Friday, July 28, 2006

July 28, 1978

My gurney pushed through the green doors into the operating room. This was--what? The fourth time? Fifth? Well, it was not the first time that I was in this room in the past two weeks.

I was pretty well used to the routine. They gave me a shot in the room, haul me down to the OR, another shot...and I would wake up in recovery.

But this time they hadn't given me a shot. That was unusual.

The nurse unwrapped the bandages around my foot. By now I was used to the two blackened toes that poked out from the top. The big toe and the little toe. They were goners. I knew that much already. Stayed home, ate roast beef, and had none were still pink.

Dr. Hahn came to the room, and examined my foot. I think he did it just for the show of it. I think he had already made his decision

July 14, 1978

I was pretty happy when I showed up at work. It was Friday, and it was game night.

Three or four nights a week, a bunch of us from high school would meet at the ball field at Sullivan Park and play baseball. Someplace between 14 and 20 of us would show up around seven, choose up sides, and play ball.

Baseball, mostly. Sometimes softball. It didn't matter. We'd been doing it for two years now.

Most of us were from the classes of 1976 and '77; most of us were guys. The oldest regular player was my friend John's older brother Keith. He was 28. We called him the old man. Players would show up and leave, and the sides would shift to accommodate the personnel changes. The game ended when it was too dark to see.

I remember standing in right field, swatting june bugs between pitches, realizing it was nine o'clock, and we probably still had enough light for two more innings. That was about as happy a moment as I ever had.

Friday nights were the best. We'd play until dark, and then head downtown for pitchers. In 1978, the legal drinking age in New York was 18. Next year they would raise the age to 19; the next year, 20; and in 1981, it would be 21. Didn't bother me. I had the limits beat by a year.

So I was in a good mood that Friday morning. I had been hitting the ball very well, although I didn't have the power my brother had. However, I had a rocket for an arm, and relished gunning him down when he tried to stretch doubles to triples.

Although I didn't owe my soul to it, I worked for the company store. No, not that kind of company store. Our town was a small town, and most of the people worked for the Fortune 500 company that had its headquarters there. It manufatcured consumer goods, and employees of the company were able to buy them at a discount at a store downtown. That's where I worked. Since my father had died a company man a year and a half earlier, and since my friend John's father was a manager in the personnel department (and the man who drove me to the ER the night Dad died), I got a job moving product from the stockrooms to the floor.

The actual floor space of the store was small, so we made several trips a day. The store was in an old building, and there was storage in the basement, the mezzanine, and the top floor. We moved pallettes of goods from those floors to the store on an old freight elevator.

How old was it? It was so old, that it was run by tugging on a series of ropes. Tug this rope, and the elevator went up. Tug this other rope, and the elevator stopped. Tug a third rope, and the elevator went down.

It was also so old that the elevator had no doors. Oh, there were doors on each of the floors. But the box itself had none. It was open on both ends, since the mezzanine was in back. Oh, and the doors themselves were flush with the floors they were on, which meant that there was about a six-inch gap between the space where the doors were, and the elevator shaft.

It was a boring job, moving product. It was boring on that elevator. If I was near the edge of the elevator (which I was, because I would be the one charged with holding the product on the palettes as I helped push it onto the elevator) was supposed to face the wall as the elevator went up and down.

This day, I was facing in. The guy who ran the elevator didn't always get it flush with the floor, so getting the palettes into the elevator wasn't always easy. I often had to push hard as I steadied the boxes. I got this one in, closed the door, and put my head down on the palette. I had one foot slightly behind the other, my heel not touching the floor. What I didn't realize, was that there was no floor underneath my heel.

The elevator went up. As it raised past the top of the floor, I felt something hit my heel. I tried to slide my foot forward, but my foot was now wedged between the top of the door we were rising past, and the floor of the elevator. This was why I was supposed to be facing the wall. It was the company's idea of a safety regulation.

The elevator snapped my foot in half.

The elevator did not slow down. It continued rising, and my foot and ankle were ground in between the elevator shaft, and the bottom of the elevator. There was probably about a half-inch space between them.

I screamed. Screamed. Screamed.

The controls to the elevator were on the far side from me. The guy who was running it stopped as fast as he could.

"Go back down!" I yelled.

He did, and I pulled my leg free. My foot was mangled. Blood was gushing. My work boot dropped off and hit the bottom of the shaft.

"Give me your belt!" I yelled at him, and he did. I don't know if I was wearing a belt or not, but I used his as a tourniquet.

At this point, I remember being pissed because I wasn't going to be able to play baseball that night.

By now, everyone in the store knew something was wrong. Luckily, one of the customers in the store--or maybe from one of the neighboring stores, I don't know--was an EMT, and he came onto the elevator, and did what he could for me until the ambulance arrived.

