Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My Seventh Ampu-versary

Today marks seven years since I left the ranks of the "ten-toed freaks," as my gimp friends from ski-camp taught me to say. (smiley face!)

I didn't have a bonfire this year, or a Leg Party to commemorate the original spontaneous celebration with a few close friends. (No party, and I mean NONE, is as insane as carousing while burning your leg in effigy two nights before your above-knee amputation. 

The surgery in 2007 was the culmination of six months of lobbying doctors to cut off my fused, worn-out leg, ten years of increasing pain and decreasing mobility, and a grand total of thirty-one years fearing what would happen to my weird stiff knee. It was agony to tackle the decision; it was cathartic to have to tell my story over and over and over in a medical setting:
Osteomyelitis, a gruesome and excruciating bone infection at age thirteen in 1975 and 1976, untreated because my parents were Christian Scientists; an auto-fused knee I could limp on,  denial of the whole nightmare, and a mindset that made me tackle every challenge that came my way, from race horses to my own riding stable in a barn I built myself. And finally, after intensive therapy, supportive friendships, and time, the self-knowledge to make this choice. 

It was a hard sell to the specialists, but they came around. It's a decision I've never regretted.

My goal for this next year of amputee-hood is to be more active. The ski week in January was the first time I hung out with other amps and folks legally blind or in wheelchairs. We traveled in a pack of 'chairs and crutches, made terrible jokes and got raucous in restaurants.  I felt like a horse finally running with the herd. 

It made me realize that, from all those years when I was so determined not to let my stiff leg prevent me from trying ANYTHING, I sailed into amputee-world with the same attitude: Dammit, I'll do it myself!!   ...But it's limited me. It's stopped me short from some activities.

At what I continue to think of as "ski camp" last month--and at Greek Peak every weekend--adaptive skiing is a whole culture of wonderful people working together. It is assumed you (I) need help; it is offered generously and matter-of-factly, along with encouragement and praise. It turned on a light in my head; it softened me up and helped me relax. Reminded me to trust. Ask. And reach out.

I want to ski. This summer I want to try an adaptive bicycle, a recumbent hand-powered one, to see if I like it. There are programs out there, opportunities I want to try. And I'm going to start riding my horse again this spring. It's been a few years, but now Laredo's at a local barn where there are rings, pens--and friends who want me to doff my leg, climb up on the fence and hop on my mare. 

It's taken me a few years. But I'm starting to hit my one-legged stride. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Amputee on a Ski, Part 1 of 3: the Hard Stuff

I had the privilege of spending most of the last week in January learning to ski at Greek Peak in Virgil, New York in an adaptive ski program. Sunday through Thursday, all expenses paid including equipment rentals, instruction, meals & a room at the Cortland Hampton, it was called Winter Challenge, separate from the VERY REASONABLY PRICED weekend adaptive skiing which runs most of Greek Peak's season and includes many of the same volunteers.

I first heard about it around seven years ago when I was talking to prosthetists ahead of my above-knee amputation. (My ampu-versary is tomorrow.) I meant to sign up for it sooner, but with a kid at home, animals & chores (oh yeah, and a job here and there) I didn't get around. Until this year. 

It was incredible. But the funny thing about those damn challenges? You don't get to choose the part that's hard. And the hard part, whatever it is, is HARD.

I posted a lot of pictures on  facebook including the one above. It was taken on Monday afternoon at the top of the "Boardwalk" slope (named for the conveyor belt lift thingy) and not nearly as exciting as "Alpha" (which I called the bunny slope until I was reprimanded) though it IS a step up from "Magic Carpet" which looks damn near flat until you're at the top of it, strapped in a monoski, realizing that while you might have been a crazy-ass daredevil back in The Day, it's getting late for an old dog to learn new tricks...

The guy in the orange jacket is Frank, my instructor. Within ten minutes of working with him, I knew he was an outstanding teacher. Remember, I started teaching riding at age ten and I've given and received hundreds of lessons since. My standards are high. Frank is five-star solid-gold quality. Nevertheless.

What you can't tell from the photo is that I'm having a panic attack. 

