April is Limb Loss Awareness Month. Our nation has become all too aware of limb loss this April as a result of the Boston bombings. On the day of the blasts, I, like many others, was compelled to read and view everything about the attack. Horrific pictures and stories flooded the media. Photo galleries warned of graphic imagery. I looked anyway. Although I was alerted, I found the pictures disturbing. In particular, photos of Jeff Bauman, a young man whose lower limbs had been blown off, were striking and upsetting.
I was moved by these pictures because I know that there is a long road of recovery in the future for Mr. Bauman and others who lost their limbs that day. It will not be easy for them, but I pray that they will persevere and will return home to their lives soon. I am knowledgeable about what the rehabilitation process will be like for them. I volunteer at a hospital that has an amputee clinic, and I witness, on a weekly basis, the struggles and challenges of those trying to recover from the limb loss.
I am not an amputee myself, but I share a connection with the amputee community because of my dogs, both of whom are missing limbs. One of them, Festus, lost his front right leg when he was a stray puppy. He got trapped under some debris when he was out on the streets alone, injuring his leg. Once found and brought to a shelter, his damaged leg was evaluated and eventually amputated. My other dog, Cyrus, was born without front legs, and he walks with the aid of a wheeled cart. Both of my dogs are trained and certified therapy dogs, and we visit several hospitals each week. When amputees meet Festus and Cyrus, they often say, "They are just like me," and, "I will work harder on my exercises now that I have met them!" I am proud that my dogs serve as inspiration to people who are learning to walk again.
When I am out in public with the dogs, people stare. "Poor things!" they whisper to each other. Those who are bolder may bluntly state, "What's wrong with those dogs?" I tell them that there is nothing wrong with them. They are differently abled. I prefer to use this phrase rather than "disabled." My dogs are able; they just move differently from typical four-legged dogs. There is no need to feel sorry for them. They lead happy and productive lives.
I empathize with the victims of the bombings because I know that, in addition to having to overcome physical obstacles in the near future, they will have to endure a lifetime of attention and questions. People will want to know what happened to them, and they will be asked to relive those horrible moments again and again. I hope that they find the strength to not only become physically strong but find a well of emotional strength as well.
My experience with the amputee community goes back to my childhood. My best friend's older brother had cancer, and his leg was amputated when he was a teenager. When he came home from the hospital after his surgery, I was frightened to see him. I was young and worried that he would not be the same person. Would I stare or say the wrong thing? However, once I saw him and started hanging out at their house like I always did, I very quickly discovered that he was, in fact, the same. While he was recovering, I was thrilled that he would sit and play games with us. We would all laugh and have a great time together. He was the cool older brother, and I looked up to him. Although he ultimately lost his battle with cancer, I will always remember him and be grateful for how he positively affected my life.
In the past few years, I've had a new personal hero: a young man named Spencer West. Mr. West is a double amputee whose humanitarian work is truly impressive. In his memoir, Standing Tall: My Journey, he recounts how, as a child, he fought to be normal. He was physically different from his peers, but he did not want to be treated differently. As he grew older, he became aware that his difference is what made him special. People noticed him for his difference, and people were inspired by his story, and he decided to take advantage of that difference. As someone who draws attention, he used his status to bring awareness to other issues. In 2008 he went to Kenya to build a school. More charitable work followed, and in 2011 he summited Mount Kilimanjaro on his hands and raised over $500,000 to bring sustainable clean water projects to communities in Africa. Next month he will walk in We Walk 4 Water, another charity event. He is an active member of Free the Children and is often pictured wearing a T-shirt that states, "Redefine Possible." He is a shining example of being true to oneself while making an impact in the world.
Mr. West is not "normal" (whatever that means). He is extraordinary. As he matured, he learned to embrace his difference, and, in turn, he brought attention to others in need. I am hopeful that the victims of the Boston bombings will learn of the contributions of individuals like Mr. West, people who allow being differently abled to inform their choices and their potential in life in positive ways.
I hope that you will join me in celebrating Limb Loss Awareness this month.
To find out more about how you can lend your support, check out the website of the Amputee Coalition, an organization that promotes awareness and advocacy, at amputee-coalition.org.