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Clothes make the woman

Apart from the obvious challenges of wearing a prosthesis, I’ve discovered a few around my clothes. I gave away anything that was too tight to fit over the bionic leg, which included short skirts, skin-fitting pants and dresses. There are a couple of beautiful long dresses I would love to keep – hip-hugging Chinese ‘cheongsams’ – but they won’t even pull up or down over the leg, so they’ll have to go too.

Gradually I’m assembling a wardrobe of mainly long skirts in different colours, with a variety of tops to match. I’ve kept my favourite track suits as they are my preferred garb for relaxing around the house, but I have to allow extra time for getting dressed, since the pants require the elaborate process of putting them first on the good leg, putting on the shoe, threading the prosthesis through the other leg, then attaching its harness to me before pulling the pants up around my waist. Undressing involves reversing the process.

It’s surprisingly difficult to find long skirts that are the right colour, size, length and shape. I’m 5 ft 3 ins, so I usually get petite sizes 4 or 6. Most are the pencil-thin style or else flared below the hip, which doesn’t work for me, and few are short enough for me not to  trip over the hem, or worse, get the fabric caught in the brakes of the rollator. As for the colour, it’s usually Henry Ford’s choice – black!

After checking stores throughout the Internet, as well as in the neighbourhood, I have ended up designing and making my own crochet skirts. This serves the dual purpose of keeping my hands busy while I listen to music or watch TV, and supplementing the wardrobe. One of the first things I did after the amputation was to crochet a couple of ‘caps’ for Beluga, my stump, to keep her head warm when I take off the leg: an open-weave cotton one for spring / summer and  a woollen one for fall / winter. She’s the best-dressed stump in the West!

For footwear, in winter I wear a pair of flat black ankle boots with rubber soles and velcro fastening. They are really warm, comfortable and easy to put on and take off. I had to forgo my other boots because the left one wouldn’t go over the fixed ankle on the prosthesis. In spring and summer I alternate between sandals with velcro straps and lace-up walking shoes, both flat. We discovered the hard way that any shoe with even a small heel requires an adjustment to the titanium knee, or else I tip over when I stand up, never mind walk! Since that adjustment involves going back to the supplier of the prosthesis, best to keep to flats.

Any handbags of the clutch type have gone the way of the tight clothes. Now I only use the shoulder bag type that I can sling round my neck and shoulder, across the chest, leaving both hands free to grip the rollator. It’s not the height of fashion, but then I never did care much for the ‘in’ styles, and even less now. Besides, my mother always recommended having a few good clothes in classic lines, so that they never go out of fashion. Wise woman!

Pride comes before a fall…

Beware of complacency! A few days ago I finished making the bed, straightened up and put my weight on my bionic leg. But instead of bracing on the heel, I put my weight on the toe, with the inevitable result – the leg “broke” at the knee and I crumpled. I grabbed at the bed, missed and my foot skidded on the wooden floor. So I ended up sprawled on the floor.

Unfortunately, in the process I aggravated a long-standing injury in my lower back. Lying there waiting for that pain to subside so I could get up, I thought about how it happened and how it could have been avoided. Was I over-confident? Distracted? Trying too hard to be “normal”? Probably all three combined. Sometimes I feel so good about all I have achieved so far – like dancing in the New Year with my husband – that I forget to be careful, and pay the price.

Eventually I managed to crawl over to the wheelchair and hoist myself upright again, just like I learned in rehab last year. This was the first time I fell with the leg on, so it was more of a memory challenge on how to do it than a physical one! Surprisingly, there was no damage to the leg or to Beluga, my poor stump. Since the leg twisted under me as I fell, I was afraid that the titanium knee joint had been distorted, but it wasn’t. The only real damage was to my pride.

Since then, walking has become a little more challenging, especially when I use the forearm crutch instead of the rollator. I have to resign myself to the fact my lower left back may never be able to support my full weight. Just after doing a couple of circuits of the house on the crutch, my back hurts.

But looking on the bright side, I can still walk, and drive, and do things around the kitchen like cooking and baking. Given my situation, I have two choices: laugh or cry. I choose to laugh!

A Stairlift is a wonderful invention!

I just finished catching up on almost two years’ worth of ironing! Thanks to our newly installed stairlift from the main floor to the basement, I can now get up and down the stairs easily and safely, whenever I want, without having to wait for my husband to be there to catch me if I fall going down. We have a second rollator which we store down there, ready to receive me when I arrive. Then I can get around all the rooms, but especially the laundry room.

