The Cat Killer

Years with a prosthetic leg have provided me with some interesting encounters with curiosity.

During the end of high school I was a lifeguard and instructor at the local swimming pool. The first day of class was always an experience. From that vantage point, curiosity seemed to win out over the indoctrinated social politeness until about the age of 5 or 6. Frequently, the first class with five-year-olds would involve a brief circle of question and answer that went something like this:

Kid: “What happened to your leg?”

Me: “I was very sick when I was a little girl and the doctors had to take it off. They gave me a robot leg instead.”

Kid: “Oh, okay.”

And that was it. No further explanation required, and afterward the kids never seemed to take much notice. Sometimes there would be no words, and then one or two kids would slide across the circle to touch it, looking to me for permission that I always gave. I vividly remember this one class when the kids sat down in a circle and the little boy to my left slid right up next to me so that his right leg was touching my left leg, looked me in the eyes, and rested his hand on my leg without saying a word. He stayed there until I got the class into the pool.

I wrote about the curiosity of children in the post ‘One Leg, Two Eyes’, and how the response of others can shape that curiosity. One of the consequences of having a visible history of trauma is you see, on a social level, what we do to shape, and restrict, curiosity.

Curiosity has a cultural element. In places I’ve worked in Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, curiosity seems to be something that is embraced, or at least not discouraged. I go for massages from local women because it gives me an opportunity to talk to them, and put money back into the local economy in exchange for a service (as opposed to stuff, see the post First World Problems). Without exception, all of these women have asked me what happened to my leg. The last time I was in Indonesia the masseuse put her hands on my leg while saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She ran her hands the length of my leg, and it was clear she had never seen anything like it before. Her curiosity was palpable, and I sensed there were many questions she wanted to ask. It seemed that only her English held her back.

Compare this to a recent encounter I had with a woman from work, here in Australia. We’ve known each other for months, and I’ve been to her house a number of times. She came to drop something off at my house, and I answered the door in shorts and a T-shirt. We had a conversation standing on the front porch, while she clearly made an effort not to even glance at my prosthetic leg. There’s no way she didn’t notice. She drove away without saying a word, and we’ve never discussed it since.

Humans are naturally curious beasts. Friendship and intimacy develop from mutual exploration into the human experience of others. I believe some of our ability to connect with one another has been lost in Western culture, and that this is, in part, because of the way in which curiosity gets smothered in favour of politeness, or social correctness, or our fear of asking too much.

A Primer On Prosthetics

A long-time friend who has been following this blog asked me: ‘Do you have the same walking prosthetic that you did back in Guelph? Or did you upgrade?’

His question made me think that perhaps I should write something about the nuts and bolts, if you will, of wearing a prosthetic.

I started patronizing Alberta Artificial Limb when I moved to Calgary in 2007. The process whereby I chose a supplier consisted of poking around on the Internet and making a few phone calls. When I spoke to Jon on the phone, he told me his company had a number of young people as clients, as well as a few people who were really active. Importantly, they had fitted a couple of rotationplasties. (It’s not unheard of to talk to a prosthetist that has never heard of a rotationplasty.)

I have no handy analogy to describe the process of changing prosthetists. Imagine that every shoe in the world, including yours, had to be custom made. Then imagine that there are maybe five dudes in every city of a million who can make them or repair them. That’s right – they can take as long as they want and they can charge what they want for their time and materials, and if it’s not working right…

No, wait. Think of it this way – imagine that you had to have your car measured and custom fitted by some local guy. The price is about the same. But then you find that the steering wheel always pulls you toward the gutter. And your passengers tell you that the seats are too stiff. Or, maybe it’s like getting married (I wouldn’t know, and no, please don’t email about that).

Anyway, it’s impossible to know until someone makes you a limb if it’s going to work out. You can talk to the prosthetist’ other clients (after you’ve practiced pronouncing it first) and look at some other limbs they’ve built, but each client is unique and I am very VERY hard on my prosthetics.

If I’m really honest with myself, this need to dedicate time and money to getting my prosthetics ‘right’ is what I find most difficult about having an artificial leg. The process of having new prosthetics built and current ones repaired is hugely time consuming. I keep two legs going at one time (you know what I mean) to ensure they’ll each last as long as possible. Which comes to around three years. The last time I had a new set built I was spending much of my time in Victoria, BC. I was still Jon’s client. I was making trips back and forth between Victoria and Calgary at my own expense. Each trip lasted at least a week, and we always ran out of time. It took a year to get our last set right. Jon had to do at least three teardowns and rebuilds.

Then there’s the expense. Bills for those last two came to somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000. Prosthetics are an ongoing expense for me, and prosthetics coverage strongly influences where a starving post-doc is willing to live and work. Right now, though I’m currently in Australia, I’m still a Canadian resident and taxpayer and therefore most of my costs are still covered by Canadian assistance. However, these services and benefits must be delivered in Canada, which means I’ve become better at doing my own repairs and Jon has gotten real good at checking my alignment over Skype.

As in most war zones and locales suffering from civil unrest, prosthetic devices are not considered medically necessary in Canada. Which means that coverage is incomplete and not inclusive and varies by province. I’m fortunate to have ongoing help from CHAMPS, because otherwise I could be on the hook for thousands of dollars, or forced to accept prosthetics that won’t allow me to function to full capability.

Look at it this way – if I’m going to be your veterinarian, and an international animal health researcher to boot – give me a leg up – or I’ll let the old lady up your street poison your dog, and McDs feed your kids’ tainted McNuggets.