Rebecca—A 1,000 Mile Journey, Because She Can!
Today I want you to meet Rebecca, because she is one of those folks who does what she can, with what she has, where she is… because she can!
Here’s Rebecca’s inspiring story…
Janet: Tell us a little about yourself.
Rebecca: I am a teacher, inline skater, cyclist, reader, writer, photographer, traveler, friend, oldest sister, cousin, daughter, or granddaughter — depending on who you ask. I’m 43 years old and live in Philadelphia where I help run the special education program at a public charter school. I am also an above-knee amputee walking step-by-step through an unexpected journey.
When and how did your world change?
On the morning of November 9, 2010, while riding my bicycle to work, I was struck by a garbage truck when it turned into my designated bike lane. My left leg was crushed by the wheels of the truck, and I suffered severe internal injuries. I was taken by ambulance to Jefferson Hospital’s Trauma Center. There, an amazing group of trauma surgeons saved my life, but they had to amputate my left leg to do so.
What was your recovery like… physical, emotional and/or mental?
Prior to the accident, I bike commuted for 5 years. I skated with an inline skate club for 15 years. I led an active life that included working full time, socializing with friends, and traveling. I was always healthy. I rarely missed a day of work.
During the long recovery after the accident, I found myself in unchartered territory. There were many set-backs, including infection and abdominal complications. Over 2 years, I was hospitalized 7 times and had 15 surgeries. The acute pain and phantom limb pain were at times difficult to bear. I struggled with nightmares and flashbacks of the accident. Being sedentary and dependent on others was a big adjustment since I’d been so active and independent before.
But I was lucky in more ways than I can count. I’d been wearing a bike helmet and sustained no head injury in the accident. From the very beginning, I received first-rate medical treatment and rehabilitation. When my leg was healed enough, I was fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthesis and received excellent prosthetic training.
Early on, my aunt and uncle gave me a necklace inscribed with the Confucius quote: The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. As I recovered, I decided to set a goal of walking 1000 miles on my prosthesis. Each mile marker served as a way to measure progress and help me digest all that had happened. I documented the journey via my blog: A Thousand Miles.
Throughout this experience, I’ve been supported by family, friends, and professionals who never gave up or let me feel alone. Even today, 2 ½ years later, they continue to encourage me every step of the way.
I like hearing what makes people do what they can… was there a defining moment that inspired you to push your limits or was it a slow realization of seeing what you are capable of?
When I met my prosthetist Tim for the first time, he said, “I’m not going to tell you what you can’t do. You tell me what you want to do, and I’m going to help you get there.” I was sold! I told him I needed a leg I could SKATE on.
But there hasn’t really been one defining moment in this journey. Rather it’s been a process that’s unfolded day by day, mile by mile. The slogan of my rehab hospital is BELIEVE. And it’s those types of messages that guide me forward. Whenever I have doubts about my own abilities, I look to those around me for reassurance.
For example, I wanted to try to ride my bike again, but after the accident I was skittish and leery. I was afraid that getting back on a bike – the very act of pedaling – might make me relive the accident like I did so many nights in the beginning of my recovery. My physical therapist Deb was determined to teach me to ride. She said, “It’s ok if you don’t want to bike again, but you should know that you can. It should be your CHOICE.”
So my therapy team puzzled out how to keep my prosthetic foot on the pedal, and we practiced session after session in the basement of the rehab gym. Finally, on March 30, 2013, almost 2 ½ years after the accident, I rode my bike away from that intersection where I’d been hit. It was my official 1000th Mile!
There are a thousand stories like this. Throughout my recovery, I’ve met so many people who’ve pushed themselves to new heights. And all along, I’ve been embraced by a team that enables me to test my own limits and see what I’m really capable of achieving.
What do you do that others are surprised you do?
I paint the toenails of my prosthesis!
Although it seems like a small detail, people are always surprised when they see me with painted toenails. I just tell them, “I gotta keep the main thing, the main thing!”
That first summer, I asked my prosthetist if I’d be able to walk in sandals. He showed me how to use strips of Velcro to stick my prosthetic foot to the sandal. When I got home, I just had to give myself a pedicure!
But really, it’s part of a larger picture. I have an optimistic and bright outlook on life. I need to put my best foot forward – even with a body part that resembles a robot! It’s just one more way I try to keep my life “normal.”
In what ways do the obstacles you face affect your daily life that others might not be aware of?
With jeans on, you might not be able to tell I wear a prosthesis. With lots of therapy, I’ve learned to walk with a natural gait and navigate most types of terrain. But the paradox of walking better is that people FORGET.
They forget that I have to concentrate when I cross a street or go down a hill. They don’t realize how my independence is limited by weather conditions – snow, ice, or wind – that make walking on a prosthesis difficult, if not impossible.
Also, I can’t wear my prosthesis 24/7. I take it off every night and can’t wear it when I have skin irritations. Without it, I need crutches and adaptive equipment. I’m less confident and able. And I’m much more vulnerable, especially in emergency situations such as illness, fire alarms, or power outages.
What goals have you reached that you didn’t know if you could?
I certainly never imagined I’d be able to teach people about prosthetics or mentor other amputees. I’m pleased to say that I’m currently doing both. I’ve had the opportunity to share my knowledge with elementary and middle school students, as well as with classes of PT students at local universities.
I also volunteer at the rehab hospital where I was a patient. I love meeting new amputees who are just beginning this journey. I hope that my experiences can help them weather the ups and downs of their own recovery, and in some way, inspire them to reach their own goals.
What goals do you have for yourself in the future?
I’d like to take more steps forward, of course. To continue volunteering and give back to the organizations that have given me so much. To promote bicycle and motorist safety in order to reduce future accidents and injuries like my own.
I’d also like to pursue many of the life goals I had before the accident. Physical activity, socializing, and travel are still difficult for many reasons. Ultimately, I’d like to walk into a future that interweaves my old life with my new one.
What does a well-lived day look like to you… or in other words, if you knew you were dying tomorrow, what would you do today?
Sometimes I wonder what I would have done differently on November 8, 2010, if I knew what was going to happen the very next morning. This question reminds me of that.
In my life now, every day is a well-lived day. I’m not always as comfortable as I like. I don’t have as much energy as I used to have. And I’m not happy every minute. But I’m full of passion and creativity that used to get brushed aside in the daily hustle. My relationships are genuine and deep. I prioritize and engage in activities that have meaning.
If you’d asked me 3 years ago where I’d be today, this is certainly not the place. But taking this journey has taught me to live life fully, in way I never had before.
I wake up each morning knowing ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. And often, it does!
Read more about Rebecca’s 1,000 mile journey—from the day of her first blog post Go…
to the day she completed the 1,000th mile, A Beautiful Day.
You can also connect with her at A Thousand Miles on Facebook.
Rebecca, thanks for sharing your story with my readers.
Bike, climb, roll, walk on… because you can!