What surprised us was the cost: C$3,500 fully installed, with training on how to use it and a 1-yr guarantee. (We balked at paying C$1,000 for an additional 4-yr guarantee – that’s exorbitant.) We researched several possibilities, hoping vainly that we could get it for less since it’s a straight staircase, requiring no custom curves or turns. All things considered, it’s worth every penny.

We had hoped that OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) would cover part of it, but no such luck. The best we can hope for is that I can claim it as a medical expense on next year’s tax return, though it won’t make much difference to the tax bill since being a pensioner I’m already in the lowest tax bracket.

Last weekend, I did all the regular laundry, including folding the clothes as they came out of the dryer. The only thing I couldn’t do was carry the clothes basket back upstairs, because one of the first warnings in the stairlift instruction manual is “Do not use to transport food, animals or laundry.” Food and animals, no problem – but I got around the ‘no laundry’ instruction by making several trips with small piles of clothes on my lap. It takes time, of course, but at least it’s do-able.

As for the ironing, I actually enjoy it. Fortunately most of our clothes don’t need ironing, just the linens, napkins, tablecloths, etc.  My husband set up the board in the middle of the downstairs bedroom at just the right height so that I can sit on the rollator and iron away. With the bed and a table nearby to spread things out, I’m all set. Such a feeling of accomplishment when I can do things myself, no matter how long it takes, without having to ask for help!

“All I want for Christmas is…”

to walk without the rollator. I have been practising at home with one fore-arm crutch, and while I can get around the house within reach of walls or counters, I’m not confident enough yet to walk outdoors with just the crutch for support. It is still dismaying to feel incipient panic at the sight of all that open space with nothing to hang onto. I wish it were just a question of ‘mind over matter’, but in this case the ‘matter’ (my leg) is missing, and that won’t change.

to dance the New Year in with my husband. He has had to sacrifice so much for me over the past few years and it would be wonderful to be able to get on the dance floor again with him. He loves dancing – we both do – so this year we’re going to give it a try. We may have to maneuver with the crutch or the rollator, if necessary, and we’ll definitely stick to the slow dances. No more jiving for me – even soca would be beyond my limits!

to feel safe crossing the road. The timer on traffic lights is usually too short for me to get from one side of the road to the other. And the other day at the mall I had to pause in the middle of the crosswalk because no less than three cars drove through it without stopping. Obviously road manners are a thing of the past. Also, I’m getting rather annoyed by the number of drivers who park illegally in disabled parking spaces, with no disabled badges showing. Often it is sheer laziness – I have seen able-bodied people park and walk into KFC. Is nobody checking up on these things?

to be grateful for the kindness of strangers. At entrance doors without a disability access button, three out of every four strangers will hold the door open for me to go in or come out. I think these are pretty good odds, and make a point of thanking them. In a crowd, most people will make way for me as I move, whether in a wheelchair or on the rollator. Interestingly, when I am stationary in the wheelchair, I seem to become invisible to the people around. Generally, however, people are very considerate.

May you have a safe and happy holiday season too!

Hobbies

One of the most challenging aspects of adjusting to the new leg is adapting my hobbies accordingly. For now, at any rate, I have to forget about cycling, playing tennis and  badminton, tai chi – in short, anything I used to do that requires bending the knee. I have seen special legs advertised on the Internet with adjustable knees and plan to explore that further, once I can manage to walk unaided on the one I have now. I was looking forward to doing more of my favourite pastimes, such as crochet and playing the harp, but unfortunately arthritis in the fingers of both hands has rather cramped my style. Meanwhile, I concentrate on walking for exercise.

Walking

For the past few years, walking was extremely painful. Now it’s just slow, but no more pain! I’m gradually increasing the distances I can go without having to pause for a rest on the rollator seat. The idea is to build up the strength again in the good leg, plus increase the core strength so that ultimately I can get a suction cup on the prosthesis, instead of the harness around my hips to hold up the bionic leg. In winter the socket keeps me warm, but in a hot summer I’m a walking puddle by the end of the day!

Reading

Ever since I got my first library card at age 6, I have been hooked on reading. Now, with the aid of the iPad and the Kobo e-reader, I can indulge my habit much more easily. I regularly borrow books from our excellent public library, both hard copy and e-books, without which my habit would cost a fortune! It is also a pleasure to actively participate in our local book club, which has introduced me to a range of books, fiction and non-fiction, that I might not otherwise have explored.

Another great source of material is the CNIB recording studio, where I have been a volunteer reader for over 30 years. For example, I am presently recording “Justin Trudeau: The Natural Heir”, a fascinating biography of our current Prime Minister. It is so gratifying to be able to continue this valuable service, where the only real challenge is sitting still for the 3-hour recording session without Beluga, my stump, cramping up.

