When patients come to see me for physical therapy, the questions can range from practical matters concerning the fit of their prosthesis to those of a more philosophical nature. One of the most common questions I hear is “Should I wear a cosmetic skin cover on my prosthesis?” A brief background…
Simply put, a prosthesis will attempt to mimic a real leg. It is composed of three basic parts: a socket (where the limb inserts), a shank (which takes the place of the lower leg or thigh bones), and a foot. If a person is an above knee amputee, a knee component is added to simulate joint movement. There are dozens (if not more) combinations of sockets, shanks, and feet with multiple systems, materials, and even computerized parts that can create an artificial limb. A cosmetic covering can be placed over the entire prosthesis to give the leg a skin-like appearance. This covering is optional—below are a couple of examples:
As a physical therapist, I have always been fascinated by amputees who proudly display the metal components of their artificial limbs. Up until two years ago, I heartily encouraged my patients to show off all their hard work and to be proud of their accomplishments. That was before I myself had to face the question: Do I dare to bare?
For those of you who haven’t read the previous blogs, I was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. When I started chemo, I was told I was going to actually get to keep my hair because it was going to be a “light” dose. Saying that light chemo exists is like saying that diet soda is good for you. Within ten days of receiving my first chemo infusion, all of my hair fell out. All of it. Not gradually thinning out like many patients experience, all of it— in several shopping bags. And it was as horrible an experience as the movies and TV shows make it out to be. Not going to lie…..
Looking back, even if I would have expected this to happen, I still would not have been prepared. Little known fact about me—way back when, I actually made quite a paycheck doing modeling…..for hair (don’t look so surprised!)—hair shows, commercials, and even print. To say that my hair was a huge part of my feminine physical identity would have been a giant understatement. Did I realize that it would grow back eventually? Yes. Did I realize that I was fighting for my life and that I needed to focus on winning the battle against cancer? Yes. Did I understand that true beauty comes from within? Yes. But all I could think about was that I now resembled a cue ball—-and bald was not beautiful.
(Here is the “before” picture at a modeling shoot I did a couple of years before being diagnosed—and the “after” picture at the end of 12 weeks of chemo with my beautiful daughters.)
It took a solid week for the shock and grief to start wearing off—-in the meantime, I had to explain to my young children (two girls, two boys) what was going on. I told them the chemo was killing the “bad guys” (cancer cells) and that the “good guys” (hair, nails, etc) were getting caught in the crossfire. My children saw that I was grieving this loss and to a certain extent, I let them see my sadness—-then came the time to “suck it up buttercup!” While my husband and I think it’s important for children to see the hard realities that life can bring, we also believe they need to see how to face these tough situations with faith and strength and courage. We prayed with the kids thanking God for the medications that were killing the cancer—-we knew that if my hair was falling out, then the medicine was doing its job. And then came the fun part…..makeover!!!
I’ve always loved trying out new looks—clothes, jewelry, makeup and hair—yes folks, I am a “girly girl.” This was going to become a new look for me. I had the option of wearing a wig but when I tried a couple on, they were uncomfortable and I didn’t get that “I feel like my old self” feeling that many women experience when they try on their wigs. Pinterest became an valuable resource! There were many all- black ensembles and lots of eyeliner (think soccer mom meets The Matrix). It helped me channel some of the grief and, that like it or not, this was the hand I was dealt and I needed to make the best of it until the next phase. It also gave my girls (and boys) a chance to see that it was ok to be sad about a lousy situation, but that you can never give up.
Here’s the thing—it’s not to say I didn’t “cover up”— there is a neon blue wig phase I went through courtesy of my sweet friend Emi. Scarves were also a much used accessory. There were many days where I didn’t want to be asked questions by well meaning strangers and I didn’t want to be stared at—-a lot of “I just want to pull the covers over my head until this nightmare is over” days. Given my situation those days were normal, to be expected and I allowed myself to experience them. It was all part of the process of fighting my cancer and eventually, healing from the ordeal.
When patients now ask me the question regarding the cosmetic appearance of their prosthesis the answer is—–there is no right or wrong answer. Now when I see an amputee with a rocking metal pylon/blade I am even more inspired by their boldness because it reminds me of the days I would walk around town with nothing on my head—the days where I felt strong and confident. However, when an amputee with a skin covering comes my way, I remember the days when I just wanted to blend into the background and fight my battle quietly albeit with NO LESS strength or courage. The adventure from bald to beautiful was rocky but well worth the journey. I can only imagine my patients have to go through their own journeys to come to the acceptance of their new appearance— and how they ultimately choose to display their “battle wounds” is entirely up to them….
So, do you dare to bare?
(This is Bobby Gibson’s below knee prosthesis—artwork by Russell Silver. It looks like a leg Captain America would wear! Way to rock it Bobby!)
Image used with permission of Bobby Gibson.