Being me: what it really means to be disabled

Louise Page, who has had four amputations, explains how her disability hasn't changed her essential feeling of who she is.

It wasn’t until I started having bits of me cut off, that I truly understood what it meant to be a disabled person.

I remember one day, after one of my four amputations, that I said to my Dad, “you know, they can keep cutting bits of me away, but I’ll still be me”. And he instantly started to cry. That wasn’t my intention, to make my dad cry. But I think it was then that I genuinely understood physical disability.

When you first have an amputation, you have to wait eight weeks for the wound to heal and the swelling to go down before you can be fitted with a prosthetic. And then of course, you need to learn to walk with it. And at first, you can’t wear it all the time as your body needs to adjust to weight bearing on something that wasn’t designed for bearing the weight of your full body (ie a cut off tibia or femur). So of course there are lots of times you have to go out in public with crutches and a missing leg.

And that means people staring, some people do a double-take, some people try to look very subtly by just looking sideways, some properly stare for a while, I even once had a lady tap her friend on the shoulder and point at me. My approach has always been to ignore the staring. My mum told me I should give everyone who looks a big smile, but maybe I’m not as nice as she is! I just tell myself that I would do the same thing. If we see someone who looks different in any way – excessively thin or fat, or with crazily dyed hair or bad style (one I know I have to confess to… see, I am mean!), then we can’t help staring. It’s just human nature.  So I’ve decided I can handle it, though to be honest I wish it wouldn’t happen…

The picture above is me during my second year of chemo just after first amputation, Summer 2008

Anyway, the point I was making was that I’m still the same Louise. Weirdly people treat you as a hero or as someone who is especially brave, when you have cancer and/or a disability, especially one that makes dramatic visible changes to your body. And we all seem to think cancer patients will discover the true meaning of what’s important in life. And yes, I have (though I hope I knew that beforehand already). But we also don’t stop being ourselves. I carried on with my Vogue subscription and my addiction to shoes (yes shoes! An amputee who loves shoes… how crazy is that?!) and of course… the handbags (some of you will be breathing a knowing sigh…). But I also carried on being Louise. Wanting to see friends, get dressed up to go out for dinner, read books, go to the theatre, watch trashy TV…

So my disability didn’t change me at all, apart from making walking, carrying things, getting dressed, dancing, walking on a beach, balancing on a bus, dancing, sitting (I could go on forever but I won’t) a hell of a lot harder. I’ve always been me throughout.  And I’ve always tried really hard to make sure everyone around me sees and knows that.

And of course every one of us is different and wants different things from life, so I can only speak for myself. And I think that’s why Diana (my boss at Thistle) values me – because I understand. I just hope after reading this, more people will understand this now too. I may have a disability, but I don’t consider myself disabled (the parking badge comes in very handy though!).  I’m just Louise and no matter what has happened or is yet to happen, I always will be.

This blog was first published on alancainsley.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with permission

Louise. All pictures reproduced with her permission
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear