For The Record…

I hate being an amputee.

“Hate” is a strong word. I try not to overuse it. It’s appropriate here. I hate being an amputee.

I hate having to think about every step. Have you ever said to me–as dozens of people have–“If you hadn’t told me, I never would have known?” That doesn’t just happen. That takes work. Every step. I hate constantly having to be aware of where my prosthesis is, lest it does some damage. Yesterday, I lost about 45 minutes of work because I shifted my prosthetic leg, and pulled my computer’s power cord out of the wall.

I hate having to ask if I can sit up front when I ride with people. I hate that I can’t really sit well in the back seat. I hate that my lack of ankle movement means I can’t easily get in and out of tight spaces. I hate that the top of the prosthesis digs into the back of my knee, and cuts of circulation, or rubs or chafes when I sit with my legs bent at tight angles.  I hate that I have to grab my leg and jam it back out the door when we get out. I hate having to check the back of the front seat, to see if I’ve inadvertently ripped a hole in it.

I hate that I have to put extra thought and effort into things you do normally. Do you hop into the shower in the morning? No. No matter how perky you are, you step into it. I hop. I have to. It’s hard to bathe in my shower, where I have everything I need right within reach. It’s harder in others, where the shampoo might be way back behind me, and there’s nothing to hold on to other than a flimsy shower curtain rod in case I lose my balance.

I hate lying in bed at night wondering how fast I can get into my prosthesis if I wake up at 3am and have to pee. Or worse: wondering if that extra minute might be the difference between life and death in a fire. For me–or worst of all, for my kids sleeping upstairs.

Hate it.

That being said, in the world of athletics, I’m at a real disadvantage–because I still have one leg.

A few months ago, while my prosthetist Ron and I were figuring out what sort of running leg would be best for me, we went into the shop area to look at some literature. We were trying to decide which running leg would also be the best to use for bicycling. Over one of Ron’s work benches was a poster of Scott Rigsby, the first bilateral amputee to finish the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. He was using the same legs that I ended up using.

“He’s at an advantage,” said Ron. “He’s a bilateral amp.”

“That’s an advantage I don’t want,” was my reply.

But it is an advantage. For one thing, there’s the whole “leg length” issue. My running leg is built about 1″ longer than my full leg because of the compression that happens when I run. That’s an issue for when I’m walking or moving at slower speeds. If I have 2 like that, it’s not an issue, because they’re the same length.

Another issue is design. Our legs weren’t really designed to run. Especially the lower half. The long, straight shins, heavy calves, and long flat feet with long toes are much better suited for climbing and grasping in trees.  If you were to actually sit down and design a lower leg that would be more useful to running, it would look like….well, it would look like my running prosthesis. It would absorb the downward energy one gets on the heel strike of a run, hold it through the middle stride, and release it on the kick. there would be no need for a clunky ankle joint, which is useful for rapid directional changes but not so much for straight ahead running. And, when the right materials are used, it weighs less than the average lower leg.

And having one leg one way and the other leg the other…it’s a noticeable difference.

Ever heard of Oscar Pistorius? He’s known as “The fastest man on no feet.” He’s got Olympic-level speed as a sprinter. He wants to compete with full-bodied sprinters, and there’s a discussion about whether or not he should be allowed to do so, because he might have an unfair advantage, for the reasons I listed above.

I’m not sure how I feel about it, and my opinion really doesn’t matter, but I think I agree that he shouldn’t be allowed to compete. And it’s not for the reasons I mentioned above. I really don’t know if these blades are better than the limbs they’re designed to replace. I do know that it’s better for running than the prosthesis I had been using, and that’s enough for me.

I also know that there may be a perception that they might be faster, and that’s what worries. me. Becca and I talked about this last week when we were running. My opinion on this is relatively new-formed, because until we were running I hadn’t thought much about it. And my thoughts are informed more by my relationship to addiction than it is to my life as an amputee.

Let’s see if I can explain this: I remember reading the results of a survey a few years ago. It was a confidential survey asking elite athletes about their views on performance-enhancing drugs. What caught my eye was the response to one of the questions that asked them if they could take an undetectable drug that could give them the ability to set world records their sport, but would end up killing them within 10 years, would they take that drug? Most said no. A large majority did, in fact. But some said yes.

When asked if they would be willing to trade half their life for the record, some people said yes. If they would do that, how would they feel about cutting off their feet to gain a few tenths of a second?  Athletes have chosen to remove damaged parts of their bodies–in order to keep on playing. Ronnie Lott had part of a finger removed after he had it injured in a game. He could have had surgery on it and it would have been fine. It was a relatively minor surgery, but it would have kept him out for the rest of the season. And if you think it was only because he was a professional, and it was only a small part of his finger, he’s not the only one to have done this. Trevor Wirke, a lineman for a Division II school, did the same thing. Dvision II players don’t usually make it to the NFL. He was a senior. He decided it was more important to play in those two games than to live the rest of his life with 10 fingers.

Some think this is cool and courageous, and maybe it is. But from where I’m sitting, it’s also dangerously close to addictive thinking.

I consider addictive thinking to be choosing short-term gratification over long-term consequences. I know we all do that. If you are on a diet, and you have that piece of cake, that’s addictive thinking. If you buy that new HDTV even though the money’s tight, that’s addictive thinking. If you’re happily married, yet still flirt with that attractive person, it’s addictive thinking. Does it mean your an addict if you think that way? I don’t know. How often have you done it? More often than not? Maybe you should talk to someone about it.

But back to the my reasoning: If athletes are willing to trade half of their lives or parts of their bodies for the chance for glory, what are the chances of an able-bodied sprinter who wants an edge to think about amputating his feet in order to get these blades? Is it really that far-fetched?


I went running again yesterday. About 15 minutes into the run, I pulled up lame. Had a muscle cramp in my calf. I tried to work it out, but it was still rather painful. I did do some running on it, but boy did it hurt. For the record, I think that’s addictive thinking.

My running leg was fine. Just sayin’.

I still hate being an amputee.



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