FIGHTING BACK: One Mother’s Story–Chapter Ten
Two days after the surgery that removed her right leg above the knee a physical therapist came into the hospital room to show Val how to use crutches. She could have saved the trip. Squirming around a bit, my six-year-old waited for her to finish, then put the crutches under her arms and took off out of the room without a backward glance. Both therapist and Mommy started hollering. “Val, come back, slow down, you’ll fall.” My heart was in my mouth. NO, my heart had stopped all together.
Obviously, the lessons were not needed. She was terrific, my little girl.
A week after the surgery, though—to be exact, the morning of her discharge—my upbeat little girl moped around the hospital room. I was packing up her few clothes and many toys when Valerie climbed onto the bed, her face in a pout that was an instant short of tears.
“Can’t we stay here longer, Mommy, just a little longer? I don’t want to go home.” I wasn’t surprised at her reaction. I didn’t want to leave either and had agonized, silently, about how to clean the many stitches, how to apply the medicated salve, how to re-bandage the wound and how to ensure the healing. Her little leg—called a stump or residual leg by the professionals—required tender and expert care. The nurse showed me how but, for me, it was unnerving.
Babies Hospital had become a safe haven for both of us. I was the adult and couldn’t voice my fears. But Valerie did. She was afraid to leave what had become for both of us our refuge from the outside world. But why was Val frightened? Doctors and therapists had explained the prosthetic leg to her. I thought they did a good job.
I had said to her,“Oh, Valerie, sweetheart. It’ll be easier than the crutches the physical therapy lady taught you to use and that was very easy, wasn’t it? Just you wait. Once you get your new leg, you’ll be running as fast as the other kids.” We all talked that way. Did we overdue it about a new leg?
What did Val believe? That it would look like a real leg? Feel and act like a real leg? I remember only that I struggled over the week to understand what she was thinking, especially about issues as complex as amputations and prosthetics. I never gave a thought to the language, the words, we actually used.
In the end, though, I believed that something happened in the hospital playroom. She liked going by herself and one of the nurses from our floor would drop her off. At those times, I stayed behind in the room and waited for her return. Had someone in the playroom been hurtful? Was that what worried her? Other children’s reactions to her amputated leg?
I started watching facial expressions. Walking the eleventh floor of Babies with Val beside me on her crutches, I began to see the reaction on the faces of the other small patients. They stared. Their parents stared, too. What about the children and the adults in the outside world? Would they stare as well? Did Val believe they would?
I sat next to her on the bed, put my arm around her and said, “After the stitches heal, hon, you’ll get your new leg.” There I go again. Next time, I’ll say prosthetic or artificial leg. Will she understand that better? I went on, “You’ll play as much as you like. Your own comfy room, your toys, and especially Stacy, are all waiting for you at home. Your friends are there, too, but I know, you’d rather go back to school and work hard. There won’t be any time for TV. You’ll just do HomeworkHomeworkHomework, eat fish and veggies and then you”ll go right to bed.” My delicious little girl giggled.
And whatever it was disappeared from sight.
Stacy and I talked again after that awful night after Val’s surgery when she alternately cried and screamed at me. “Stacy, I love you, and I understood that Val’s amputation has been a shock to you. That was our fault; we should have told you before. I’m so sorry, sweetheart. Please forgive us.” She accepted that Ed and I never mentioned cancer. We simply talked about bad cells. And Stacy understood, I thought, that amputation was the only way to get rid of them.
I spoke to my older daughter at least twice a day while Val and I were in the hospital. Val, too, spoke to her but Stacy didn’t visit. She didn’t want to and we didn’t force her.
When the three of us were finally ready to leave the hospital and drive back to New Jersey our daughter charged ahead on her crutches, recklessly swinging her little body through the stuffy institutional air. Hand in hand, Ed and I hurried behind her as she raced toward the elevators and the rest of her life.
Once we pulled the car into our garage in North Plainfield, Val grabbed her crutches and awkwardly rushed out. Stacy was there waiting for her little sister. In her hands was a new toy, a mechanical pen and pencil set, which she held out to Val. Then Stacy walked her sister slowly—more slowly than warranted, I admit—into the house. Valerie was thrilled to have Stacy’s undivided attention.
Ed and I were over another hurdle.
My attempt at doctoring was successful, the surgical wound was healed and, shortly afterwards, Valerie was introduced to the prosthetist in East Orange. She seemed calm about the process, no overt behavior on her part one way or the other. She wasn’t excited; she wasn’t depressed; she was matter-of-fact. Both girls were. Suzann says we’re resilient. But I knew that!
Over a series of visits, Val was fitted with her first artificial leg, a flesh-colored prosthesis. The devise was in two pieces and shaped like a leg except for the foot; although formed like a foot the toes, only, were suggested by thinly etched lines.
The two pieces were connected by a leather hinge that substituted for the knee joint. The top section of the prosthesis was cone-shaped and hollowed out to fit over what remained of Val’s thigh–her little leg. A wide leather belt wrapped around her waist and kept the whole contraption secure. It looked uncomfortable but Valerie didn’t complain and showed no hesitation in using it.
Stacy examined the prosthesis thoroughly and pronounced it fit for her little sister to use.
We all catered to her. Stacy, usually possessive of her belongings, generously handed over some of her most cherished toys. “Here Val, play with this. No, no. You can have it.” Valerie graciously accepted.
Ed and I followed Val around, waiting to catch her in case she slipped and fell. That didn’t happen. She was as steady on the prosthesis as if it were her own flesh and blood.
But something had happened; Valerie had been transformed into royalty. “Mommy, turn the channel, please.” She was perfectly capable of getting up and walking or hopping three feet to the TV yet I ran to turn the channel. Or “Mommy, I can’t make my bed. I’m too tired.” Mommy said, “That’s okay, honey. I’ll make it.”
Valerie didn’t object to this above-standard behavior but soon Stacy did. “Ma! Let Val do it,” eventually brought forth a hissing sound from my throat. But, of course, Stacy was right. She would shake her head in disgust at her sister’s opportunistic nature and her parent’s fawning.
Val’s ability to move around with ease increased exponentially. For instance, early in rehab, when asked by a doctor to walk slowly down a hallway at Kessler Institute, the rehab facility in West Orange, my lively daughter ran but now in a new way that followed her for the remainder of her life.
The prosthesis, fitting snugly over Valerie’s little leg, was propelled by her thigh in a thrusting motion. With a kick, Val drove the prosthesis forward, hit the ground with it, and then, with a roll to the left, pushed off on her good leg. It got her where she wanted to go and it got her there fast. That new leg turned Valerie into a meteoric marvel.
The rehab sessions were brief but she was bored anyway. Newly skilled in manipulating both the crutches and the prosthesis, Val’s world-weary attitude ended with the promise of lunch at McDonald’s.
Our learning curve was slower than Val’s but we did learn. Val was our patient coach and taught us, among other things, that being brave and having fun were not mutually exclusive. Apparently, the worries that surfaced at Babies had disappeared or gone into hiding.
Over time, we breathed easier as Val swung on her crutches like a pint-sized gymnast: we smiled at the clumping sound it made when she ran; we shrugged at her methods to negotiate the stairs, either a rear-end slide-bump process or a precarious hop up or down. This last was hair-raising. She never looked where she was going.
It was all a challenge to the hidden barriers facing an amputee. It was also because her name was Valerie.