Archive for June, 2011
It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything personal here. For the past few weeks, I’ve been swamped and sad and a little overwhelmed. I lost one of my grandmothers a few weeks ago, and it hit me pretty hard. Because my parents were so young when I was born, I was raised by a trinity of households: my parents’ and those of my two sets of grandparents, who lived nearby. I’ve always thought of my Grands as more than relatives—they were GRAND parents—parents, only grander. My grandmother, Charlotte, was super grand. She was four feet and eleven inches tall, but she lived a big life—full of vim and vinegar—a spitfire. You didn’t cross her without being ready for a fight but if you were part of her brood, you had a loyal advocate, even when you were in trouble.
Charlotte was 79 years old when she died, but she’d been near death many times in her life. She struggled with gross obesity and ultimately managed it with surgery (one of the first intestinal bypasses), though she was heavy until the end of her life. She’d been in the hospital several times in the past decade, diagnosed with congestive heart failure and internal bleeding. I’d said my final goodbyes to her at least twice before. And then she bounced back. She was stubborn.
But on Saturday, June 4 she was taken to the hospital because of a bout of pneumonia. When my aunt told me the doctors said it was serious, I didn’t really believe it. Charlotte had beaten death back so many times that I assumed she’d do it again. I planned to go visit her in the hospital (a two-hour drive), but I didn’t feel hurried. I even got up on Sunday and ran a half marathon on San Juan Island.
The morning of the race was beautiful. As Bill and I took the ferry over to the island and picked up our packets, I felt peaceful, enjoying the sunshine on my bare arms and the promise of summer coming at long last. As we stood at the starting line and even through the first several miles of the (very hilly) scenic course, I thought several times about my Gram, but I wasn’t troubled. I focused on my breath and counting my steps up the long, winding inclines of the route. Then at about mile ten, a thought hit me: “This is it. She won’t make it through this one.”
She’d grown frail since she’d been widowed more than a decade ago when her beloved husband passed away from cancer. She wasn’t likely to live through pneumonia. I was in denial to think she would. As I walked through the final aid station on the race course, I developed a sense of urgency. I took my water from the volunteer, guzzled it, and picked up my pace—with a purpose. I had to get to her and say goodbye. I’d seen her just a few days earlier on her birthday, but I wanted her to have the peace of mind that she’d said goodbye to as many of her loved ones as could make it to her bedside.
I finished the race and quickly checked my phone messages. My father had called to say that the doctors were removing her oxygen. When I called him back, he held the phone up to her ear so I could talk to her. They didn’t think she’d wait for me to catch a ferry and drive the distance to the hospital.
But she did wait. I arrived at about 5:30pm and at 7:23 she took her final breath.
Sitting next to my Gram as she passed from this life, I felt a flood of emotions: grief, of course, and emptiness, curiosity about the next life, and worry about how the family would reorganize itself without her. I also felt determination to embrace my own life.
I suppose many of us structure our lives informed by those who come before us. We notice what our parents or grandparents did that we admire, appreciate or disapprove of, and we act or react accordingly, imitating or adjusting. I don’t know about you, but there are dozens of things I’m afraid of; there are tasks I face that I feel inadequate for and goals I have that I can’t imagine how I’ll reach. But in the presence of death I remembered that I want to live with audacity and determination, to be true to myself and my values.
It took me a few days after my Gram passed to get out for a run, not because I was sore from the San Juan Island race but because I’d watched her take her last breath, and every time I breathed deeply I cried. Then on Thursday of that week, I headed for the trails, meaning to run five miles. After a mile and a half, the grief was there. I turned around and ran home to attend to it. Each day I pushed a little farther until I could run again without the heaviness I felt at first. It’s been a few weeks now, as I said. I miss her, but I know she was ready; she’d told me that several times in the past couple of years. And I have her verve for life in my DNA.
As promised, below is my recent interview with Colleen Haggerty, friend and fellow writer. Colleen has a fascinating and inspiring story to tell. She also has a cause she is very passionate about. I hope you’ll take the time to read our interview and to visit Colleen’s site.
I understand you’re about to begin your second annual campaign to raise money for the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. Can you tell readers what this is, exactly? Where does the money go? Why is this so important to you?
I am walking 100 miles in 100 days to raise money for 100 prosthetic legs for amputees in developing countries. I’m volunteering for the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation whose mission is to improve the mobility and independence of disabled folks in developing countries.
I’m really passionate about this organization and this cause because I, too, am an amputee. I live a privileged life in a privileged country which means I have access to the latest technology in prosthetics. When I visited thePOF they had home-made prosthetic legs people in Vietnam had made. One was made from bamboo and another was made out of metal. When I looked at those home-made legs, all I could see was pain. I fought back the tears when I saw how desperate people were to walk. They looked so uncomfortable. It’s important to me that, no matter where people live, they should be able to do the most basic human function: walk.
These amputees are victims of landmines, war, natural disasters and accidents. They do not have access to health care like we do here in America. What’s most distressing to me is that in most developing countries, people with disabilities often cannot go to school or hold down a job. If they are not able to contribute to their families or their communities they simply end up becoming a burden. Just a $300 leg allows someone to go from beggar on the street to a bike mechanic earning money for his family.
I’ve known you for a few years now, Colleen, and I know you can speak to how important it is to have a prosthetic that fits your body. Can you explain to readers how a good prosthetic can change someone’s life?
