Member Benefits

Inspiring people in this world – they get pushed at me, or else I tend to get introduced to them. Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of meeting more than a few. Which is why I write about inspiration. Same as you, I talk about inspiration because I’ve been inspired.

Recently though, I happened to meet a guy with a humble kind of fortitude that is worth actually introducing.

I met John through a prosthetist in Australia that I visited for an emergency joint repair. The long-term fix required the welding of little bits of metal into the joints. The prosthetist turned to me and said “I could do this for you, but the thing is there’s a guy who lives not far from you who could probably do it better”, as he passed along the guy’s phone number.

I rang up John totally out of the blue, and he invited me out to his home-based industrial workshop. From what I gather, John is a jack-of-all industrial trades and design kinda guy, but without the engineering degree. His workshop is massive and full of all kinds of cool-looking stuff I can’t identify. From my perspective all that matters is that he’s got a TIG welder and he knows how to use it. The shop also contains a number of high-end racing motorcycles and the trailer to haul them around in.

John was in a motorcycle accident involving a car 12 years ago. He broke his back, hips, pelvis, and legs. His right leg was fractured in six places. As he recounted, “they told me I would never walk again, when all they really needed to do was take me right leg off” [under-the-breath chuckle]. They did take his right leg off, quite high above where his right knee would have been.

For the record, he walks. He also works in industry. He asked me if my leg ever hurt, and then went on to explain “…me leg only really bothers me when I’ve had a 12 hour day on a ladder”. He took a pay out after his accident. As a result all of his prosthetic expenses today come out of his own pocket. The obvious solution to this little challenge was to make his own legs. For real. Apparently John shapes his sockets by heating them up, putting them on, and bearing down on them while riding a stationary bike. Or something like that.

Some time ago, he got on a motorcycle again. He now races against ‘normals’ without wearing a prosthetic, rather attaching a platform to the right side of his motorbike to put his stump on. The brakes he moves up to the left side of the handlebars. He swims and bikes as part of his training. He was a bit under the weather the day I first met him: “You know, I’ve been celebrating the past few days because I won me last race. I’ll tell you something, it makes guys sit up and pay attention when they get beaten by a guy with one leg.” [that under-the-breath chuckle again]. His season just recently finished. John ranked second…Nationally.

One of the best things about having 1.5 legs is that I have an excuse to call up people like John. I’ve found that most people with artificial limbs are pretty forthcoming about how they manage to do what they do, I suspect because of all the often solidary trial and error one must undertake to figure out the technical stuff. It’s a cool little unofficial club. I mean, let’s be real, the cost of membership can be pretty high. But if you happen to find yourself standing in line, waiting to enter, I would suggest seeking out the members like John.

In The Beginning

I started climbing about the middle of 2007. I was working in the interior of British Columbia for a brief stint, and started going to a local climbing gym. I then took a two-day ‘Introduction to Outdoor Climbing’ course in Penticton at the end of that summer. After that I moved to Calgary and started hanging around one of the several local climbing gyms there. Same sort of deal as learning any individual sport as an adult – It could as easily have been tennis or golf lessons.

During these beginning phases, I was cramming my walking foot (the plastic one) into a climbing shoe. I know now that a foot designed for climbing is a different thing than a foot designed for walking, but at the time it was the available option. I’d never met anyone without a leg who climbed – I hadn’t met that many climbers, even and I simply assumed I was one of very few… (we prostheletizers can do the ‘assumption thing’ as easily as anyone).

I spent about a year and a half thrashing away, not being able to do much with my leg foot apart from employing it as counter balance and taking small steps onto bookshelf-sized holds. After one particularly frustrating day, I came home and Googled ‘prosthetic climbing foot’, or something similar. One of the top hits I received was a link to a thing called The Eldorado Z-Axis Climbing Foot. Its description mentioned Malcolm Daly and Paradox Sports. I decided to drop Malcolm an enquiring email and his response was to invite me to Ouray, Colorado to go ice climbing. In six weeks. So much for calculated career planning.

Meeting up with the Paradox crew in Ouray in the spring of 2009 was one of those eye-opening encounters. I think one of the consequences of limb loss due to cancer is that you end up in the ‘cancer crowd’, as opposed to the trauma-leading-to-missing-body-parts-or-loss-of-function crowd. They’re really quite different scenes. The majority of childhood cancer survivors reach the other side with limbs intact, and once you’re over the chemotherapy, I think there’s a tendency to move away from the community, as part of your own recovery process. As a result, I knew very few children without limbs during my cancer treatment days, and none afterwards. I attended one Champs seminar (think weekend health retreat only replace the meditation sessions with artificial limb show and tell), but I think I was too young and wrapped up in the whole treatment process to keep up the connections. By 2009, I was feeling pretty alone with my whole one-legged process.

When I went to Ouray I was all of a sudden immersed in this community of people who climbed, skied, cycled, ice climbed, snow boarded, paddled… They were getting out there. And while some ‘normals’ were invited along for the ride, most Paradoxians were missing something, whether it was a limb, a few fingers, or use of part of their body. Together we climbed frozen waterfalls. We ate. We drank beer out of somebody’s leg. All the usual climbing trip shenanigans.

They’re an inspiring crew. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of their events I would suggest jumping on it – You’re likely missing more than they are.

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.

Guys And Dolls

A few months ago I was having a chat with Craig Demartino, one of my climbing friends at Paradox Sports. We were talking about the Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado that are held each June. The conversation went something like this:

Craig: It would be awesome if you could come to the Mountain Games this June.

Me: I would love to but sadly I’ve got prior work obligations.

Craig: Here’s the thing. We need more [disabled] women. Last weekend at the American Bouldering Series we had 6 competitors, 5 men and 1 woman. I don’t understand it. I meet lots of disabled women, just like I meet lots of disabled men. These women are really amazed by what we’re doing but, with few exceptions, yourself included, they’re not stoked to get out there.

Me: Craig, it’s your stubbly chin. But, let me get think about this for a minute because the language is really important… Umm… “To overcome is a more masculine approach while to endure is a more feminine approach.”

Craig: [Pause] You gotta put that on a t-shirt.

I have spent lots of time thinking about gender and disability. Craig’s observation is a common theme that runs through these thoughts. But I haven’t come up with much more in the way of explanation other than… men and women are expected to do disability differently.

There is a quote from a TED Talk by Brene Brown that nicely summarizes shame, social expectation, and gender: ‘For women, shame is “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat…” Shame for women is this web of unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be, and it’s a straight jacket. For men, shame is not a bunch of competing and conflicting expectations, shame is one [expectation]: “Do not be perceived as weak.”’

I think, for disabled men, climbing can be an avenue to overcome society’s tendency to view you as weak. For women it’s different.

To climb is to sweat, and – at least for me – it’s an outward, visible struggle. In yoga, my teacher Jeff likes to call it the elegant struggle. But I can assure you that while I’m climbing there’s very little elegance and an extra helping of struggle, counter to Brown’s ‘social expectation’.

The irony is that climbing is inherently disabling, never mind gender or physical ability. Climbers at any level know all too well that if you are ‘able’ to climb every route that you attempt, then, well, you’re missing the point of the whole activity. You would be doing yourself a disservice by not attempting routes you’re presently disabled to do.

Only by attempting and failing can gains in ability eventually be made.

And besides, that’s where the laughs are.