I must have been showing off the day I met Posie Churchill. I had been invited to visit the Rehab floor of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for a peer visit, which is where an amputee visits others in their hospital beds. My amputation had been performed there at MGH in Boston in 1971. That day in 1975, I was showing three young men who had just lost limbs how a person on one leg can ski. Balancing over my right leg, arms at my side, I stood up straight, facing them, and held my crutches off the ground.
“ Imagine the outrigger is like a crutch with a 12-inch ski tip at the end. Okay? Even though it’s called three-track skiing, you really don’t ride all three ski tips over the snow,” I said, explaining that you ski on your one leg and use the outriggers when you needed them to stabilize your balance. “Eventually,” I added. “When you get good.” I looked pretty good standing there. But I was not good enough to just “ski my ski” back then.
I was interrupted by Muffy Lutzin, a pixie-size woman with dark hair and bright eyes whom I knew as a volunteer from the handicap ski group and who was also the hospital’s recreational therapist. “Cale, there’s a wonderful woman in the next room who would love to meet you.”
Before I went in to meet the woman, I set my crutches against the wall and showed the boys how you turn your ski. I balanced over my one leg, holding the imaginary ski poles. “You keep your knee bent for flexibility.” To demonstrate compression, I bent my knee, dropped my hands down to my sides, and turned my knee in either direction, pretending I was skiing. My audience was captivated.
At 24, I practiced yoga and with good balance and a very strong leg, I could swing dance or polka all night — with the right partner — which may be how I developed my strength in the off-season. The year after I graduated from college, I made at least a dozen amputee hospital visits while I looked for a job and continued into my third year of three-track skiing. My own amputation had been done here in Boston at MGH, and I was proud of the young woman survivor I had become.
I had a trick move I called sidestepping, where, for quite a distance, I “walked” laterally, without crutches, using a shimmying toe-first, then-heel maneuver. The day Muffy interrupted me, I was so comfortable in my strength that I left my crutches behind, sidestepped into the other room across the corridor, and met the beaming Posie Churchill.
“ I’m so glad to meet you, Ca-el,” she said in her thick Boston Brahmin accent.
I side-stepped up to her hospital bed, leaned into it to steady my balance, and extended my hand, for this once without the crutch interference. “Muffy says you’ve skied all over Europe, Switzerland, and the Alps,” I said to the 65-year-old.
Posie spoke in a voice both tremulous and strong, “But I didn’t think I would ever ski again after the amputation.” Muffy then explained that even at Posie’s age, once she was strong enough, she could come up to Sunapee, New Hampshire, and join the ski gang.
“ Tell me, how do you do it?” Posie asked, grinning with a toothy, girlish smile.
“ It should be easy if you’ve done it before!” I began. At that point I wished I had some outriggers. Once again I demonstrated the position on my imaginary ski
“ As soon as I heal, I’m going to learn these things called outriggahs,” Posie said emphatically, and then she looked over at Muffy, and chuckled deeply as an afterthought. “I suppose, after I learn to use a pros-te-the-sis.” Coming to Posie’s aid, Muffy and I chimed in on the pronunciation of “pros-thee-sis,” and we all laughed about what trouble that word caused most people.
After I’d stood long enough, I excused myself and went back to get my crutches and leave. Hospital visiting could be hard work. But it was part of the ethic of the New England Handicapped Sportsmen (NEHSA) who provided peer visits to hospitals. Many NEHSA members were Vietnam vets who returned from war as amputees and caught the ski bug, quickly becoming full-blown ski bums and instructors. The NEHSA folks had volunteered to teach me several years before, and a lot of hours and several amputee instructors standing around on one leg went into that proposition. It included fitting me for gear, skis and outriggers, and teaching me to control my speed by turning — the hardest thing to do once a neophyte makes it to the top of the hill. NEHSA regularly held race clinics because the elaborate setup of gates as obstacles forced the beginning skier to turn. They would offer the same benefits to Posie.
In a matter of months after meeting the older woman, while I looked for a job and was fit for my first artificial leg, I decided to move from Boston to Colorado. I didn’t see Posie again until several years later, when she showed up in my new home town of Winter Park, all smiles in vintage skiwear at the National Handicapped Ski Championships. For years, skiers from across the country gathered there to race and celebrate. In my exciting get-together with old friends from Boston, I heard that the older woman had been quite impressed with me. My amputee friend laughed mockingly as she told me the story.
“ Isn’t that Cale Kenney something?” Carol reported Posie saying when the new NEHSA brochure with my picture on the cover was distributed.
“ What about her?” Carol asked, not about to give me any celebrity status I might have gained by moving away.
“ She doesn’t even wear an artificial limb!” Posie exclaimed.
“ What’s so amazing about that?” Carol exclaimed. She had just given up wearing her own hemipelvectomy leg and was getting around more freely now. She may have been a little miffed about the NEHSA bias toward people wearing artificial limbs. Few people had any idea of the special problems of the hemipelvectomy prosthesis, never mind the price. (Most didn’t know the difference between us and a hip-disarticulation, who still has both sit-down bones.) However, Posie had an image of me she’d formed from our first meeting, and she was surprised Carol wasn’t in awe, too.
“ But, she doesn’t even use crutches!” Posie said.
Even I laughed at that idea, with the image of myself pogo hopping through my life.
