Taking that first step

By Sarah Garrecht Gassen

Finding health, in the personal and global sense, is about the recognition of investment.

Each of us have limited resources – time, money, ability to change. And none of us can afford to waste our resources on things that don’t work.

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Yet everyone has a story of potential lost, well-intentioned but fruitless effort,   energy wasted.

I’m not going to say fail, because it sounds so judgment-y and it’s a short jump from failing to do a specific task to being a failure. One is about an action, the other is a state of being.

And it’s an even shorter jump between being a failure and giving up.

So no failures here.

But finding the best investment to make, now that’s a challenge.

I’ve been there. We probably all have.

In my 20’s a friend told me that if you want to get in shape, do it before you’re 30 because it becomes a lot harder.

It didn’t happen. I could say life got in the way – super busy with work, etc. etc. etc. – but the truth is I just didn’t do it. I should have, but didn’t.

I didn’t make the investment.

In my 30’s I joined Weight Watchers at work. Our group leader had a wicked sense of humor and practical suggestions. It was supportive and fun and we looked forward to our weekly meetings. I lost weight. We all did.

Then, after a few months, our group leader became ill and couldn’t continue. The next person didn’t click. We wanted real-life help rather than motivational acronyms and stick-to-the-script advice.

Once our group lost our leader, we lost the motivational tapestry that had held us together. We weren’t a “we” anymore.

The meetings became easier to skip. Listening to someone operate from a (pardon the pun) one-size-fits-all-group handbook held no value.

My goal of losing weight and getting in shape didn’t change in theory but this wasn’t worth the investment.

So I stopped going. Over the course of about a month, so did everyone else. And so I put myself on hold. The progress I’d made unraveled.

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Hardly an unusual story I’m sure. But thinking back on that experience, a few things stand out: the necessity of finding health-care relationships that work and the recognition of investment.

Like everyone, my story has some wrinkles and speed bumps. They change the framework of how we get to where we’re going. But they don’t change the fact that we’re all going somewhere – the key is how we choose our destination.

I’ve used a prosthetic leg since my left leg was amputated when I was 3. My leg and hip didn’t develop as they should and when I was born my left leg was much shorter than my right. I’m what’s known as a “congenital amputee” – a rarity among people who don’t physically have various pieces and parts. I  don’t consider my leg missing, or lost, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I’ve always walked using a fake leg. I’m used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I am not good at recognizing when I’m having problems with it. I just keep going.

Technology has changed immensely in the roughly 40 years I’ve been walking. But with each new fancy foot or knee I’ve acquired surfaced an uncomfortable truth: I couldn’t use them to their best advantage because I simply didn’t know how. My muscles and bones had learned to walk decades ago on rudimentary equipment and they weren’t going to simply change.

I didn’t know what it felt like to walk with an even gait. I hesitate to say “correctly”, but that’s what I mean. I wanted to walk like everyone else. Even, uneventfully, unnoticeably.

As a dear friend who is rebuilding herself after surviving severe gunshot injuries in her hip explained it, “I can locomote forever. But that’s not walking.”

Eight years ago, and after a mondo insurance fight, I was fortunate to receive a bionic knee. It learns how I walk, adjusts and is supposed to offer a natural gait. It felt different, it was amazing. I was so excited.

I thought I was walking smoothly, gliding along – but I wasn’t. My walking looked no different than it had before. The rest of me couldn’t adjust to the technology.

Not good enough. I needed help. I asked at my prosthetist and doctor’s office for suggestions. Nothing. I called the company that makes the bionic knee and asked for a referral. Nothing.

I went to an amputee convention in Atlanta and had a session with a physical therapist who specializes in prosthetics and gait training. It showed me I could change. But 20 minutes can’t revamp decades of ingrained movement.

Everything in the healthcare system is geared to people who are new to prosthetics and need to learn how to walk again.

That’s not me. I need to retool my muscles and my brain. My equipment was fine. I was not.

Not having guidance was frustrating. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to find someone to help me get there. I needed support.

Physical therapy seemed as good a place as any to begin. I checked my insurance, found a clinic close to my office, paid the $40 copay each time and went for a while. It wasn’t a lasting investment. Nothing stuck. Brain and body still operated separately.

I gave up. I felt like I’d failed.


Last fall, I got a new foot with ankle action. It feels vastly different than previous feet – I have toes to push off of with my step.

Amazing technology – I walked evenly when I took my first steps with it, before my brain and muscle memory had a chance to catch up.

But then the same thing happened.  

No more settling. I could do better. I knew it. I just needed help. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I needed help breaking that connection between how I’ve always walked, and how this new technology can allow me to walk.

I needed to create a “we” because I can’t do it alone.

So….. who to talk to. Who to find. How to make that happen. How do I figure out what to investment to make – to help make a difference, or finally tell me that I just can’t change. That’s not an answer I want to hear, but a possibility.

I asked everyone I knew for ideas, asked for advice from an amputee Facebook group. Good suggestions of therapies and approaches.

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But how to find that person.

Eventually someone suggested John Woolf at Proactive Physical Therapy.

At last. A lead. Somewhere to start.

A first step.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is a journalist living in Tucson.