What Limb Loss Can Teach My Son About College

08.08.11 door opener

On September 1st, my oldest son, Max, heads off to college at Hofstra University. Given my Scotch-Irish-Welsh-English heritage, I shy away from discussions with him that my wife’s Italian upbringing encourages; talks about things like … feelings.

So rather than sit down with Max one-on-one to share these thoughts with him like a normal person, it instead strikes me as infinitely more logical to post my parental advice online for the entire world to see. Max – do with these what you will …

10. Don’t Stand in the Street

I failed to follow this basic principle 6 years after graduating college and 1 month after graduating law school. Education alone doesn’t make one smart. Enough said.

9. Ask Questions

College professors know a lot. And it is your job to pay attention to what they know. But more important, you have the opportunity to question them, to challenge them (politely).

If something doesn’t make sense, ask a question. If something strikes you as wrong, ask a question. If you think you have a new or better way of thinking about something, ask a question.

I emphasize this because when, at 27, I became an amputee, I knew nothing about living life with a “disability.” And that forced me to ask lots of questions in order to understand how I could get navigate – physically and mentally – my new reality.

But here’s the cool thing: when I asked these questions – even ones that I objectively classified as dumb – I learned something new. Over time, I was able to develop my own opinions and viewpoints about whether what I had been told was objectively correct, or whether it represented one person’s opinion or simply a long-held collective assumption. And that, my friend, is called “learning.”

8. Make Friends

It became obvious to me after my accident that we rarely accomplish anything of value all alone. I succeeded in my rehabilitation only because of everyone around me. A large team of people – your mother, our family and extended family, friends, prosthetists, physical therapists and physicians – made it possible for me to achieve my goals.

So remember that you’re not alone. Go to school and give as much of yourself as you can to other people. Be loyal. Be supportive. Be a great friend. You’ll get at least as much out of doing that as you’ll get back from them when you face challenges of your own.

7. Take Care of Yourself Physically

Pulling all-nighters, eating pizza at 2 AM and sleeping in … I did all of these things in college. Don’t repeat my mistakes.

Trust me – I’ve tried over the last 20 years to “gain” extra time during the day by sacrificing my physical well-being. It’s not worth it. And I think the effect of inactivity manifests itself much more quickly since I lost my leg than it did before. When I’ve lapsed into a sedentary lifestyle, I feel it almost immediately (especially in my lower back). Conversely, the hour I spend walking a few miles, lifting weights or swimming in the pool make a huge difference, both in terms of how much I accomplish the rest of the day, and how I feel, both physically and about myself.

You’re going to spend plenty of time sitting around doing homework, practicing your music and hanging out with your friends. But please, for the love of all that’s holy, carve out 60-90 minutes every day to do something active. (See # 3, below, for a related piece of guidance.) So make yourself an hour-long playlist of the songs you love the most, haul yourself out of bed to the fitness center and allow the music to wash over you as you work out. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look at your watch at 8:30 am, fired up by the Foo Fighters, Green Day, Biffy Clyro, and – in my case – Cheap Shots (available on iTunes and Spotify for your listening pleasure), and know that you’ve already completed the task of taking care of your body for the day.

6. Touch Base With Your Family Once a Day

McGill Family Group Text: trust me – it’ll save you the annoying, “we haven’t heard from you” phone calls. Enough said. (No – this has nothing to do with anything I learned from losing my leg. Consider it a bonus item.)

5. Find a Mentor

Following my accident, I connected with lots of different people who had survived limb loss. Their experience and insight dramatically influenced me and led me to re-evaluate what I wanted to do and ultimately did with my life. Some of those people I now only speak to once or twice a year, but those discussions still have a profound and important impact on me.

Find a professor who you like and actively work to establish a relationship that goes beyond any single class you may have with him or her. Talk about your goals, your fears and listen to what they have to offer you. The future you’re planning for yourself today  – particularly a performance-based one – is challenging. But you don’t have to face it alone: a professor who has walked that path him or herself will likely have unique perspectives that could make an enormous difference in your life.

4. Treat Everyone You Meet With Respect

Before I lost my leg, I was the smart-ass, judgmental, knows-everything college graduate who was quick to judge and dismiss others. Afterwards, I met people who shared nothing in common with me other than the fact that they too were missing a body part. And I found that they were almost all unique, interesting, helpful people who treated me with an understanding and respect that humbled me.