Puzzles and Games

Again, thanks to the iPad, there is a plethora of puzzles and games available for free. My favourites include Sudoku, cryptic crosswords, codewords and jigsaws. These hopefully keep my brain from atrophying even if the rest of me is not performing at full par, but in any case they are fun.

More travel, visiting family and friends

I’m back home in one piece – well, two, actually, since one is detachable – after another successful trip, this time to Ireland. I’m originally from Belfast, where two of my sisters and their families still live, so it was a great ‘homecoming’ reunion for my 70th birthday celebration.

We flew direct from Toronto to Dublin via Aer Lingus, then rented a car for the 2-hour drive to Belfast. Definitely preferable to a long flight to London Heathrow, then transfer to a flight into Belfast – we learned that lesson from the cruise in April! We even paid more for seats with extra leg room, though if that was extra, I shudder to think how little space there was in the rest of the economy seats… haven’t quite reached the point of being prepared to pay double for business class.

Driving to Belfast was easy, as we’ve done it several times before and know all the good places to stop for coffee. We stayed with my sister Ruth and her husband in Holywood; their house is wheelchair-accessible from the previous owner, so we had a ground floor bedroom right next to the bathroom with a walk-in shower complete with shower stool. They had even arranged to borrow a transport wheelchair  from the Red Cross (excellent service, all they ask is a donation to the cause), which was really handy when we were out and about for any distance.

The birthday party on the 18th was a big hit, everything I had hoped for and more. My other sister Mary and partner came from Scotland, one niece and her two daughters plus one nephew, one cousin and her husband from England for the weekend. Lots of chit-chat and catching up on the Saturday, which was our 44th wedding anniversary, then the luncheon party on Sunday with close friends from way back, as well as family. An added bonus was the food, which was delicious. The cake was really special, with a picture of two-year-old me on top!

Everyone was fascinated by my new leg and had lots of questions about it. My six-year-old great-niece had only one question for me: “Why do you always wear a skirt, Auntie?” I explained that putting on trousers is a bit of a production, as I have to thread the bionic leg through the trouser leg before attaching the harness to me, then pulling the trousers up over both legs and fastening them. It’s much easier to just pull a skirt over my head once I have the bionic leg attached.

One side benefit of the trip was a reunion lunch with several of my old schoolfriends. Another was a visit to sister Anne’s mother-in-law, who will be 102 in November and still lives at home. That sure kept me from feeling old… my husband even commented it’s the first time he has ever kissed someone who is over 100!

The return journey was uneventful, apart from a flurry of excitement in Dublin Airport as our flight was due to be called. The alarm sounded requiring everyone to evacuate the area immediately, rather difficult for me, as I was “parked” waiting for the wheelchair to come and take me down to board the plane. Fortunately my husband spotted a chair nearby and wheeled me out with the rest of the passengers. It was only a matter of minutes before the all-clear was called; we never did hear what the emergency was. Yet another incentive for me to be able to walk independent of rollator and crutch – very soon now, I hope.

To Scoot or Not to Scoot?

(with apologies to Shakespeare!)

“To scoot or not to scoot, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the restrictions of limited mobility, or to ride wheels against a sea of obstacles, and by opposing overcome them?”

Recently a friend took me to visit a lady who has just acquired a ‘Travel Scoot’ electric scooter, because of bad neuropathy in both feet. She kindly let me take it for a test drive in the school playground behind her house – fortunately school was out for the summer! She was most helpful in explaining all the bells and whistles that come with it. She even showed us how it comes apart for packing to go aboard a plane or train – hence the name – as well as how to load it into the back of their van.

The test drive was fun! It can go quite fast and can turn almost on a dime. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it and I was quite impressed with its speed and responsiveness. It has a useful detachable wire basket on the front to hold handbag and shopping.

However, it is not portable for me – I tried a couple of times loading the base frame with wheels into their van, but it was not safe. My bionic leg can support my weight when I’m just standing, but not if I’m trying to bend and lift something like that at the same time, no matter how light. On the one hand, it may be easier on my van, where I could brace myself against the back door like I do when loading and unloading the rollator. On the other hand, the back of my van is about 4 inches higher than theirs.

The whole contraption weighs 27 lbs – the battery alone weighs 6 lbs. It might be possible to instal a hoist in the back of my van, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about lifting it in and out, or rely on my husband  being with me if I want to use it. Right now that’s how it would have to be. But right now we also have a second-hand electric wheelchair for me to get around the neighbourhood. Mind you, that weighs a ton (well, I exaggerate just a little – try 150+ lbs) so it takes at least two people to lift it.

