How I look when I walk matters a lot to me. From the moment I first put on a prosthesis 17-plus years ago up till today, few things satisfy me more than getting to know someone reasonably well before they learn that I’m missing one leg. In the warped folds of my brain this somehow qualifies as a “win.” (Over what, I have no idea.)
On the other hand, the times when someone asks me how I injured myself send me into a spiral of self-loathing. I curse at myself for slipping to the point where a layperson can see that I’m not “whole.” This once happened when a New York State Medicaid official performed a mandated visual inspection of our prosthetic facility. As I walked him around he asked, “How did you sprain your ankle?” The fact that he failed to correctly identify me as an amputee didn’t matter; all I could think of was how I’d shown some level of disability. Using the logic that is solely mine, I quickly rerouted my personal embarrassment into externally directed anger: I wanted to punch that guy in the face for incorrectly assuming that I had a minor ankle injury.
Luckily for me, more people than not fail to catch on. Otherwise, I’d be constantly screaming at myself silently while simultaneously restraining myself from assaulting everyone I met.
With that lead-in, I offer you my top-3 tips for how to avoid detection as a lower-extremity amputee if, like me, that’s important to you. (And I’m not saying it should be.) No – “wearing pants” is not one of my tips. Obviously, the chance of someone recognizing that you’re an amputee increases when you’re in shorts, so all of my brilliant advice starts with the assumption that you’re in pants or, if you’re a female, an outfit/prosthesis that masks the metal and carbon graphite adorning your limb. And just to make clear that my internal logic of going undetected is completely nonsensical, I regularly wear shorts without any type of cover over my prosthesis. So my desire to remain “hidden” only applies when I’m wearing pants … which cover the prosthesis anyway. Got all that? Good. Here are my tips.
I learned this one the very first time I entered a prosthetic facility. I had been told by the staff that I’d meet a (gasp) real-live amputee who worked there. I sat with my wife in a patient room with my back to the door. I listened to the footfalls of people walking towards and away from me and quickly realized that the amputee walker, as good as she was – and she was really good – landed more loudly on her sound side than her prosthetic one. In addition, the transition from heel to toe sounded different on her prosthesis than on her biological limb.
While I thought myself a genius for recognizing this when assessing other people’s gait, I somehow never made the connection that I could apply this knowledge to my own walking after receiving my prosthesis. In fact, it took the same woman whom I had identified as the amputee walker – Paddy Rossbach – to teach me that I should be listening to my own steps when walking.
While this trick works for all lower-extremity amputees, it has particular power for above-knee amputees, who generally learn to walk by having prosthetists and PTs remind them over and over again to slam their prosthetic heel into the ground so that the knee pushes back into full extension. While this encourages maximum stability, it also makes one sound more like Ahab stalking the deck of the Pequod than your average biped. (Incidentally, I just finished Moby Dick for the first time a few weeks ago. I think the actual story of Ahab hunting Moby Dick accounts for only about 25% of the novel, the rest being devoted to the art of how to dispose of an already-dead whale and said dead whale’s biology. I was less than enthralled by the time I finished. Just in case anyone had a hankering for some Moby Dick.)
Anyway, listen to your steps when you walk. Try to make them sound the same. It’ll encourage a more symmetrical walking pattern.
Another Paddy Rossbach trick: start counting in your head, like a metronome. Then match your heel strikes to the count. Actually, now that we live in a world of mobile phones taking the place of every cool gadget that made life so rich only 10 years ago, download a metronome app. If you want to even out your stride length and improve your symmetry, matching your footfall to a fixed beat really helps.
However, I recommend doing this only in your own home or with headphones on. If the goal is to avoid detection, walking around with a metronome clicking loudly on your cell phone’s speaker probably isn’t the best strategy. At worst, you’ll subvert your objective. At best, people will find it highly bizarre that you need auditory feedback to walk.
Ah, the power of high-def video in the palm of your hand. Another byproduct of the mobile phone revolution.
Nothing takes the bloom off the rose quicker than video showing how you really walk. Whenever I see video of myself walking, I immediately note all the little deviations I’m supposed to be eliminating cropping up yet again due to my lack of diligence. A little vault; a slight drop down and backwards of my right shoulder; the longer stride on my prosthetic side than my sound one – all the unforgivable “tells” that I’m merely pretending to have two legs.
But prepare yourself. A friend of mine who happened to be a fantastic walker despite the fact that she used two above-knee prostheses agreed to watch herself on video. She had a fixed image in her head of what she looked like when she walked. This woman was as tough as nails. And when she saw the difference between what she imagined and how she actually looked, she just dissolved into tears.
Video doesn’t lie. It exposes you. Ruthlessly. But it’s a great way to figure out what you’re doing. If you have the stomach for it, make sure to get clips of yourself walking towards the camera, away from it and from side-to-side with the prosthesis facing the camera.
Lastly – said the guy who shouts obscenities at himself in his own head – be kind to yourself, whichever technique you choose. We’re all works in progress. The best walkers sometimes let their guard down and bad habits slip in. People who’ve walked poorly for years can improve a lot (if they want) simply by paying attention to their gait and using these hints.
With that, I will bid you all adieu so that I can walk in decidedly non-anatomical fashion as I attempt to shovel a foot of snow and ice off my driveway for the next hour or so of my life.