Somewhere mid-afternoon, my old terror of powerlessness grabbed hold of my ageing, right-side-dominant motor skills and hijacked my enthusiasm straight off the mental deep end. Suddenly, faced with the ski-slope equivalent of a tough Shetland pony, I froze. My enthusiasm vanished. I started to cry. I said very clearly (since it wasn't my first rodeo, though it's been a while since I had a melt-down) "I'm having a panic attack--I need to sit here. I'm OK. I just need to cry." 

So I did.  I knew I was in good hands. To a wo/man, my crew was wonderful. These volunteers & instructors run Wounded Warrior ski programs. They've seen a hell of a lot of PTSD. And that's only part of my entourage in the photo. Newbie monoskiers are labor-intensive, volunteer-wise. 
Every morning Robin and One-legged John (more on them later) were assigning volunteers to each of the five of us in the program when we came down for breakfast. It never failed to remind me of when I was a riding camp instructor deciding who would ride what every morning, circa. 1981...don't put her on Corky--how about Goblin?... = Robin: "OK, for Liz we've got Frank, and I need three picker-uppers, and a couple more..."

See, a new monoskier falls a lot and needs to be righted. A new monoskier tends to fall on the downhill side, leaving her (not experienced, coordinated or strong enough to swivel around and push upright once the slope is helping) to flail around. This is called a Mousetrap. As opposed to a Yard Sale (two-legged skiers shedding equipment as they wreck) or a Scorpion (a snowboarder falling on her stomach to hit her helmet with her board, as my daughters know only too well).

On that Monday afternoon, I felt my body resist my effort to relax. My fear of falling yet again on my already-bruised shoulder went exponential.  My fear was like something solid in my way; it had a kind of substance; I could see it. And so I surrendered for the day.

I went back to the adaptive room. For the rest of the afternoon I watched out the window and  wept steadily, not hard, but for a long time. I explained to anyone who expressed concern. I had several wonderful talks comparing shades of panic and depression. It was an amazing, safe place.

But I didn't sleep much that night. Like the Grinch, I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore. I realized:

a) Frank was a terrific, skilled and experienced instructor whom I trusted. He would have a plan the next day to boost my confidence just as I would have had (& had had) for a frightened rider.

b) There was nothing I could do, other than wait until tomorrow and follow Frank's directions. 

c) If all else failed, if I truly proved I could not ski, I would not have failed.

d) Hello? This was way WAY more freakin' challenging than I'd planned!

Next morning I told Frank and my Entourage, "I trust you guys completely. Tell me what to do."

Frank strapped me into the bi-ski. It was like a monoski but with two skis underneath. It could still easily fall over, and the skis' edges could cut nicely in a sharp turn, but it had a frame: sort of like a dogsled with no dog. Frank could control the ski within reason when need be, then back off and ski behind with me on tether. I still had to follow directions, or it could "get ugly."

We hopped on the quad lift and went to the top of the mountain. Never mind it was -15 F. The wind was gone, I had a facemask and all that was exposed was the tip of my nose.

The top of the mountain was stunning: ice-blue sky and that unique whoosh of skis on snow. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.
Me with Frank Martinez, Adaptive Ski Instructor

We skied down a slope called Karyotis Way for two days. I started looking for my turns, reaching with an outrigger pole, lowering a hip while keeping my shoulder up.  When Frank told me I was on-tether I remembered of all the kids I taught to canter on a pony named Cupcake as I rode beside. Frank called directions and cheered whenever I found an edge. When I put several turns together I shouted "YEAH! YEAH!" as everyone whooped.

Thursday--the last day--I was back on a monoski, back on Alpha, nervous, sore and tired. It wasn't perfect--it wasn't easy--but I made several decent runs with a minimum of falls. 

At lunch I was exhausted, too tired to eat. I told Frank I thought I was done for the day. He said, "I'd rather see you ski for the rest of your life than this afternoon."

Damn you, Winter Challenge. You got to my hard old survivor's heart in a way I never expected.


Stay tuned. Tomorrow: One-leg Liz's 7th Ampuversary

And very soon: Amputee on a ski Part 2: of 3 The Amazing Stuff