Here’s my dilemma: down the road I can definitely imagine myself on a scooter like that, but would I become lazy and lose the limited mobility I have worked so hard to regain? It’s certainly a great option for travelling, whereas for now we are taking the rollator wherever we go. Ultimately I hope to walk unaided, but I’m not there yet, and at age 70 for how long is that realistic anyway?

Fortunately for us, we are in a position where cost is not an issue. The scooter I tried is about C$3,500 (eek!) but I have seen others slightly less expensive through the agecomfort.com website. Of course, it wouldn’t be covered under our Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), so we’d have to pay the whole thing.

If anyone out there has any comments or suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them.

Managing around the house

After almost a year back home since the amputation, I’ve acquired quite a few “do’s and don’ts” for navigating the obstacle course that is our house. Here are just some:

Kitchen

I’ve reached the stage where I can park the wheelchair or rollator in the middle of the kitchen, then stand up and use the counter tops for support as I move around to cook or bake or wash dishes. Mind you, that took a few months of practice! Fortunately we have a slide-out oven door, so I can brace myself on it as I  put pans in and lift them out. Using the counter top is also handy for exercises like transferring my weight from one leg to the other, holding it there and letting go of the counter.

Before I got the bionic leg, we had to reorganize the contents of the cupboards to store dishes and food within my reach, otherwise I had to call my husband every time I needed something from a top shelf. I used to use kitchen steps for that, but that’s still too dangerous – getting up the steps is not too bad, but coming down again is a challenge and definitely not to be tried with something in my hand.

I’m still trying to figure out a way of safely transferring a serving dish like a casserole, which requires two hands, from the counter to the table. I can cook an entire meal, yet still need to call my husband to carry the serving dish to the table! Maybe it will be easier when I can walk unaided, though still a bit risky using both hands with a hot dish.

Carpets and rugs

If you’ve ever tried to run a wheelchair or rollator on a carpet, you’ll understand what I mean by saying it’s a lot harder than on a wooden or tile floor. We have both in our house, and I find myself avoiding the carpet whenever possible. As for rugs, they can be a menace to a bionic leg, or even the one good leg when I’m hopping, so we removed as many as we could, especially the one beside my bed. Nothing worse than getting out of bed groggily in the middle of the night and slipping on a rug…

Furniture

It may seem obvious, but trying to hang on to a rocking-chair while navigating around it is not a good idea. I found that out the hard way when the leg buckled and I fell as the chair moved when I leaned on it. At least it only happened once… Even the swivel chair at the computer is a problem, so it stays to one side while I use the wheelchair instead.

Stairs

Stairs are the nemesis of an amputee. Contrary to expectations, going up is easy – it’s coming down that poses the greatest risk. With the fore-arm crutch on one side and the railing on the other, it is straightforward to put the good foot up first, then bring up the other leg, one step at a time. Coming down involves putting the bionic leg down first, making sure to keep it straight so that I can put my weight on it before bringing down the good foot beside it. If the leg buckles, I’m in trouble, but at least I can hold onto the railing for dear life! So far, I have only tackled stairs – in the house and outside – with my husband going down ahead of me to catch me if I fall. Of course, he also has to carry the rollator to greet me at the other end of the staircase, otherwise I wouldn’t get much further than the last step.

Laundry

Our laundry room is in the basement, so that is a challenge. Once down the stairs, I can manage to get the clothes into and out of the washing machine and the drier. I can even fold the clothes once they are dry, but I cannot lift the full basket or carry it back upstairs. Actually, I can’t even take the clothes downstairs, but get them  there by the simple expedient of tossing them over the banister.

The ironing board is also in the basement, but I haven’t had to try doing that yet. Always another challenge just around the corner, eh?

Tools of the trade

Who knew there would be so many tools and gadgets needed for an above-knee amputee?!  It was certainly an eye-opener for me, who thought of the bionic leg and a wheelchair, but not much else. Turns out there are quite a few more, including walker, rollator, fore-arm crutch, transfer bench, grab bar and reacher.

Bionic leg

This is the contraption that enables me to walk again, comprising a plastic socket for the stump, a neoprene harness around my hips to hold it up and a titanium knee and lower leg plus foot. The whole thing weighs about 7 pounds. I call mine Pegasus I, as in the ‘winged chariot’, because it’s the closest I can come to full mobility (my car has been demoted to Pegasus II). The knee has two positions: straight and bent. When it’s straight I can put my full weight on the leg, but when it’s bent – for taking a step forward – it just buckles under me if I try to put weight on it. I’m hoping eventually to get a suction socket (and get rid of the harness, which is a b*** nuisance in hot weather).