In college, you’ll get to meet people from all over the United States who don’t share your opinions, experiences or perhaps even your values. Treat them all with respect. We have enough divisiveness and polarization in the world today already. The only way that will ever change is one person at a time. You can (and will) make a difference.

3. Respect Your Time

Following my accident, the rehabilitation process forced me into a defined routine. I had blocks of time spent at physical therapy, blocks of time at the prosthetist’s office and blocks of time at home. I only had “x” amount of time to get things done within each of those slots, so I tended to work intensely for short bursts of time. In that way, my day became a series of short (60 minutes) but hard sprints, followed by quick breaks (10 mins).

If you’re studying 18 hours a day or 2 hours a day while at school, you’re doing something wrong. College isn’t just about studying, nor is it just about hanging out and fitting in some classes between marathon ping-pong tournaments.

To find the right balance, you have to relentlessly schedule your days and always respect that schedule. There are only so many hours in a week. People who are successful figure out how to manage those hours more effectively than those who are not.

2. Take Risks

Over the last decade, there are three things I’ve done that really stand out. The first was when I hiked up and down a small mountain in Arizona. The second was last year, when an organization I volunteer for committed to getting 100,000 signatures on a petition to protect amputees’ access to prosthetics. The third was a few weeks ago, when I spent a few hours navigating an up-and-down trail in Alberta, Canada.

All of these activities took me way outside my comfort zone. In each instance, willfully navigating into into a zone of personal discomfort and working through it made them memorable, positive experiences.

Over the next 4 years, you can sit comfortably in the areas you excel at and rarely move outside them. Or you can take a poetry class, join that club you’re interested in, or start something new on campus that doesn’t exist today. I promise you, it’s the risks you take that you’ll remember and look back on with pride.

Oh – and the bonus?

The risks of “failing” at these things while in college are almost nonexistent. College is the one place you can fail at this without the consequences having a profound impact on your life. So take advantage of the opportunity.

1. Live With a Sense of Urgency

The biggest gift I got from my accident was the stark reminder that the line separating the here and now from oblivion is much thinner than you think. One minute I was safely in a car with your mother; the next I was lying in the middle of a road, my body ripped apart with EMT’s triaging me as beyond the point of no return.

While that sounds grim, it actually freed me. Instead of staying at a job that seemed like “the right thing” to do and flipping my “life and career” switch onto autopilot, I became focused on finding opportunities and experiences that would make a difference, both to me and other people.

In some ways, you’re already way ahead of where I was at your age. You know what you want to do and you love doing it. You can spend the next four years working towards a very specific goal that you’ve already identified before you’ve hit 20. And you have a gift for connecting with other people that will serve you well on that journey.

But never take anything for granted. Treat every opportunity like it could be the big break you need. Treat every show you play like it’s the one where a single video of you and/or your band could go viral. Stay in the moment.

Don’t spend your life worrying about all the things you can’t control and that could happen to you. Aim for the target and launch yourself forward without hesitation or reservation. We only get to go on this ride one time. Make. It Count.

And have fun.

I couldn’t be prouder of you. Now, as a former boss once told me, “Go out there and kill it.”

the annual prosthetic awareness cycle

the annual prosthetic awareness cycle 5.14.15Caroline recently told me that she missed the good old days (she’s 9) when she would help me don my prosthesis most mornings. Technological advances in prosthetic design resulted in my daughter getting obsoleted a few years ago, an event that should prepare her well for working life in the 21st century. Now to be clear, putting on a prosthesis has never been a two-person job. I just enjoyed the fact that Caroline saw herself as an integral part of this daily routine. I don’t think it would have surprised her at all if she had looked at the component list and instructions for use for my prosthesis and seen a picture of herself as “Girl, 5” just below “Allen wrench” and just above “socket valve.”

(Step 7: Instruct Girl, 5 to screw socket valve clockwise into valve housing; Step 8: Instruct Girl, 5 to chase bouncing socket valve across room following unsuccessful attempt to screw it counterclockwise into valve housing; Step 9: Take socket valve from Girl, 5 and screw it loosely into valve housing clockwise; Step 10: instruct Girl, 5, to turn valve one rotation in any direction; Step 11: lavish praise on Girl, 5 for a job well done and screw valve tightly into socket housing yourself.)

