A New Hope

For the last year, I’ve been on a part-time quest to find shoes that are comfortable given the circumstances of my foot. They need to have very soft soles to help absorb the impact that my ankle can’t. They need to be wide enough not to squeeze my now very sensitive forefoot. But they need to be tight enough that my good foot isn’t swimming in them. Among other challenges.

Including my two pairs of OOFOS sandals, I’ve bought 6 pairs of shoes in the last year searching for something I could wear every day. If it wasn’t for cold weather or a need for traction, I’d probably wear my OOFOS every day for the rest of my life.

But new shoes aren’t really the story. I also have some old shoes. A pair of basketball shoes. A pair of waterproof hiking/snowshoeing boots. Some dress shoes. For the last couple of years, they’ve sat in my closet unused. I guess I believed I’d still wear them someday.

Now they’re in a trash-bag on their way to the local donation center.

For some quick context to quantify the opinions I’ve gathered, we’re at 12 surgeons, 2 doctors of physical therapy, 2 prosthetic specialists, and 2 below-knee amputees. I’ve been very deliberate about this process. That’s the primary reason that it has taken so long.

Less than two months ago, I was fully prepared to amputate my left foot below the knee, and believe it or not, I was looking forward to it. Well, not looking forward to the surgery, but to removing limitations and regaining functionality. Amputation is still a possibility, and I’m more than prepared and willing to accept that outcome. The doctors, however, have convinced me to try a fusion before I go there since amputation is so permanent.

I’m not surprised that the amputation doctors pushed back. I had read and heard many similar stories through my research. And while hopeful about a fusion, I’m not exactly optimistic. I believe that it will be successful from a medical standpoint, but I’m not entirely sold that it will lead to a better quality of life than amputation in the context of my goals.

I sincerely hope that it can be my last surgery, but virtually every “Will I be able to…?” question directed at my doctors results in a less-than-inspiring response. They tell me stories of patients who are still “active,” but virtually nothing they’ve said is encouraging. About all I can get from doctors is a “You should be able to walk without pain.” So I’m primarily basing this decision for a fusion on the assumption that surgeons are all about under-promising and over-delivering.

At thirty-six, I’m not fooling myself. My body is already on its downward slide, and I know that from here on out, I’m waging war with my body to stay healthy and physically fit. Maybe walking without pain is enough to stay healthy, but I’m not sure. Either way, I know I’m going stir crazy without basketball and snowboarding.

More than that, though, I want to be able to run and play with my daughters as they grow up. Whether that’s sports, day-long mountain hikes, or anything really. With an ankle fusion, those options are dramatically reduced.

That’s the most difficult loss.

I’ve always had on-and-off back problems. Now, going on two years of limping, my broken gait has exacerbated them. Most days, my back now hurts more than my foot. All said, of the last few months, I’ve probably spent three weeks in bed due to my back. These days, the hope I cling to is one of a day without back pain.

I’m sick-to-my-stomach of telling Lauren and the girls that I can’t do something because of pain or other physical limitations. Cancelled trips. Staying home while they go do things. Half of the time, I go ahead and try ayways only to make things worse and re-injure myself. With a fusion, maybe I can say yes to a few more things, but for the rest of my life, I’ll be have to decline many more.

There is absolutely nothing harder through all of this than feeling like a weight around their necks. That feeling is self-inflicted as they are as loving as ever. No. More loving than ever. But it’s a real feeling nonetheless.

I spend a lot of my time now trying to actively focus on the positive things, and it helps most days. If I’m honest, we have been pretty lucky. However, as the future comes into focus, it’s more challenging.

During recovery, it was easy to hold onto dreams of what life will be like afterwards. It’s easy to focus on getting through it. Once you’re on the other side, though, reality sets in. For me, that has meant going from dreams of returning to basketball to merely hoping to be pain-free.

Best-case scenario, an ankle fusion ends all of my pain, and the only loss is some minor physical limitation. If I’m really lucky, maybe my gait returns to normal and my back problems dissipate. Worst-case scenario, it’s a three-to-six month pit stop on the way to amputation and removes any and every possible doubt that amputation is the right choice.

Somewhere in-between those best and worst-case scenarios is more concerning. That’s what scares me. The idea of choosing between settling on merely pain-free days or risking more for the hope of staying more active with fewer limitations.

Of course, with amputation, nothing is guaranteed either. It’s still a risk with plenty of opportunity for complications. So, barring continuing pain or fusion complications, this will all probably end with the fusion.

I wish I could say that I was optimistic, but right now, it feels more like settling for existence rather than pursuing dreams. I’m confident that feeling will pass. Soon there will be more good days than bad. But today, reality is settling in a bit.

And so I give away my shoes.