The last leg

Hugh Herr  who lost his legs to frostbite in a climbing accident when he was seventeen.

Hugh Herr who lost his legs to frostbite in a climbing accident when he was seventeen.

Next month I will celebrate a very special anniversary.

It is one that causes mixed feelings for me - both tremendous joy and sadness. Fifteen years ago my left leg was amputated above the knee. People often ask if it was due to an accident and I usually respond:

Yes, you could say that

In 2001, I was diagnosed with an unusual type of bone cancer in my left femur. I was very fortunate to have excellent health care that discovered this very early. In the years since the first diagnosis, I have had a considerable number of treatments, all designed to save my leg and my life.

Some highlights:

Seven different leg surgeries.

One internal knee prosthetic (to replace my knee with a mechanic version to save my leg).

Left leg amputation above the knee.

Two operations to implant a titanium rod in my left femur to attach a prosthetic leg.

Two operations to remove lung metastasis that resulted in the loss of 20% of my left lung.

A 6-month treatment of chemotherapy.

Two radiation treatments of my lungs.

Rehabilitation where I  spent 6 months using a wheelchair and crutches to get around.

I have undergone countless hours of physical therapy to learn to walk again with a prosthetic leg.

So why am I writing this post now?

Much of it has to do with the fact that I am getting to the point that the memories of my life when I had a leg are getting less and less vivid. My last strong memory of having a leg was when I ran a race in Stockholm in August 1998 - ‘The Midnight Run’. This run is great, it is through the historic parts of the South Island at midnight (Sweden in August is still very light outside). The crowd is very supportive; you can feel the excitement and energy in the air.  

Memories of this race have now faded and have now slowly been taken over and replaced by a new mental image of myself. As a person, I only have one leg.

And I am ok with that.

The other reason is to help and inspire people, if I can, through my story.

I would definitely not wish these experiences on anyone, ever, but I can safely say that I am fortunate to have learned a great deal. I have come out stronger on the other end.

Insight or clarity about what makes me tick.

Hardships force you to come face-to-face with who you are. These experiences forced me to see many of my limitations but also patterns, beliefs, and skills that I didn’t see or appreciate that I had before. This shift in self-awareness was both powerful and painful. In the end, I believe I am the person I was meant to be.

Increased compassion for others.

This was a huge shift for me. When you suddenly have only one leg or are in a wheelchair you are completely at the mercy of others and their good nature.  You enter into a very vulnerable state when you realise your leg won’t grow back and this is something that will last a very long time.

This can either make you an angry victim or someone that learns to live with this to become a different person. If I told you I always chose the second option, I would be lying. I still dance on both sides. A significant dose of humility comes from this type of hardship. It is never easy to confront the truth that you are not perfect or invincible, but this truly gives you a healthy perspective. Going through these experiences opened my eyes to the hardships and vulnerability of others. The support and help I received from others motivate me to give support and help more readily.

Learning how to collaborate.

Prior to these experiences, I can’t say I was good at collaborating. I liked to work by myself, with a rather large ego. I didn't need to collaborate, mostly since I didn't like my ideas to be in question, or having to discuss them. When I entered the world of healthcare I knew nothing. It was very humbling.

What I saw was a group of people that had one goal: making sure you recovered. Each group had its own specialty and collaborated with this goal in mind. This is long before co-creation was a popular ‘thing’. They demonstrated clearly how various perspectives presented in a constructive environment are needed to ‘re-create’ patients where something important has been lost. Did it work perfectly? Not always, but I learned the real definition of collaboration, the one that has stayed with me since then.

Resilience

Surviving hardship and willing yourself to move forward builds added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures. Resilience allows you to be flexible and durable as things change. It teaches you to be open to learning and agile as you figure out what to do next.

Resilience develops over time and builds slowly. This allows you to be a mast that the wind bends, sometimes too far, but that resists breaking when the going gets tough.

Complexity

For many medicine is viewed as a perfect science, and we cling to statistics and absolutes. We are waiting for doctors to say ‘take this and everything will be fine’. This is far from the truth. Any system involving people will be messy and imperfect, and data paints an imperfect view of cause and effect. Prior to all of this happening I ran multiple times a week, bicycled, never smoked, ate well and was not overweight. None of this should have happened. There are statistics!

I realised that these where emergent properties of the system (my body) that isn't under my —or anyone doctors—direct control (as much as we would like to believe otherwise). I still take care of myself but not with the expectation that I will never get ill, but more to positively influence another outcome -  how I feel with the life I have.

Knowing that you can overcome difficulties or hurdles, not unscathed but alive, functioning, and often happy, also makes you less scared of the unknown. It becomes a challenge that you know you have the capabilities to conquer. Your body may have failed you, but your mind hasn’t.

In spite of all of these challenges, I have achieved a lot during these years that I am proud of.

I learned to run again with one leg using a Cheetah foot.

I met my lovely wife who is the best person I know.

I completed my MBA from Warwick University in England.

I worked full-time consistently during this time. I changed jobs four times, laid off twice from different positions (once while doing radiation treatment).

I am an educator and I teach my own courses actively in Stockholm.

Got a dog that I love to walk.

Most recently I decided to start my own company.

Just like there isn't a clear cause and effect for most things, it would be shortsighted of me to say that I started my own company because of my health issues. All of these experiences made me into the person I am today and I will take what I have learned about humility, resilience, collaboration and the help of others into this new adventure.

The funny thing is, I don’t really think about what would happen if this isn’t a success.  Because what I know firsthand is that whether you’re racing through the streets at midnight, high-fiving an enthusiastic crowd, or you’re learning to walk again in a body that happened to you, victory laps are often more complicated than they promise to be, and they come in many forms.


Special thanks to Jane Ruffino for her help in creating this post