing acquaintance. He got very upset by the fact that our room was located near the noisy elevator bank, and insisted that we move. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember the test. Flunked again.
I couldn’t tell you one thing about my third visit to New York City’s Javitz Center. I remember only the shaking hands I opened the results letter with, which seemed to weigh much more than the previous two mailings I had received. (The rumor was that if you got a thick envelope, you passed. Thin, you didn’t. My experience bore that out.)
Two weeks after learning of my success, I lay in the middle of the road at midnight, my left leg impaled by the tailpipe of the car I was trying to push.
trauma begets focus
After my accident, I returned to work representing insurance companies. But for the first time, I had an inkling that my previous existence lacked . . . resonance. I cast about, looking for meaning both personally and professionally. Never religious, I began reading texts that I had previously dismissed as the ramblings of the popularly insane, trying to figure out why I was still here on earth.
While I now firmly wanted to believe in an afterlife or heaven, I couldn’t quite get myself there. But that led me to adopt a more urgent attitude toward the here and now. “As far as I can tell,” – that was the slight nod I gave to the possibility of things beyond my understanding – “we only get to go on this ride once.” This oft-repeated phrase became my new mantra.
I was impelled by the logic behind it and the sense of foreboding that lurked in the back of my mind the longer I stayed in the same place knowing that it wasn’t “my future.” I liked and respected my peers at the law firm, but I now knew – knew with a clarity that pierced me – that I could never “be” an insurance lawyer for 3 years, much less 30.
I looked for new alternatives.
With my physical therapist, I explored the possibility of opening up a non-for-profit that would provide able-bodied and disabled individuals the opportunity to participate in sports together, collaboratively. The fact that I had no experience running anything and the absence of funds and physical space – previously insurmountable obstacles – were now just challenges to overcome.
I talked with two friends of mine from law school about opening up a firm. We worked through the logistics in detail, poring over the possibilities required to support our families.
And I sent my resume out with the hope of becoming a trial lawyer. I believed my temperament and skills – in particular, my desire to perform in front of an audience – would find a safe haven there. This ultimately led me to a firm that represented doctors and hospitals in medical malpractice litigations. For the first time in my professional life, I regularly entered a courthouse, stood in front of judges (or more often, their clerks), and thought on my feet, making arguments for my clients. I prepared witnesses for deposition, interviewed medical experts, and drafted briefs that might affect (gasp) a living human being.
It was good experience, but it still wasn’t it – the thing that I needed to do because it was my passion. And so, I entered the third stage of my life.
I think we can all agree that I’m a weird guy. I’ve documented how I spent most of my immediate-post-amputation existence effectively denying the fact that I was now an amputee. I monitored my gait with an intensity that bordered on obsession to mask my difference. I refused to participate in any support groups, to read amputee literature, or do anything else that defined me as “one of those people” for whom LL/D was their central characteristic.
So, of course, my next move involved co-founding a prosthetic facility with my then-prosthetist. In this world, I shifted from masking my amputation to flagging it: I was now The Amputee.
And I had a professional track record that, for this job and this job alone, looked like part of a grand design: insurance law experience; extensive legal-medical experience representing doctors and hospitals; a smattering of employment law work at my second firm – all of this tailor-made to start a prosthetic facility at exactly the time that high-end technologies hit the market, requiring just these kinds of skills to help patients gain access to these devices. Right?
Problem was, I never even had a plan. I didn’t move from job A to job B thinking that job C was a natural fit and my end goal.
Similarly, when I left the company I had helped create and joined the company I work for today, my resume now looked like a blueprint for how to gain a foothold at a global prosthetics manufacturer. Except, again, that wasn’t the plan. It just turned out that way.
And in the process of living this phase of my life, I found meaning. As the director of a prosthetic facility, it was the ability to positively affect the life of a patient – any patient, on any day – that motivated me. When I went to my current job, it was the thought that I could potentially give all patients with LL/D access to technology that previously lay outside their grasp that pushed me forward (and that continues to drive me today).
Many people with LL/D think about life with a full complement of limbs, to the potential and opportunity that would afford them. I look back on phase 1 of my life and see mostly wasted potential. I see a callow kid logging time and doing what he thought was expected of him preparing for a life that might have been successful, but would have been largely devoid of personal meaning.
On the other hand, losing my lifelong connection to the ground underneath me fundamentally altered my sense of who I was, and by extension, what I could achieve. For the first time, I saw myself and my position to the world around me with an urgency and clarity that had been missing for 27 years. I could not have experienced that enhanced vision without having my foundation literally ripped out from under me.
To say it another way, losing my leg made me acutely sensitive to my need to do something, anything that gave my now-all-too-fragile life meaning. Opportunities that I would have written off as crazy, or too risky a few years before were suddenly in play.
We can choose to live our lives defined by what we don’t have and never will attain. That was the path I was ignorantly sprinting down in December 1996. Had I not stupidly, confidently, and obliviously walked behind a car that night more than 14 years ago, I’m pretty sure I would be so far down that path that I could never find my way back.