I just love this story — because I’m the hero, of course! But really, because it is so ironic. Wonderfully, it carries the spirit of what those first days of learning to ski were like. The slogan for National Handicap Sports (NHS), the national organization of which NEHSA was a chapter, is: “If I can do this, I can do anything.” The way it worked for me was: “If they can do it, I should be able to do it.” Yet, there is always a shadow side: the image you learned to project could trap you into an image that betrayed you. Or made others feel you had betrayed them.
Telling my story in those days invited showing off how far I’d come. Yet other times it was appropriate to just show up and visit, and answer questions before and after surgery, especially for someone with cancer — or osteomylitis or another disease — who had time to think before amputation. In these cases, I’d tell a more modest story of wholeness and survival. But each visit became a healing when we shared our stories. I vividly remember one visit where I was called in — not for the patient but for the staff.
The patient, a lovely young girl from the town next to mine, had been taken on a harrowing ride by the drunk driver of a motorcycle, who caused them to be broadsided by a car. Her injuries did not involve amputation from gangrene like mine; her pelvis was split open and now held together by a Hoffman device, a steel contraption with pins that went through flesh, so the bones could knit back together. She still had her parts but was in excruciating pain.
I was called in because “she cries all the time.” A psychology supervisor invited me to speak to the unit nurses who had become so demoralized by her suffering that they allegedly became callous to her cries for help. The psychologist lectured on the language of crying. Some cries both express pain and relieve it, she explained. Grief had a different sound to it, and yet another pitch signaled a call for help. The nurses were asked to “listen,” translate, and respond accordingly.
Realizing my long period of misery was now the past — except for phantom reminders — I called up the memories of my hospitalization and shared with the staff how I’d cried with as many messages. When I spoke of the pain, I was awed and humbled by my role as a witness to the nurses.
When I went in to meet Patty, she asked, “Were you once really like me?” I nodded, speechless. Seeing her lying in her bed, three months longer than my stay, the flesh wounds seeping, I concluded that my losses shortened my time of suffering. I felt lucky when I first went to meet her.
I admired the way she came right out with it, but it didn’t make it easy to answer her when she asked. “Did it feel like you fell on to the bar of a boy’s bicycle?” I nodded, and I didn’t feel lucky anymore, because right there I broke through something. I couldn’t put it into words yet, but I felt like a hole had been blown right through the middle of me. It was the only peer visit where I left with a dark foreboding. I sensed more grief ahead.
[Later, I learned as I aged that the human skeleton must compensate for the loss of the pelvis; usually by developing a scoliosis, and in my case chronic back pain, but in 1999, I paid with injuries to my arms, simply because without the second sit-down bone, you have to hold your body upright with help from your arms and hands. Thus, the upper extremities are more susceptible to “overuse” injuries.] I was protected from the knowledge of these future realities by my youthful arrogance and denial for at least ten years.
Many years later, when I no longer had time or energy for these hospital visits, my stories became “written visits.” I stopped doing hospital visits in the ’90s. Thereafter, when therapists who saw me as the epitome of rehabilitation asked me to visit one of their patients, I sent one of my adventure stories.
I may never have written the stories that form Part II of this book, “The Adventures,” had I not been knocked on the side of the head by a synchronistic event. After a reconstructive surgery in 1987, I was left with a higher level of nerve pain. It got so bad I wondered why I’d been spared in 1971. My quality of life suffered greatly. In 1992, I met the first of my many angels, Charlene Campbell, the woman who’d saved my life on the road 20 years before. Charlene is the “voice” in chapter two that reached into the darkness and told me I was alive, and not in hell as I feared.
I view this book as an intimate witness in “Part I, The Impact.” I’m back to showing off in “Part II, The Adventures.” I hope amputees can relate to both.
Meeting Charlene inspired me to change my code of silence about my accident. As a journalist writing a first-person piece, crutches, frankly, were a distraction. Every crutch begs to tell a story, and I didn’t want to distract the reader. I always assumed the viewpoint of a bi-ped. However, after meeting Charlene I asked, “Why not write down all those stories about the calamities I’ve had on crutches that have made my friends laugh?” So for the last ten years, besides teaching and freelance publishing, I’ve been a storyteller about “the glory days” and my misadventures as a one-legged enthusiast of the outdoors.
As I write today it is from my “bedmobile,” with voice recognition software for typing and crutches for short distance walking. But as soon as I get a sit-down prosthesis that works, I’ll begin a new series of travels from a power wheel chair.
The last story is called “Calamity Jane,” my nickname in middle school, whose mention provoked shame because the calamitous stories that earned the moniker covered up the truth of a troubled home and my anguished, bumbling efforts to get to my new middle school on time. It wasn’t until I was an adult and read the real Calamity Jane’s autobiography that I realized being compared to this female pioneer was a compliment. Born 100 years apart — she in 1852 and I in 1952, — we both went west. We both pushed the limits of our gender and person. I could identify with her love of adventure and the outdoors, and with her strong desire to venture beyond the conventional into a new frontier. And just as strong, her desire to write about it.
Finally, I included pictures because I think it’s fun to find pictures in books about real people. I called Posie Churchill the other day. She’s 91, and though she didn’t remember my name, she told me she wished she did. I asked her if she remembered skiing with me. “No, but I wish I were skiing now,” she said, not missing a beat. Then she added, “Your voice has invigorated me. Do you think we could call each other and get reacquainted?” That’s Posie.
I love the people I’ve met on this path of accidental adventure: NSCD, ACA, NHS, caregivers everywhere. This book is dedicated to them and to my old friend Fred Tassone, who knew how to have fun and liked to say, “Nobody said it was going to be easy.” And he proceeded to make it look that way.
Back to excerpts from “Have Crutch Will Travel”