Caroline has known no reality other than that in which one of the first things I do every day is put on my leg and one of the last things I do is take it off. It’s all she knows.

Max, who’s about to turn 17, heard Cara talking last weekend about how she had found some old photos of us when we were first married. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he asked to see the pictures, explaining that he hoped to obtain a first-hand view of me with two biological legs. He spoke the same way an ornithologist would if suddenly confronted with the opportunity to see a now-extinct bird. For him, his prosthetic-wearing father is normal, the pre-accident version of me exotic, a stranger.

Jackson thinks nothing of it when I stand at the base of our staircase and ask him to run into my bedroom to grab my backup battery. He passes me the fully charged lithium-polymer power source while I reach up and hand him the dying one. He presses the indicator button after grabbing it from me to confirm that only one of the 5 LEDs remains lit and walks it to my charger, clicking it into place.

I have three children, all of whom have grown up knowing that their dad (a) has never had hair as long as they’ve known him, and (b) has always worn a prosthesis to walk. When they come across old photos of me with two legs, their reaction is the same as when they see pictures of me with hair: “You look so weird!”

But as with all things, context is king.

Last week while I waited for Caroline to finish her gymnastics class, another student walked out of the gym to use the bathroom and narrowly avoided breaking his neck as his body went one way and his head the other as he tried to simultaneously walk past me while looking at the metal and carbon graphite gleaming dully at him below my shorts. If we were able to hack into his neural cortex and determine the precise words formed there but not spoken, our Thought-Translator 2000 would have flashed the words, “He looks so weird!” on its monitor.

My kids and everyone else’s reach the identical conclusion for opposite reasons. Max, Jackson and Caroline can’t imagine me without a prosthetic leg. Other children can’t imagine me with one, even when what they’re seeing eliminates their need to imagine anything.

I have an internal discussion with myself about these thoughts at about this time every year as I transition from 6 months of wearing long pants back to shorts. As sure as leaves turn green on the trees, so too does Spring mark the time when I get jolted into seeing myself through the eyes of people who either have never seen a prosthesis before or didn’t know that I use one.

For children who don’t know me, I’m a guy with a bizarre robo-leg who, because he’s different, is probably a little scary. But for my kids, especially Caroline, I am – or more correctly, my prosthesis is – something to show proudly to her friends. She has a body of knowledge that others don’t. Some kids like to demonstrate mastery by memorizing obscure sports statistics, spouting presidential history facts, or accessing cheat codes to the latest video game so that they can roam entirely realistic fantasy worlds with heads as big as prize-winning pumpkins. Caroline, on the other hand, gives tours of my prosthesis in much the same way guides do in museums.

“Can anyone guess what this button does? Look!” [Presses rotator button and swings my prosthetic knee and foot upside down so that the sole of my shoe is now facing the ceiling. She laughs while her friends try not to freak out.] “Want to see something cool?” [Turns off my prosthetic knee and extracts the battery, brandishing it like a bar of gold in front of her peers.] “Dad, you’re almost out of battery!” [Confidently places it back in the knee with a celebratory flourish.]

It’s a little odd getting objectified by your own child in this way. I suppose if I were wired differently, I might feel a bit like a sideshow attraction at a traveling carnival. Fortunately, she has refrained (so far) from charging admission to meet her dad, so she remains on the right side of the boundary separating interesting from sensational.

Come October I’ll start wearing long pants again and all of this will recede into the background. Until the cycle starts over again next year.

two amputees and a priest

two amputees and a priest 12.4.14

This Sunday will be the 18th anniversary of the accident that changed my life. I’m still learning new things about what happened to me then, even now.

While eating lunch with Cara yesterday, our discussion turned to the accident and its immediate aftermath. (Nothing makes better meal-time conversation than reminiscing about the physical (mine) and emotional (hers) trauma of my unsuccessful foray into car pushing.) In passing, she reminded me that an above-knee amputee came to visit me after I had been moved out of the ICU. “Nice guy,” she told me; 30 years old and a new dad.

