A week ago today, I watched the horrific events unfold in Boston with shock, disbelief and fear. Blood everywhere, lives torn apart, and once again our nation struck by the senseless scourge of terror. Now that a suspect is in custody after a tense, globally televised manhunt, our attention turns back to the victims — an 8-year-old boy who will never again play baseball, a Chinese graduate student who will never finish her mathematics degree, and a young restaurateur who will never turn thirty. But even as we mourn those lost in the blast, it is the survivors who need us now.
As I absorbed report after report of flying shrapnel at low levels tearing away the vascular tissue, muscle and bones of many bystanders, I connected with emotions that resonate deeply for me. An amputee since the age of 5 due to a birth defect, I understand the fear and anxiety that comes with the loss of a limb. While my adjustment and healing were very different from the kind of violence we saw in Boston, over the years I have supported a number of people in their emotional transition to a new life with a disability. As a trained counselor for new amputees, I know the grieving process can be arduous. The grief comes not from the actual loss of limb and the difficulties of rehabilitation, but rather from the loss of expectations for the future. For those now lying with amputations in Boston hospitals, the future will never be as they had envisioned.
I have lived a vibrant life as an amputee — becoming a Paralympic skiing medalist, getting married, having a daughter, starting my own business. And I have friends with amputations who are politicians, firefighters, athletes and even a supermodel, so I know that living with a disability doesn’t have to be a tragedy. But to those just joining our ranks, the challenges seem daunting. Their assumptions may be that their lives will be limited; they will be ugly and freakish; they will be shunned by others.
Personally, I think having a disability can be very cool. What I learned in my training for visiting new amputees, however, was that I can’t tell them how great life will be, or parade my own achievements as proof that life will get better. Ellen Winchell, author of Coping With Limb Loss, taught us that our job is to listen carefully to what the person in the bed feels and thinks about their new situation and to answer their many questions. A new amputee’s questions will indicate doorways — openings where they may be ready to begin shifting perceptions.
I recently visited a woman, call her Sharon, whose legs were severed below the knee. She was removing something from the trunk of her car when a New York City taxicab slammed into her, pinning her legs between the two vehicles. Three weeks after the accident, I met Sharon in the hospital and was encouraged to see she was very positive; a close family and an extended church community had rallied around her. But as we talked, I heard something that troubled me. Sharon was anxious to get prosthetic legs, get back to her job, and get on with her life just as it had been before the accident. I could hear that she thought she could live as if nothing had happened, that she could be “as good as” she was before. Subliminally, Sharon believed that her new self was damaged goods and her old self was better. And if she just put the accident behind her, she could be “normal” again.
In my life, I have come to understand that “normal” is overrated. I wasted so much of my time, my energy, and my joy trying to fit in and be like other people. I now believe my leg is a beautiful part of who I am. I have even appeared in a fashion magazine showing the metal components of my leg with a fancy dress! But Sharon wasn’t there yet. I struggled with how I could give her some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned. Then, when she spoke about her family, I saw a way in. It brought tears to her eyes to describe how her husband and children loved and stood by her. I heard her describe her dedication to every aspect of her children’s lives, especially their education.
“If you act as though nothing has changed and never talk about your legs with your children, you will be teaching them to be embarrassed about you and to treat people with disabilities as second-class citizens,” I said to her. “But if you joke with them about it, are open about it, and make it a part of life, they will learn to love and embrace people with disabilities as equals.” If her kids met me in the future, I posed to Sharon, what would they say they had learned from their mother’s experience? Sharon’s eyes opened wide. Seeing the future of her children living with her disability in a positive way opened her heart to have more compassion for herself and her new identity.
Those who support the new amputees in Boston will have many conversations like the one I had with Sharon along the road to resilience. Healing is about rebuilding a vision of yourself and a belief in a future you can feel good about. For the victims of the bombing, it will be a complicated process that does not move in a straight line. That is why I will be going to Boston. I pray God will infuse me with the words and emotions to connect with the victims, their families, their friends, and the hospital workers in a way that will help move them forward one day at a time. There is no sense to be made of this tragedy. There is only hope for the future.
The first African-American to win Olympic medals in ski racing, Bonnie St. John is a leadership consultant and the author of six books, including How Great Women Lead, written with her daughter Darcy.
www.amputee-coalition.org The Amputee Coalition of America offers local peer-support groups, a monthly magazine, and a manual for beginners with consumer information and helpful hints. I received my training for hospital visitation through a local ACA chapter.
www.disabledsportsusa.org Disabled Sports USA offers access to local and national sports training and events across the country. I have been involved with them since my teens. If you want to hang out with positive, active, fun people who happen to have disabilities, get involved.
www.woundedwarriorproject.org The Wounded Warrior Project has taken the lead in helping our returning soldiers with injuries live life to the fullest, from Walter Reed Hospital to sporting events, back-to-work assistance to peer support.
www.teamusa.org/US-Paralympics.aspx US Paralympics is a division of our US Olympic effort devoted to selecting, supporting, and fielding athletes with disabilities who compete in Olympic events.