Ten days after my accident I was lying in my hospital bed griping the sheets and forgetting to breathe. My prosthetist was standing on the left side of my bed changing the bandages on my residual limb while my surgeon stood on the right side of my bed changing the bandages on my right leg. This leg was saved from the deep twelve-inch laceration I suffered in the accident. They were bantering back and forth. Even to my limited seventeen-year-old sensibilities, I could tell they were pulling out all the stops to keep the atmosphere light and happy. Joke followed laughter as bandages unrolled in a furl of white, grey, red. This was the day I was going to see my legs—or leg and a half—for the first time since the crash. When the bandages were removed and thrown into the garbage, the doctor gently touched my leg; the prosthetist tenderly touched my stump. “Well this looks great. Healing nicely,” the doctor said. “Nice work here, doc. You’re better than a seamstress!” More laughter. The doctor pushed the button on the hospital bed to elevate my head. When the bed reached forty-five degrees, he stopped. “Okay, Colleen, take a look. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
These two men, lovely as they were, had become immune to the power of a mutilated body. These two men didn’t anticipate the horror I felt. These two men could not understand why I wanted to throw up after looking at myself.
I first turned my gaze to my stump and was surprised by how wide it was, bloated and inflamed, as if angry at this sudden turn of events. In this distorted state, I looked at the top of my thigh to see if the constellation of freckles was still there, as if the accident could have taken them from me as well. The three dark amber spots forming a triangle, poked through the myriad smaller spots littering my thigh. I looked further toward my knee, just above which, my leg ended. The leg was stitched together in the back, so the scar wasn’t visible during this first viewing. I looked further down and saw only the white, rumpled bed sheet. No impression of my remaining leg was even there. The immediacy of my leg’s absence took my breath away. A lump lodged in my throat, constricting access.
Then I turned my gaze to my right leg. The laceration started behind my knee, curved around to the front of my leg and flowed down along my shin bone and stopped three inches above my ankle. The length of the scar was shocking, but what was even more appalling was the width. At its widest, the scar was an inch and a half wide. Dried blood, scabs, and black stitches had hidden the freckles on this part of my leg, like a meteor had swept through the galaxy of my leg and left this scar in its wake. If looking at my stump took my breath away, looking at this massive scar made me want to throw up. I fell back onto the pillow trying to breathe and keep the bile from rising at the same time. The weight of a thousand questions all jumbled together and sat heavy on my chest.
The prosthetist put his hand on my arm, “We’ll get you a new leg made after the swelling goes down, Colleen. I know it won’t be as good as the one you had, but we’re going to get you walking again.”
The doctor put his hand on my arm. “Give it time, Colleen. This scar will get better. In about a year you can see a plastic surgeon. Maybe he can make this less obvious. Right now you just need to heal.”
I did get my first leg made a few months later. I did go see the plastic surgeon a year later. But he said there was nothing he could do to improve the scar. I was crushed. I was nineteen years old and all I could see when I looked at my legs was a mangled mess. The only thing I could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, even though it was a rubber one.
I was in the shower this morning shaving my leg. I caressed my scar, barely visible through thirty-seven years of healing and added freckles, full of gratitude for what this leg has given me. I have hiked up mountainsides, skied down mountainsides, walked myself down the grassy aisle to marry my husband and limped my way through pregnancy. I have given chase to my toddlers, in my own gimpy kind of way, walked them around the neighborhood and into life.
The devastation I felt about the physical scars I carried wasn’t simply a matter of vanity. When so much is lost, the bigger fear is about loss of control and self-direction. In those first few years I learned that long, skinny, tanned and toned legs couldn’t carry me nearly as far in life as a positive attitude, and open heart and roaring courage.
What physical or mental limitation started out as a deficit and has become, over time, your teacher?