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‘You will walk again’

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Updated: June 23, 2013 6:21AM



ORLANDO, Fla. — The room is very large and full of the usual exercise equipment. There are treadmills and stationary bikes, weight machines and even a climbing wall.

About a dozen chairs are scattered around the edges of the room. As I enter, six people are sitting there. They have four legs between them.

There are usually children around. The first time I came here, shyly watching from the doorway, I heard a “beep-beep” behind me, and as I turned, a 5-year-old sped past me at a remarkable speed, hopping on her one leg.

This is Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates, one of the largest facilities in the country. The walls are filled with pictures: People with one or no legs crossing the finish lines at marathons, legless golfers in mid-swing, a one-legged pitcher glowering from the mound, legless skiers and a one-legged tennis player hitting a ferocious backhand.

The mood in the room is cheerful. I have never seen anyone cry, though I have heard a few muttered swear words over the occasional stumble. Mostly people here have worked through the “why me?” stage and the depression stage and the anger stage. They are here for the last stage: the rebuilding stage.

The last time I was here, there was a teenager from the Dominican Republic, I think, whose church had scraped together enough money to fly him to POA. POA does a lot of work for free. He was getting the first legs he had ever had.

He had never, in other words, been more than about 3 feet tall, and now he would be about 6 feet tall. He would be about a million miles tall.

He was always smiling, even through his first halting steps. I asked him why. “I am thinking about when I go back to my town and see all the kids who used to make fun of me,” he told me. “I will look at them and walk right past them. I will not say a word. I will just walk past them.” His grin got wider.

I met a vet who, judging by his age, probably had served in Vietnam, and was now testing out a new multimillion-dollar leg developed by the government. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to huge advances in prosthetics, and there are now legs crammed with electronics, gyroscopes and cybernetic wonders.

I asked the veteran how he liked his new wonder leg. “Ah, I think I’ll go back to the old one,” he said, pointing at a scratched and battered prosthetic leg leaning against the wall. People get attached to their legs.

Stories on amputees have filled the media since the Boston Marathon bombing in which at least 17 people have had one or both of their legs blown off. Public response was immediate and extremely generous. Tens of millions of dollars have been raised, and free prosthetics offered. Not having to worry about money will be a huge burden lifted from the shoulders of those wounded, but they will face other burdens: They will want to hit a tennis ball again, water ski again or just walk again.

They will want to be what they were: whole. That is not just a physical process, but a mental one.

My picture is on the wall here, but not because of me. It is because my wife and I are at the annual White House holiday press party, standing between President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Six months before, I had interviewed him in the Oval Office. I had lost both legs about six months before that and was in a wheelchair unable to walk. “I’ll see you at the party in December, “ he said at the end of the interview, “and you’ll be walking by then. You will be.”

It turned out he was right. I was a little afraid of falling over as I walked toward him and his wife, but I made it. I wasn’t ready for any dance numbers, but I made it.

After the bombing in Boston, Obama went there and made a speech, grieving for those whose lives had been ended and then turned his attention to those whose lives had been shattered.

“We will all be with you as you learn to stand, and walk and, yes, run again,” he said. “Of that I have no doubt. You will run again.”

I believe they will. The president has pretty good powers of prediction when it comes to such things.



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