Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ice, Ice, Maybe

The last few weeks here on the East Coast have revealed to me just how much I loathe winter. I used to love it, with its downhill and cross-country skiing, sledding, tubing, snowman-building, and frosty morning hikes with the dogs. Hey, I’ve even gone ice-skating once or twice.
       In fact, I used to think of winter as downright magical. Some of my best memories are of the kids and me stomping our way inside the house after playing in the cold. We’d hoot and holler about how good it felt to be warm, and after I removed the kids’ snow pants, wiped their runny noses, and picked ice balls from the dogs’ paws, we’d make hot cocoa with marshmallows. As we gathered ‘round the fire, I’d sigh with contentment at my kids’ ruddy cheeks and twinkling eyes. Ah, the charms of winter!
       Yeah, well, fuck that. I have a fake leg now, which means winter completely sucks. Any day I dare venture out in snow or ice is a day of drama. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to walk on slippery surfaces with a prosthetic foot and a mechanical knee and ankle joint. In recent weeks, I’ve had to cancel two doctor’s appointments, a meeting with my attorney, a night out to listen to live music, and plans to see a movie. Outings I couldn’t cancel – getting documents notarized, going to the FedEx store, and taking my car to the garage to get the brakes repaired – were so frustrating and scary I was near tears.
I know sometimes I’m prone to exaggeration, but seriously, going out in the ice or snow with a prosthetic leg can be a life or death proposition. Let me explain.
Like all of us born with two healthy, strong legs, I never appreciated the exquisitely complex way the toes, ankles, knees, and hips work to keep us humans upright and allow us to do stuff like ski, sled, and hike. These joints, in concert with bones, muscles, and connective tissue, give us all kinds of options for movements big and small. We can walk. We can pivot. We can dance. Then there’s bending, balancing, squeezing, running, compensating, leaning, jumping, stretching, pushing, marching, pressing, lifting, kicking, standing, leaping  . . .  it’s mind-boggling, really. Did you know that the human foot is a biomechanical wonderland of 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than one hundred muscles, ligaments, and tendons? That’s why we can adjust for bumpy terrain, recover from a sudden loss of balance, or change direction in a hurry. All without even thinking about it.
Oh, I think about it now. All the nuances of biology below my left thigh have been replaced by carbon-fiber composites, plastic, and steel. I am not complaining. I am damn lucky to have good insurance, a top-of-the line prosthetic, and devoted medical professionals to help me learn to use it. But I will never again have the security of a real left leg.
In the snow with Finney and Guinness, 2001
I will talk much more about my prosthetic leg in future posts, but I think at this point I should give you an idea what I mean by “top-of-the-line.” My new knee houses a microchip, uses LCD battery power, and is equipped with Bluetooth technology. The socket that fits over my thigh is a complex three-layer system that slides onto my leg and creates an airtight seal. My ankle joint allows me to lean forward to stretch. My foot is adjustable should I ever want to wear sensible heels. All this technology was expensive. My leg cost more than a car, and I’m talking about a brand-new turbocharged BMW 5-series kind of car.
But you know what? As great as it is, my prosthetic device will never be able to duplicate the precise function of the biological leg, knee, ankle, and foot that I was blessed with for fifty years. If it’s icy outside and I forget that fact – even for a second – I’ve got problems.
Best-case scenario: I end up flat on my ass in the Home Depot parking lot with cuts on my elbows and slush jammed down the back of my jeans. Worst-case scenario: I break that $45,000 leg and/or seriously injure my human parts.
I learned this the hard way. I had been warned that it might be impossible to venture out in bad weather. I was told that if I absolutely had to go out I needed to wear sturdy, treaded shoes and use extra caution. No problem. My balance had always been excellent. I could hold the tree pose longer than most everyone in my yoga class! And I had great shoes. Pssshaw. I was all over it.
Turns out the only thing I was “all over” was the pavement.
About a year ago, in January 2013, I finished up at an appointment and decided to swing by the grocery on the way home to pick up a few things. The weather was starting to look iffy. After parking my car, I noticed that there were still patches of old ice and snow all over the lot, so I took care to place my feet and cane on the dry spots. By the time I got out of the supermarket, the pavement was covered in a thin sheen of ice, but I figured I would be fine since I was puttering out in one of the store’s little motorized shopping carts (see “Hell On Wheels” blog entry from 1/5/15.) I parked near my car, stood up, opened the car door, placed the groceries inside and – what the hell?
My fake foot shot across the ice like Apollo Ono on ‘roids. I went flying. In a move worthy of a Looney Tunes classic cartoon, I became nothing but a blur of wind milling arms. I heard my cane crash and heard myself scream. This commotion was followed by a loud thud. Then there was silence. I stared at the salt-caked tire of my SUV, now two inches from my face. I saw that my head barely missed slamming into the motorized cart. I did a mental check of what body parts hurt the most. Then I scanned my surroundings.
Here were my options. I could rescue myself and avoid a great deal of humiliation, or I could flag down the first unsuspecting, physically robust male shopper who passed by. I decided to do it myself.
I won’t burden you with the particulars. The whole thing was ugly. And mortifying. It involved me scooting along the parking lot on my ass, dragging my fake leg along, and using the SUV’s running board to hoist myself up into the seat.
Somehow, I got in. I noticed my palms were bleeding. My biologically intact ankle was bleeding. I was trembling with adrenaline. And my butt felt like a frozen Butterball turkey.
But I was alive, with a new respect for the limits of my prosthetic leg – and a vehement dislike for winter.
The next day was sunny, so I decided to go to my dentist’s appointment as planned. As I walked in the reception room, my prosthetic leg bent at an odd angle. A screw fell out of the bottom of my pant leg and rolled across the floor. Yep – I had messed up my fabulously expensive technological wonder by falling in the ice. Luckily, I live in a small town and my friend Frank was in the dentist’s waiting room when all this happened. He made sure I got in my car safely and made it home. My leg spent two weeks in the shop.
        My prosthetic is as good as new, but I fear my mind is permanently scarred. Now I’m obsessed with weather. If the chance of snow is more than 40%, I stay home. If I’m out to dinner with friends and glance out the window to see an unexpected snow shower, I’m immediately filled with dread. I begin a mental calculation for how I’m going to get from the restaurant to my car without killing myself. I’m so terrified of even the hint of ice that it can take me fifteen minutes to walk a hundred feet. Anyone remember Tim Conway’s shuffling old-man character from The Carol Burnett Show? That’s who I’ve become on slippery surfaces.
        I was leaving a concert the other night. As my friend got the car and pulled it as close to the building as possible, two strangers grabbed my elbows and helped me along. The bitterly cold wind pounded us while I took excruciatingly tiny Tim Conway steps across the ice.
         Sometimes, I feel strangled by the embarrassment winter weather causes me. I feel ridiculous. I’m only 52, but when it’s slippery I move like a woman in her nineties.  To be honest, if the weather isn’t perfect, it’s just better for everyone if I grab a hot cup of tea, get in my PJs, and crawl into bed at 8 o’clock.
That’s really saying something for an extrovert like me. In my two-legged past, I was at home in the world. I would chat it up with anyone, anywhere, anytime. I was almost always up for exploring a new place or trying something I’d never done before. The weather didn’t even cross my mind.
Now that I have only one leg, winter has become the season of my discontent. This social butterfly’s wings have been clipped.

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