If you've never heard of Oscar Pistorius, you're forgiven. Until several months ago I hadn't either. Pistorius, a 25-year-old South African dubbed "the fastest man on no legs," was born without fibulas and in his early childhood underwent amputation of both legs below the knee. Six months after surgery he was fitted with his first pair of prosthetic legs and within days he had them mastered. Years later, while playing rugby with his two-legged teammates for Pretoria Boys High School in 2003, he shattered a knee and was advised by his doctors to take up track and field to aid in his rehabilitation. Rugby's loss has been the track world's unique and priceless gain.
What can one say about a double-amputee with a personal best time in the 400 meters of 45.07? Pistorius' personal record is less than two seconds off Michael Johnson's nearly 13-year-old world-record mark of 43.18, and with eight years of track experience, Pistorius is showing no signs of slowing down. In July 2011 he posted his 45.07, a qualifying Olympic Games 'A' standard mark for able-bodied athletes. He subsequently ran a 45.20 this year to win a race at the South African Provincial Championships. By Olympic standards, he's fully qualified to participate in this summer's London Games. Here's a video of the world's fastest amputee in action at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
There is no word yet whether South African organizers will select Pistorius to represent the country either as an individual entrant in the men's 400 meters or as part of its 4x400 relay team, but should he represent his country, he will be the first amputee to compete alongside able-bodied athletes in an Olympic Games and boy howdy do I hope that happens!
I mentioned that I've only known of Oscar Pistorius for a matter of months. There's a reason for that. I haven't until now thought my blog at the Huffington Post was the proper place for me to mention this, but last October I was diagnosed with a particularly nasty sarcoma of the bone, a condition for which my right leg was amputated just above the knee. I can tell you there's nothing fun about cancer. Neither is there anything fun about losing a limb or about a six-month course of chemotherapy. It has been a struggle that I'd have given up on many times by now if not for the constant and profound support of my wife, an amazing family and the world's best network of friends. Right leg or no right leg, I'm the luckiest man alive.
I can tell you that my treatment is proceeding with the admiring approval of my oncologist and my surgeon. No tests so far have shown any sign of metastasis and the prognosis for me is that I will live a very long and happy life, albeit with a significant body modification. I'm not worried and I don't think I should be. I had cancer. I don't anymore.
But, grumble, I do not yet have a prosthetic leg. There's a story to that but I'm not free to discuss it, not here, not anywhere. I'll write of it someday probably, but not now. All I will say now is that I am an individually insured self employee and the laws that govern individual and family healthcare policies in the State of California do not require those policies to cover prosthetic limbs as a standard benefit for customers. It's entirely possible, indeed probable, that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Californians have insurance plans that will cover the removal of their limbs but not their replacement with artificial facsimiles and that, sez me, is ri-god-damn-diculous.
No matter. Although it took some creative problem solving, I'm a very lucky man and within a few weeks time I'll be wearing the latest and coolest fake leg there is. My new knee will include a microprocessor that calculates pitch, yaw, roll, orientation, direction and momentum at something like 70 computations a second. I'm 46. I'm pretty sure the beaten-down old natural knee they cut off me was performing calculations with an abacus. Felt that way anyhow.
Of course even with a new leg, which is going to be some wicked cool cyborg awesomeness, I'm halfway to decrepit and I shan't ever run the 400 meters maybe period, much less in world-class time. I also won't ever do what Marine Corporal Garrett Jones did, which is to lose most of his right leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq and a year later, with a prosthetic limb, return to active combat duty in Afghanistan. There's heroism and then there's something for which words are too feeble and if you're not inspired by Garrett Jones, you're dead.
I won't ever do many things that some of today's amputees can do because after all I'm still the ordinary guy I was before I lost my leg. Still, I'm proud to count myself a member of a community that includes such people as Pistorius, Jones, Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer who lost an arm to a shark at the age of 13, or any one of thousands of extraordinary amputees who prove daily the power of the human spirit to overcome physical challenges.
Nevertheless, while I'll never reach the level of physical achievement set by such as those folks, there's one thing I can do -- I can darn sure get myself a bang-up casing for my new leg, thanks to the artistry and ingenuity of the people at Bespoke Innovations, developers of ultra-chic prosthetic 'fairings,' i.e. coverings for artificial legs. Either my wife's intuition about us winning the lottery needs to pan out or I need to finally finish a book project I've had on my plate for so long I'm ashamed, but one way or another I'm coming up with a few grand to get myself a fairing from Bespoke and if you check out this video from CNN you'll see why. That there's some straight-up Bladerunner coolness. [Word to the Bespoke gurus -- I may be broke, but I have no compunctions about shameless endorsement deals.]
There's a reason I've chosen to write about all this now and that is that the U.S. Senate currently has before it a bill, S.773, introduced through the advocacy of the Amputee Coalition, that would require insurers to provide parity under group health plans for the provision of prosthetics and custom orthotics. Such benefits to group members would not address cases like mine or any other individually insured Americans, but the bill is a step in the right direction. Nearly two million Americans living with the loss of one or more limbs would love it if you could encourage your senator to support that bill. We'd appreciate it even more if you could get the House to consider its own legislation on the subject.
In fact, there has never been a better time to get behind a measure that affects ordinary Americans like me as well as extraordinary ones like Corporal Jones because April, sure enough, is Limb Loss Awareness Month. I don't usually pay attention to national so-and-so months but this one hits kind of close to home. Sadly, Limb Loss Awareness Month, every bit as valid as some of the goofball months we all hear about, lacks a presidential proclamation to make it official. I know the president's a busy man, but surely he can take a few minutes to sign a proclamation request. It's not like he's being asked to designate April "Better Breakfast Month" -- that's September.
Maybe what Limb Loss Awareness month needs is a ribbon. All the good causes have ribbons. A friend of the Amputee Coalition's Facebook page submitted the below sample. I like it, but I don't know if it's as powerful as a presidential proclamation. By all means, wear the ribbon next month if you're so inclined. But if you think the president ought to get behind limb loss awareness, you can also let him know your thoughts and here's a link to help you get started.
On behalf of the two million, thank you.