Well, like I say, those legs at the POF office looked so painful. I couldn’t imagine walking on a metal leg! Part of the reason I decided to walk for the POF was because a couple of years ago, when I was getting a new leg made, my prosthetist and I decided to try a new style of socket. It took two years of trying, but we just couldn’t get it to fit right. I lost a lot of function in those two years when I didn’t have a proper fitting leg. Each socket is made to each specific person. I would never be able to slip on another person’s prosthetic leg and be able to walk in it.
Without a good fit, walking is simply painful. Without a good fit, there can be skin breakdown which is not only painful, but can lead to more serious problems. For an above the knee amputee, such as myself, I say that making a leg is part science and part art. The knee unit – the technology – is the science and making the socket – the part the residual limb fits into – is the art.
You walked 100 miles in 100 days last year and are about to start your 100-mile journey again. What were the challenges for you last year? The victories? Is there anything you’ll do differently this year?
The challenges last year were twofold. First, it was hard to walk on hot days. Since I’m a natural red head, I have sensitive skin. The rubbing and chaffing on hot days made for some painful walking. And secondly, some days it was hard to find the time, the half hour I need, to walk a mile. There are days when I am going from morning to night and I had to fit my walk in at 10:00 or 11:00 at night.
It was a true victory just to finish the 100 miles. And while I didn’t reach my financial goal, it was a victory to raise $13,500.00 for the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation. That’s enough for 45 people to get a prosthetic leg.
All the money I raised last year was from individual donations – which blows me away. I am so grateful to the many people who stepped up and supported me. This year I want to find some corporate sponsors. I’ll be walking my 100th mile at the POF’s 2nd annual Walk-a-thon at Marymoor Park, so this is a great opportunity for sponsors to show their support.
What is so special about the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation? How are they different from other providers of prosthetics?
What I appreciate about the POF is that they teach people in developing countries how to make the legs – they aren’t creating jobs for Americans there. So, for instance, when I spoke with POF’s Director of Programs, Ray Pye, he talked me through each step of how they make the legs in Vietnam. They learned that they had to vulcanize the rubber for the foot differently so that the rubber could withstand the extreme humidity of that country. They make every part of the leg in Vietnam, down to the screws, which keeps the costs low. Each leg costs just $300. When you compare that to my leg, which cost $50,000.00, you can see what a deal that is! And they are currently working with agencies in Haiti to create a similar program there for all the people who became amputees as a result of the earthquake.
When we had coffee together the other day, you mentioned that much of the media focuses on individuals who have lost limbs in combat and, while that is certainly a worthy focus, there are many average people who have lost limbs in accidents or through diseases. Can you talk about your concern for people who fly under the radar in terms of getting the treatment/ equipment they need?
Like I said, my leg cost $50,000.00. Part of the reason it was so expensive is because I switched to the “Mercedes” of all knee units, but even so, legs in this country cost an “arm and a leg!” For the people we see on the news, many of them have corporate sponsors who pick up the tab, but for the average Joe and Jane with a simple medical plan, even paying 80% of the cost of a leg is a lot of money, especially when you consider that prosthetic legs only last about 5 years.
In the 33 years I’ve been an amputee, the trend has been to portray amputees in the media in a positive light, which I sincerely appreciate. And I notice that the amputees portrayed are doing something grand and extreme, like biking across the country or scaling a mountain. The vast majority of amputees can’t fathom doing those things, just like the vast majority of the able-bodied population can’t. It’s a strange and unrealistic barometer for us to have for “amputee role models.” I think it’s enough, in fact it’s a lot, that I walk a mile a day. I’m proud of that.
How can we help?
Spread the word. I’d love more people to know that there are a lot of hidden people in developing countries who are ostracized from their communities because those cultures do not have the same acceptance of disabled folks than we do. If those folks can get a prosthetic leg and contribute to their families and communities, it’s good for everyone.
What else would you like readers to know?
This year I am asking other amputees, or anyone for that matter, to start their own walking campaign in their own communities. ThePOF and I have developed a tool kit that helps people through the simple steps of creating their own 100 miles in 100 days campaign. If your readers know of an amputee or anyone who wants to tackle walking a mile a day, please send them my way. I am here to act as a support to anyone who wants to walk with me.
People can also read about my walking campaign last year on my blog at http://mymilewalk.wordpress.com.
Thank you, Cami. It’s been great talking with you!
Thanks to you, Colleen. I appreciate your commitment and ability to bring awareness to this topic. I mentioned to you when we met that I visited Haiti more than 20 years ago, and even at that time, before the earthquake which devestated the country, it was hard for anyone with a disability to get around. The roads were uneven—not set up for wheelchairs or crutches—and full of obstacles (in fact, most people I saw who were missing legs got around on thier hands with a piece of cardboard under their bodies to prevent chafing to their lower extremities). Now that so many have been injured from the recent tragedies there, your campain is more critical than ever.
For those who want to contact Colleen or find out about her fund-raising took kit, she can be reached through her blog, mymilewalk.com, or I can certainly get a message to her as well.
Gloria continues to walk 5ks and is currently training for a 10k, which she plans to complete sometime this summer. She also reports that she’s crossed the 50 pound weight loss mark! Great job, Gloria. Keep up the good work. And thanks for sharing your story.
I suit up and head out the door for run with little thought or preparation, these days. I take it for granted that running is and will be part of my life. My friend, Colleen Haggerty doesn’t have that luxury. A mile is long walk for her.
“I am an above-the-knee amputee,” Colleen writes on her website, mymilewalk.wordpress.com. But this hasn’t stopped her from walking to raise funds for others who need prosthetic legs. Read about Colleen’s life on her blog, and stay tuned for an interview here on 7marathons7continents in the next week as she starts her second annual campaign for the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation.