Losing a Leg
I lost a leg the other day – eleven months ago, to be exact. The accident happened as I was about to get into bed. I went to the window to draw back the curtains, slipped on something, fell and broke my thigh. It was a simple as that. [In fact he stoically endured the pain until next morning, but was then admitted to the Westminster Hospital for treatment.] In hospital they asked me my age (I was seventy six) and put me in traction, flat on my back with my leg in a kind of cradle, and a weight over a pulley keeping the leg in tension; and so I stayed for twelve weeks, waiting for the bone to set. It would take all that time, I was told, because old bones take longer to heal than young ones; but, even after the three months were up, there was still no sign of the bone knitting. So, still not giving up hope of saving the leg, the surgeons operated twice in the next month [pinning and plating], each time without success, and after that I told them we had better cut our losses and have the thing off. It appears that they were going to tell me the same thing, but I got in first, which pleased me.
The reason I have gone into such detail here is because the four months I had to wait before matters came to a head meant that I had had plenty of time to come to terms with the problem. I might so easily have had an entirely different sort of accident (been run over by a bus, perhaps) and woken up to being told that my leg had had to be taken off. It would have been an appalling shock to me: but, as things were, I had no sort of shock at all; and, in fact, when I came to after the operation, I felt nothing but a great relief that all that business was now over. At last I was without pain – apart from the 'phantom pains' which smote me pretty often in the missing leg, and which get fewer and fewer as time goes on. Very odd they are too, because I know exactly where each pain is, and could point a finger at the very spot (big toe, or knee or whatever), and yet there's no real leg there at all.
As though determined to follow, at all costs, the old saying that whatever one does should be done thoroughly or not at all, the surgeons made a real job of my leg and took it off completely, hip joint and all. What they left is just a small, plump and (to me, at least) rather endearing little stump, which, after a while, I found I could waggle at will in all directions, much to my surprise and satisfaction. The experts had been a little gloomy about my chances of being able to have any sort of artificial leg on so small a stump; but this power of waggling made them think again and they became quite optimistic. For the last seven weeks I have had a fine, upstanding, if rather primitive leg, which not only does a lot for my appearance (even at my advanced age that is quite important!), but means that I can stand, without crutches, and do things like cooking or odd jobs, with both hands free. And, too, I can get around with it a good deal better than I ever could when there was just a stump.
But to go back to those hospital days and the first few weeks after I left: when word spread around that Kaulback was legless, letters began to arrive in considerable numbers, full of sympathy and friendship and all of them warming to my heart. Bless all those letter-writers, and those, too, who came to see me in hospital for their generous kindness. None the less, it did strike me after a time that I was receiving all this sympathy very much under false pretences, and that, if I wasn't careful, I might even sink into a slough of self-pity. What was there really for people to sympathise about? I am already comfortably over the three score and ten and, on the whole, I have had a lovely life. Not much money – a lack which has not worried me greatly – but all the things which matter so much more than that. I have had them all, things such as good health, friends (as opposed to acquaintances), the love of the women I have loved; and so very much more. I have been able to lead the active life I always wanted, and up till now I have never had anything much more than a scratch on me. I no longer yearn to play physical games or engage in tough sports; I would far rather watch others show their skills; and so, if I have to do without a leg, this is the very time to do without it. Now that I can get about quite easily (and only a little more slowly than before) what on earth have I got to complain about?
However strange it may seem, now that the actual business of losing it is over and done with, this being without a leg is interesting and quite fun. There are so many little difficulties to sort out that there is hardly a dull moment. How to wash myself in the bath is still one of them. I like plenty of water in the bath, but when I lift up my leg to get busy on that, unless I hang on to the sides of the bath like a limpet I instantly spin round and dunk myself. Even if I hang on with only one hand, it is hard to control the soap with just the other. And what about chest and stomach? To get those portions of the anatomy above water level it is necessary to push with both hands on the bottom of the bath – so then what? It's no use trying to stand up on my one leg either, and wash like that. It's not possible, for me at any rate. But there – Archimedes got his best ideas in the bath, and I too will solve this problem in time. Meanwhile there are many others to occupy me pleasantly.
I have no complaints at all. Life is certainly different from what it was, but it is interesting and very satisfying, and above all, I don't feel a cripple.
As contributed to Winning Through: How People Have Triumphed Over Tragedy,
compiled by Bill and Marta Annett, Arrow Books, 1987