The wisdom of a three-legged dog
From the March, 2010 issue
This story begins like a third-grade math problem: you enter a room and count thirty-six limbs. Nine people are in the room, right? Wrong. You should have said eleven humans and a dog. Two people in the room have all their appendages. Four people are missing one arm. Three people have one leg. Two people have no legs at all. To add to the count, there is a three-legged dog aptly named Lefty. These twelve individuals--with their combined thirty-six limbs--form an amputee support group.
The group addresses an array of topics pertaining to life as an amputee. Conversations range from mobility issues to the intricacies of cooking with one arm. They meet monthly at U-M Hospital under the guidance of social worker Maggie Kelly and limb loss coordinator Shauna Mote. An amputee herself, Mote holds the only paid position of its type in the nation. Funded jointly by the U-M Cardiovascular Center and the U-M Orthotics and Prosthetics Center, it's the hospital's way of recognizing that its job does not end on the operating table--life as an amputee begins when the anesthesia fades.
This is a diverse bunch formed by misfortune. The absence of an appendage is the only bond that these people have. Socio-economic status and residence vary. Tragedy does not care what your zip code is or how many digits are in your paycheck.
The youngest member is also the newest. She is a hip, twenty-five-year-old former prom queen. Her blond ringlets extend down to the nub that was her elbow. It's only been a month since a drunk driver ran a red light and hit her car. The car door collapsed, pinning her arm against the steering wheel. Her boyfriend now struggles with the thought of dating an amputee.
The next oldest in the group is a thirty-four-year-old police officer. While working the graveyard shift a few years ago, he approached a man illegally parked in a handicap spot. "Come on, man, there aren't any handicapped people
out at this time of night," was the man's excuse. The officer rolled up his right pants leg and both men stared at the titanium shaft that is his leg. He asked the man, "Where should we be at this time of night?"
The oldest member is a seventy-eight-year-old man with diabetes. He struggles to control his illness and has a missing leg to prove it. Every year he spends a few days after Christmas in the hospital getting his blood sugar corrected; the cookies and ham beat him every time.
The dog is certainly the most improbable member of the group. She was destined to be an amputee from birth; a deformed right leg gave Lefty a one-way ticket from her breeder's house to the animal shelter. Jane Sprayberry, a U-M nurse, adopted her. A surgeon removed the deformed leg, and, as soon as the stitches came out, Sprayberry asked the group if she and Lefty could join it.
Naturally, the members treated the idea of allowing a dog to attend their meetings with caution; this is a serious group, not a Saturday Night Live skit. But they were immediately intrigued when they saw her. A former Marine and fellow amputee voiced the group consensus, saying, "I feel your pain, buddy."
Lefty is now the unspoken mascot of the group--sort of an amputee version of the Mack Truck bulldog. Even without words, Lefty has turned out to be an excellent teacher. Her lessons about how to live as an amputee are wholly unconscious and entirely unforgettable.
This group knows the litanies of suffering well. Members have spent days--for some, years--asking why: Why me? Why now? Why didn't I just die? Why is there all this suffering? Then, enter this amputee dog. Lefty does not ask why bad things happen to good dogs--she just gets on with her life. In a culture obsessed with fairness and equality, Lefty's demeanor is untroubled. Life has dealt her a bad hand, but that is OK with her.
The night that the former prom queen joined the group, she told the story of her amputation for the first time. Soon she broke into tears. Before anyone could say anything, Lefty got up and hobbled across the room.
She sat down in front of the crying woman, heaved her one front paw onto her shoulder, and gave her a kiss. The tense room melted into laughter. The dog did what everyone wanted to do. A slobbery kiss always helps.
This group is real, these events all happened, and the characters are an accurate cross section of the group's members. Some personal descriptions have been changed to protect privacy.
[Originally published in March, 2010.]