Wheelchair

I have two wheelchairs, one a lightweight folding transport chair which has to be pushed by someone else, used for short trips to and from hospital, doctor’s office, etc., but more often nowadays I use the rollator where possible. The other is a heavier, custom-fit self-propelling model with a soft cushion, also folding, on which I tootle around the house from room to room – except the bathroom (see below). Of course it is my only way to get around when I remove the bionic leg at night.

Walker

The  door to our bathroom is not quite wide enough for the wheelchair to go through, so I park it in the corridor and transfer to the walker to get into the bathroom. This version has 4 legs, the front two with wheels for mobility and the back two straight for stability – simple but effective for hopping safely on my one good leg.

Rollator

The Ferrari of walkers, this ingenious device is my life-saver. It has 4 wheels, brakes (vital!) with a seat, and can be folded for storage in a car trunk (see my blog on driving). I use it as often as possible to practice walking, so whenever I need a rest I can literally take the weight off my feet by sitting down.

Fore-arm crutch

Better and safer than an under-arm crutch, the fore-arm crutch is my tool for the next stage towards independent walking. So far I can use it around the house where the walls are usually within reach in case the knee buckles, but it is absolutely essential for climbing up and down stairs, as long as there is a railing on one side.

Transfer bench

We discovered our walk-in shower is not walk-in at all, as it has a six-inch rim to step over! Fine if you’re on two legs, but too dangerous to hop over on one leg. So we now have a transfer bench: it’s in two parts, one that I sit on, swing my legs round and slide onto the main seat inside the shower. Then I detach the outer bench, close the doors and have my shower, reversing the process when I’m finished.

Grab bar

Also in the shower, we have a grab bar on the wall for balance safety when I’m soaping up and drying off my good foot. It is detachable so we take it with us when travelling, for the same purpose. It can be used on the wall beside a toilet too, although we have a special raised toilet seat with arms which is perfectly adequate for safety.

Reacher

A reacher is like an extension for the arm, indispensable for getting things up from the floor or down off a top shelf, hopefully without bringing everything else on the shelf down too (been there, done that). Mine has a magnet on the tip, great for picking up dropped coins.

Next time I’ll describe some of the challenges of managing around the house…

Driving

When I am a passenger, I have to sit in the front of the car, as it is really hard to load the bionic leg into the smallish space between the seats without the socket digging into my groin. I am dependent on the driver to take the rollator, or wheelchair if I’m using that, and load it into the trunk, then bring it back to me when we arrive.

Now I can drive myself again! It is impossible to describe the feeling of freedom that being able to drive myself again gives me. I have a small SUV, with the door at the back opening to the side, fortunately  not up. Actually, driving is the easy part – the real challenge lies in getting the rollator folded up and loaded into the back, then getting me around to the driver’s side and into the driving seat.  I do this by leaning on the back door as I lift the rollator into the vehicle and by using the cane I keep in the back to support me as I feel my way along the side of the car.

Once I swing myself into the driving seat, I stretch my left leg onto the wheelbase and park the cane beside the seat. My right leg is free to work the brake and accelerator, just as I used to. Of course, it helps that the car is an automatic, otherwise it would be much harder to manage! Whenever I reach my destination, I simply reverse the process: get out, use the cane and side of the car for support to reach the back, open the door, lift the rollator down and park the cane in the back, ready for next time.

So far, my driving trips have been fairly short: to the doctor’s office, pharmacy, hairdresser, friends’ houses and oh yes, the very occasional shopping trip. I never was much of a shopper at the best of times, so I’m quite happy to leave most of that to my husband (who loves shopping anyway!). Although there are very few of them left, I have found a couple of full-serve service stations, where I can sit in state while the attendant fills the car up, takes my credit card and brings me the bill to sign. All in all, it’s worth the extra cost per litre (usually a few cents more than the self-serve stations).

Parking can be a challenge, even with the disability badge. This is especially true at shopping centres and restaurants. It’s amazing how often all the disabled parking spots are already occupied, although unfortunately not all the cars in them display disability badges. I give the benefit of the doubt to their owners having mobility issues, and it’s just a matter of them leaving the badge at home. On the plus side, I am constantly impressed by the kindness of complete strangers who will stop and offer to help when they see me loading or unloading the rollator. I usually accept, on the grounds that it will give them a nice warm fuzzy feeling at doing their good deed for the day –  I am independent, but not a fanatic about it!

So if you are used to driving yourself and want to regain that independence, check with your doctor first, then go for it – I’m living proof it can be done.