My experience learning to walk with a prosthetic leg resulted in a significant discovery. In August 2011, my left leg was amputated above the knee because of a blood clot. While I recovered in the hospital, the doctors, nurses, and therapists asked me the same question. “Are you interested in an artificial limb?” they asked. I answered yes, but I wondered why an amputee would refuse a prosthetic. Every night, before I left the hospital, I dreamed of walking with my prosthetic leg around the house.
The experience started a year ago in February, 2012. Tom, a prosthetist who designs and maintains prosthetic limbs, evaluated me for a prosthetic leg.
We were in the kitchen in my home when Tom asked me to stand up from my wheelchair. I needed to try, even though I was 73-years old, and my physical health wasn’t good. I have had rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for thirty years, and it has had a destructive affect on my body joints. I rose from the wheelchair and stood up straight, and I held one hand on the arm of the wheelchair. I stood as long as I could, and then sat.
“That was very good,” Tom said, smiling. I smiled back. I was relieved that I passed the first test. I thanked God I was able to stand up. I didn’t want Tom to say that my body wasn’t strong enough for the prosthetic.
A week later, Tom returned with the temporary prosthetic. After he rolled the sleeve and a one-ply sock on my thigh, he pushed the prosthetic leg onto it. He placed the walker in front of the wheelchair, and he asked me to stand up pulling up on the walker. I held both hands on the walker and tried to lift up. After several attempts, I gave up.
“I can’t pull up.” I told Tom. I thought that RA had weakened my knee some more.
“Oh Jesus!” I cried. “Am I doomed to this wheelchair?”
“You have strength you haven’t used,” Tom assuredly replied. “Your husband and I will help you lift up.” They did. After I was able to stand up and to balance my body, Tom tested the socket of the prosthetic for the proper fit. He made adjustments to the mechanical device until it worked just right. For the next three weeks, my husband and Tom helped me get up from the wheelchair. I stood holding onto the walker while Tom checked the prosthetic for alignment and length. Then one day it felt good to stand up. I stood for four minutes. I was exuberant! I wanted to walk around on the ceramic tile floor. But Tom said it was time for a physical therapist to train me to walk using the parallel bars. Uneasiness came over me about what the physical therapist would ask me to do.
On a late warm March afternoon, in the waiting room of the rehabilitation center, Tom introduced me to Mark, the physical therapist. Mark rolled me down the hall to a large gym.
In the center of the room were three table mats. One patient sat on a table mat. She lifted her arm holding a dumbbell and talked and giggled with the therapist who stood by her. The room had a fresh, bright and clean look. Training stairs, treadmills, large fitness balls, and various weights of dumbbells lined the wall on the right. On the left were evaluation rooms.
We headed toward an outer room. There stood the parallel bars. My fears returned as soon as Mark stopped the wheelchair in front of the bars.
Late March turned to early June, I passed the hip evaluation test. Mark instructed me on how to use the parallel bars, to get out and in the wheelchair, to put my body weight on my right leg, to take a step and lean forward on the prosthetic leg; and to take a step with my right foot. I walked the length of the parallel bars, turned, and walked back to the wheelchair and sat down.
My first walking trips with the aid of the walker were just a few feet. The second week in June, I walked from the room with the parallel bars to the waiting room at the front of the rehabilitation center — about 80 feet. I was extremely happy.
My happiness didn’t last long because the next two weeks proved to be exhausting. Just doing daily functions such as showering, brushing my teeth, and dressing for therapy was tiring. I was worn out before I got there. I called Tom and told him of my mournful predicament.
“I understand,” he said in a simple, caring voice. “But, I’m not giving up on you yet.” “I will make arrangements for the physical therapist to come to your home.”
I had high hopes that training at home would get me what I wanted. After all, home was where I wanted to walk. I wanted to answer the front door bell, to get the mail, and to walk to the bathroom with the walker. I didn’t think I was asking for a lot.
The first week in July, the home physical therapist came. He wasted no time on nonsense. I liked his approach. On this first visit, I was able to get out of the wheelchair and walk with the walker around the kitchen and into the bedroom. Instead of holding the handle bar of the walker, I rested my left elbow on it. My elbow supported my weight as I picked up and put down my prosthetic leg. But by not standing straight, I didn’t have full control of the prosthetic leg. A day later, my energy and strength level decreased. When the therapist came for his next visit, I couldn’t muster enough strength to get out the wheelchair with help. As hard as it was to accept, I had gone as far as I could go. RA had won.
But the experience taught me something. I gained. I didn’t lose. If I had not tried, I would not have known if I could have walked with the prosthetic.