I stared at her blankly.

“You refused to see him,” she continued. “Your were freaking out. You told me there was no way you were going to speak to anyone who was missing limbs. You wouldn’t even use the word amputee.”

I find this bizarre on two fronts. First, I don’t remember it. Given Cara’s description of how I reacted to the possibility of meeting someone else with limb loss, it seems almost impossible that this wouldn’t have remained burned into my brain, one of the clearest post-accident memories that I would carry with me over the next 18 years. But there’s nothing.

Second, I don’t think this is the first time Cara has told me this story. I have a vague recollection of her bringing this up several times over the years since the accident, but it wasn’t until long after our conversation yesterday had ended that I realized it. In other words, I’ve buried this story – perhaps multiple times – over the course of nearly two decades.

I’ve come to grips with the fact that my memory is an unreliable tool. I’ve written frequently about the strangeness of having the most significant event of my life – an event I was largely conscious for according to all accounts – wiped from the hard drive in my head. But after I got discharged from the ICU, I do remember most of what happened.

I remember the box of Godiva chocolates and the card attached to it that the girl whose car I was pushing sent me. I remember that my dad ate them. I recall being terrified that if I couldn’t figure out how to piss into a bedpan I would have serious complications (read: pain) removing the catheter. (The doctors had told me as much. Nothing motivates a man to pee more than the threat of excruciating pain in that particular body part. This, in fact, may be my clearest immediate post-accident memory – the abject terror that enveloped me at the thought of a brutal catheter removal. The fact that I no longer had a leg paled in comparison.) I remember a guy from my soccer team and my boss standing by my hospital bed, visiting.

But Cara asking me whether I wanted to talk to another amputee my age and amputation level? Me practically screaming at her to make sure that it didn’t happen? Gone.

But wait – there’s more.

Cara went on: “There were actually a total of 3 people who I really remember trying to visit you,” she said. “There was another amputee. A BK. He was a military guy – really young. You actually spoke to him briefly. He came in the room and you were polite but it was very quick.” I shook my head. This too may as well have happened to another person. How did these guys even know that I was in the hospital? Who were they? And why don’t I remember them?

“And then there was the priest. He was from my family’s parish – he had replaced Father Fred. You told me to keep him the [expletive] away from you. You made it very clear that you wanted nothing to do with him. So I spoke to him outside the room. I thanked him for coming but told him that you weren’t Catholic yourself and that you wouldn’t be receptive to him and what he had to say.”

The priest. The third member of my Amnesia Trinity. As Cara described my reaction to his showing up at my hospital door, at least it seems consistent with how I know I viewed the world at 27. I was not and had never been a “church guy.” Religion was something that people used to escape and justify why bad things happened to them, a tool of the weak. That’s what I thought then. So my “Keep him the hell out!” stance made sense to me as I stared at my bowl of pasta, listening to Cara.

But my behavior in response to the Mysterious Amputees Who Materialized at my Hospital Door feels strangely disconnected from how I think about myself (and by extension, how I think about who I was in December 1997). The more I turn it over in my head, the more bizarre my behavior with the other two members of the Trinity seems. I’m an above-knee amputee who  refuses to speak to another above-the-knee amputee who’s basically the same age as me. I push away a guy who can presumably provide real insight into what I’m going through. Shortly thereafter, I welcome a military guy considerably younger than me who’s the “wrong” level of amputation and I speak with him.

What the hell was I thinking?

Cara correctly notes that the Amnesia Trinity shouldn’t surprise me given the amount of stress and medication surging through my body at the time. Expecting myself to behave rationally probably holds me to a standard that I couldn’t possibly satisfy as I stared for hours a day at the empty space below my left knee.

My hyper-analytical brain – also generally known as my everyday operating system – posits more sinister psychological implications. I rejected the above-knee amputee because I couldn’t yet face what I had become. I welcomed the BK because he provided a narrow window I could peek through to get a glimpse of limb loss without getting completely overwhelmed – after all, he was different, having retained his knee.

In the end though, I just stack these stories about myself onto the pile of post-accident tales that interest me because I sit at their center despite the fact that they could have happened to a stranger so far as my memory is concerned. And they just sit there …