It was a small town, and the trip to the Emergency Room was short.

It was a small town, and word got to my mother quite quickly. She made it to the ER before I did. I saw her as I was rolled into the hospital.

"Are you all right?" I called to her as I went past.

She nodded.


Dr. Hahn made a show of examining my foot. He had been looking at it for two weeks now. The skin on the bottom of the foot was thick, he had told me on more than one occasion. We had to wait and see how much of it had died.

"There's a quarter-sized patch on the ball of your foot that's still alive," he told me, "and the three middle toes. The rest of the skin on the bottom of your foot is necrotic."

"You're going to cut my foot off?" I asked him.

He took of his surgical mask and walked up next to me. "What we're going to do is take away something that's now useless. We'll replace it with a prosthetic that will allow you to lead a normal life."

I looked at him, and then at the nurses and technicians in the room. "Will I be able to ski?" I asked.

Dr. Hahn looked a little flustered. "Um, well--there are items that can be used--outriggers and such--so that, yes, you will be able to ski, if you really want to."

I laid my head back onto the pillow. "Cool," I said. "I've never been able to ski before."

I know it was kind of cruel, but how many times do you get the chance to use a line like that?

This was on Friday. Since I was stable, it was decided that the surgery could be performed on Monday. I spent the weekend watching cartoons on demerol. Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner were never funnier.

I became an amputee on Monday, July 31, 1978, one day short of eighteen months after my father died.

I had a rough couple of years.



Blogger mal said...

I would have been swearing up a storm.

You are stronger than me

7:52 AM  
Blogger Madame X said...

Rough is not the word.

Thank you for sharing this.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Guy Wonders said...

Wow. The phrase, "There but for the grace of God . . . " comes to mind. In my younger years, I worked in a variety of different warehouses. The antiquated freight elevator is very familiar. Your post reminds me of the many dangers that lurked in those places, when "occupational safety" was still in its infancy.

I can only imagine how tough those years were. I'm sure it took a lot of strength and skill to manage through it. . .

8:47 AM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

I had no idea. I'm choking back tears right now because as soon as I read about the black tears, I knew. My grandpa was a double amputee, only his was because of diabetes/ alcohol complications.

Funny how you could write this blog and we all assume that you have all your limbs. You're no less of a person.

My heart goes out to you and thank you for sharing. God bless.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

wow, thanks for sharing your story. I so admire people that have the courage to do so.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Notsocranky Yankee said...

Ouch! I can't imagine going through that.

Did you ever learn to ski?

2:06 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

And when was the last time you played baseball?

5:50 PM  
Blogger Cranky Yankee said...


9:35 PM  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

No, I never learned to ski, although I've spent some time on the mountains. I covered one of the first freestyle championships at Lake Placid, back in the mid 1980's. It would have been nice to be able to ski down to the spots I needed to set up my camera, but back then, the only thing that was offered for amps was an 'outrigger' setup, and that was too uncomfortable for me. I don't like being without my leg. However, I just made a spot for a prosthetic company, and some of the footage they had was of an amp skiing with a prosthesis. I may look into that.

And the last time I played baseball? Probably ten years ago. Parents vs. kids for my sons' Senior league game. First at-bat I hit a line drive into the left-center gap. I took off running, figuring I could get at least two. However, the torque I generated snapped the ankle, and my foot started spinning wildly as I tried to run.

I hopped on one leg to first. Always run your hits out.

Thanks to all who commented.


12:35 AM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

"Always run your hits out"

Now that I'm not crying anymore, I'll tell you about Grandpa quick. After the first leg came off, and after learning to walk for the second time in his life (I think he was about 60) he got his Dodge Dart set up with hand controls and taught himself how to drive again. Then a few years later he did it all for a third time.

He was so stubborn. He refused to give up. And why should he have?

Anytime I get feeling sorry for myself I think of him and remember that anything can be coped with. Maybe not easily...but possibly.

12:49 AM  
Blogger terry said... that's horrific.

and i'm amazed that you were able to crack a joke at a time like that...!

2:21 PM  
Blogger Dark Lady said...

I find you inspiring

4:05 PM  
Blogger United We Lay said...

When something like this happens it seems like our live start over. It may not have been a good thing, and it may have made life harder for you, but it was a defining moment in your life, one that made you who you are today. If it had not happened, it is possible tha you would be a very different person. I happen to like who you are. This is going to sound very weird, but I think you'll understand: Happy Birthday. Everyone has a few. This is one of yours.

5:22 PM  
Blogger ell said...

incredible. i can't imagine what you have had to suffer through.

how brave of you to share this.

11:39 AM  

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