Skip to main content

Amputees never say 'I can't'

By Jothy Rosenberg, Special to CNN
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Wed April 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jothy Rosenberg lost his leg at 16, an experience that some in Boston blast have had
  • He says it's horrible. And it's challenging physically to adjust, psychically even more difficult
  • But you can, he says. Sports mastery helps restore self-esteem
  • Rosenberg: Those hurt can excel far beyond what they imagine. Don't accept "can't"

Editor's note: Jothy Rosenberg is the author of the memoir "Who Says I Can't?" He is a serial entrepreneur in the high-tech industry, has written three technical books, is an extreme athlete in skiing, biking and open water swimming and is about to do his 20th Alcatraz swim across San Francisco Bay. Watch his "Who Says I Can't?" series on YouTube, and follow him on Twitter

(CNN) -- Waking up to realize you suddenly have no leg or legs is as horrible an experience as one can have, and one that will, sadly, be faced by a number of people injured in the bombing of the Boston Marathon. It happened to me when I was 16 after a bone cancer diagnosis and amputation (the cancer later spread to my lung and caused a lung to be removed as well). As I looked down in the recovery room to where my right leg used to be, all I saw was a short stump.

This is frightening for sure, and only one of the things you're dealing with after an amputation. Luckily perhaps, your entire being is consumed just with healing; the bigger issues come later. First thing to deal with is massive physical pain from the surgery, and it will be worse because of the shrapnel packed bombs. The explosive force traumatizes the tissues and the fragments injected into the body cause collateral damage. Modern medicine does well with pain management, so this phase will, luckily, pass quickly.

Jothy Rosenberg
Jothy Rosenberg

For the new amputee, challenges come fast and furious, but so does the natural "fight" that is in all humans. My very first challenge was trying to stand on one leg. The body and the mind do not adjust immediately to major changes like the loss of a 25 pound leg, so balance while standing up is elusive. But it will come and that is a first little victory. It's the first of many little accomplishments that begin to build up one's zeroed-out self-confidence. Our bodies heal and adapt well--the mind is a bigger challenge.

Someone newly disabled naturally has thoughts of "why me?" as well as feelings of loss, despair and even depression. As John Green wrote in a wonderful book called "The Fault in Our Stars," about a boy who lost his leg to cancer, "You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world." Bad things happen and all we can do is adapt and move forward.

Terrorists make us lose sight of the real dangers

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We are pretty attached to all our body parts, so of course there is a sense of loss. People don't study ahead for how they will deal with every possible eventuality that affects the trajectory of their lives. This new horrible reality of being disabled is a shock. There is fear of the unknown. What will I be able to do? How do I get back to normal? Will people stare at me because I look different? And it is easy to imagine how this leads to the tar-pit of self-pity. But that is not what happens to most people and it won't happen with the Boston Marathon bombing survivors.

Compared with the primitive prosthetics of my youth, modern prosthetics are technological marvels. It is surprising to most people, but prosthetics' most important role is not ambulation: They are a social device to "level the playing field" and allow others to see you as not different. Today's computerized knees keep people from falling (with mine, I have gone seven years without a fall; before that, for 33 years it happened once a week). They cut energy use for walking in half, and allow normal stair walking. But there is a down side. A computerized above-knee prosthesis is between $50,000 and $60,000, of which the best insurance companies typically pay about 80%. That can be $12,000 out of pocket. This is where we can help the new Boston Marathon amputees.

New normal, new mission for amputees
The people who saved others in Boston
Finish line becomes like war zone
'I wanted to see you finish that thing'

Opinion: Getting on with life after terror hits

By far the biggest long-term issue for anyone knocked down in life is the loss of self-esteem. Humans require strong self-esteem for a healthy, happy life. As Gloria Steinem said, "Self-esteem isn't everything, it's just that there is nothing without it." She's right. Building back the lost self-esteem is the hardest and most important challenge for the newly disabled. How does one do it? I found that sports were key.

I liked sports and, of course, physical activity was good for me. Pick something you like. Focus. Work hard at it. Work harder than anyone else. You can't help but get good at it. That feels good. That makes you want to work even harder. You keep getting better and better at it and then others stop saying you are pretty good, considering you only have one leg, and start respecting you. You've won and your self-esteem rises and takes your happiness up with it.

I started with skiing, which at first was more "turn, fall, get up, turn, fall, get up" than swooshing down the slopes. Now I am a double-black diamond (amputee) skier. I tried biking and every year join a 200-mile bike-a-thon. I added swimming and in May will do my 20th "Alcatraz Sharkfest" swim across San Francisco Bay.

Crystal legs and snake arms: Artificial limbs as art

The natural challenge-response we all have in us is what will be the biggest help to the new amputees. It goes like this: "You can't run with one leg." Says the amputee, "Who says I can't?!" and he or she will be off and running. We know that those with so-called disabilities don't fall into the pity tar-pit and in fact, do better than they or anyone around them ever thought possible. Some even excel far beyond what they had ever accomplished before they became "differently abled."

Richard Bruno studied polio survivors in the '80s and wrote in "The Polio Paradox," "Polio survivors who were told they would never go to college or get a job became the country's best and brightest." Like who, you might ask? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Johnny Weissmuller, Judy Collins, Jack Nicklaus, Dinah Shore, Alan Alda, Joni Mitchell and many more.

These polio survivors had significant physical problems but refused the label disabled, and never accepted the word "can't." To them, to me, and I predict to these bombing survivors, disability is simply "different ability"; and just you watch, maybe even "superability." Who says they can't?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jothy Rosenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT