By Rachel Handler
My name is Rachel Handler and my life changed forever on March 3, 2012. Some may consider me disabled now, but I don’t think the prosthetic limb I wear is a sign of loss. It is a symbol of empowerment and a reminder to overcome fear and embrace life.
Here’s my story –
I was driving from New York City to an audition in South Jersey. I never made it to that audition. I was in a slight fender bender – my first ever car accident. I was shaken up but the other driver and I were fine and had little damage to our cars. We parked on the shoulder of the causeway and as we leaned against the guardrail, waiting for the police to arrive, the unthinkable happened. I saw a car speed around the curve behind us. The driver quickly lost control and hit the guardrail across from us. In the matter a second these thoughts raced through my mind – “Will that car hit us? No way. Yes it will! Jump over the guardrail!” Without even the chance to scream, it was too late; we were both hit and I was flung over the guardrail and into some muddy grass.
I fell paralyzed onto my stomach. All I could do was scream at the top of my lungs, “Help, HELP! HELP!!!” I quickly realized my iPhone was still in my hand, unscathed (unbelievable!). As I turned my head my second realization was not so promising – I couldn’t see my left boot. The shoe was gone, which led me to believe that so was the flesh inside it. Panic sunk it, but luckily good samaritans came to my aid. A father and his 10 year old daughter held my hand and called my dad. Not ten minutes earlier I had called him to say I was in an accident but everything was fine. This call was much more somber. As I choked back tears I told my parents, who were 2 hours away from me, that I had lost my leg. They immediately started driving towards me.
Once the paramedics got to the accident they kept my parents updated as to which hospital would take me. Those minutes spent waiting for the ambulance were the scariest moments of my life. I wondered if I had other injuries, if the blood by my head indicated a head injury, and why was I still conscious?! I cried for my loss; I cried for my pain; I blamed myself for the accident; and I cried for my dreams of singing and dancing on Broadway being dashed (I didn’t know then what I know now about the amazing world of prosthetic legs). I also cried for the kindness of strangers. When a person loses a limb due to illness they are in the hospital surrounded by their loved ones. But in my case my mom wasn’t there to hold my hands and tell me everything would be ok. I had a stranger’s hand to hold. Lucky for me, a wonderful woman pulled over and rushed to my side. She prayed with me and helped me keep the faith while we waited for medical help to arrive.
I was unconscious when we arrived at the hospital. I only remember waking up after surgery and feeling very relaxed. I knew I was finally safe. Safely on pain medications in a hospital filled with people who could help me. I had my parents with me and my close friends by my side. But that night was the calm before the storm.
The rest of my stay in the hospital was filled with surgeries, pain, anxiety, and fear. Also love and support. But mostly fear. For over two weeks the doctors weren’t sure if they could save my knee. Most of the skin below my knee wasn’t salvageable and they didn’t know if the muscle underneath would be viable. I never prayed so much in my life.
I had a 50/50 chance of keeping/losing my knee. Below knee amputees can navigate steps and other terrain much more easily than above knee amputees. Luckily the odds swung in my favor. Unluckily, I had to spend two more weeks without skin covering the muscle below my knee. Every time the residents changed the dressing on my wound it felt like they were peeling off my skin while simultaneously burning my leg. Yet somehow my parents managed to help me find a sense of humor to cope with the situation.
We laughed when one of the residents thought I was a medical student. We found a sense of community with my roommates, who consisted of prisoners and stabbing victims (I changed rooms 5x during my stay in the Newark hospital). I cracked up when my order of shrimp scampi arrived as prawns and rice. And my parents smiled when they walked into post-op and found me holding hands with my surgeon and resting.
My month long stay in the hospital consisted of multiple blood transfusions, major surgeries, and the side effects that come along with being bedridden and heavily medicated. Little did I know, however, that the hardest part of my recovery was yet to come.
After I was released from the hospital my parents took me to my childhood home. As I crutched into my home I realized that my life had been changed forever. I saw my home with a new pair of eyes; eyes that had been opened by God’s mercy. I cried when I realized that my home felt different because I was different. I knew there was no looking back, only forward. I lived on crutches for the next few months while the doctors waited for my skin to heal. The new skin from my skin graft was too raw for me to wear a prosthetic leg.
I didn’t want to be weak but at times it was hard to be brave. I would check my leg and there were days when the skin would just peel off of it, like in a horror movie. My patience was being tested. It felt like any glimmer of hope turned into a step in the wrong direction. Some days hope was just another four letter word and all I could rely on was faith.
One particular night in June hope was presented to me as not only a feeling, but a choice. I went to a beautiful wedding and had an amazing time, but for a moment I wasn’t sure if I could let myself enjoy the night. While congratulating the groom during cocktail hour, we talked about the couple’s first dance. He mentioned the name of the song and it sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it…until I heard that first verse.
Memories of the accident flooded my mind and tears fell from my eyes. I had danced to that song in my favorite contemporary dance class, two nights before I was hit by the car. It was the last time I would dance as an able-bodied person. I hadn’t even thought of that until the moment I watched the bride and groom dancing to the music.
I knew I had to choose – let my fear of never dancing again swallow me whole, or turn that page in my life and accept this new chapter. A friend held my hand as the tears of grief subsided and a smile crept across my face. The song became less painful and more inspirational as I looked around that ballroom, filled with love and the promise of a new beginning.
So many people; friends, family and even strangers have been asking me, “How do you stay so positive?” They mention that I’m “inspiring.” I’m so flattered, but I don’t ever think of myself that way. God has given me the gift of life and shown me how fragile it can be. He’s allowing me to watch my very own body perform the miracle of healing. Even though what I’ve experienced in the past eight months has been brutal and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, I’ve always been an optimistic person and because of my faith I remain optimistic. The word “can’t” has never been in my vocabulary, and now more than ever I refuse to let that cruel word walk into my life.
I felt like I lost part of my soul the day I lost my leg. I saw my dreams of singing and dancing on Broadway being crushed; I felt confused and angry with God. I was worried that when I looked down at my feet all I would feel was a sense of loss. I’m happy to have been wrong. Now the prosthesis I can finally wear is a testament to my powerlessness and to God’s might. Who could have imagined that at 24 years old what I consider to be my greatest achievement is simply walking? I’ve worked hard in my life at many jobs, classes and auditions, but learning to walk with a prosthetic leg at physical therapy has been the most powerful and humbling experience of my life.
I used to think of my prosthesis as “the torture device” because it was extremely painful, but now it seems like magic. Of course it’s still a little uncomfortable and my residual limb feels sore after a long day wearing the prosthetic leg, but there’s no better feeling than looking down at my two feet and taking a step. It could simply be a step towards the fridge to pour myself a glass of water, or it could be taking a step onto the stage.
At this point the only thing holding me back is fear. But isn’t that true for everybody? My experience was pretty extreme, but we all have obstacles to overcome. For me the obstacles are just a little more noticeable! It’s taken a while, but I’m pushing myself to drive again. I’m even trying things I’d never done before! Like discovering my love of kayaking and Pilates. I’ve also been studying anatomy so that I can go back to school to become a physical therapist assistant. I’m writing more original songs and now I’m writing a play. My capacity for compassion and determination has grown so I’ve become a motivational speaker and advocate for disability and amputee awareness in the media. Who knows what the future holds, my only goal is to praise God through my actions and contribute to my community.
I’m in a show now and one member of the cast had no idea that I use a prosthesis because I’ve been wearing long pants. When I walk down the street or into a restaurant, no one knows the trauma I’ve endured; they can’t see that I’m part of the nearly 20% of disabled Americans. I’m thankful to be able to hide my disability and appear “normal”; some people don’t have that luxury. Yet, sometimes when people can’t tell I’m an amputee I feel guilty for hiding that part of my life. I’m not ashamed of my leg, in fact, I’m pretty proud of it!
There are times when I choose to expose my prosthetic leg so that strangers may see it and ask me about it. I like to show that there can be opportunity in adversity. However, people tend to stare, gawk, and point and this makes me uncomfortable. After experiencing such a traumatic event and enduring so much discomfort the last thing I want to do is purposefully put myself it an uncomfortable situation. I don’t like it when people just stare or get embarrassed by their child questioning my leg; I want them to ask me questions about my disability so that society can stop fearing disability. As the playwright, John Belluso, says “disability is the minority no one wants to join but anyone can fall into at any time.” Instead of fearing this fact we must become aware that disability is a natural part of life.
As I move forward with my life, my goals, and my dreams I find myself drawing closer to God and relying more on prayer. This experience has shown me that everything happens for a reason. Even though this injury certainly wasn’t in my life plan, sometimes the most creativity happens when you color outside the lines. My injury dared me to be vulnerable and taught me to be strong. With prayer and the support and aid of my parents, brothers, extended family, friends, talented team of surgeons, doctors, nurses, therapists and prosthetist, my dreams of singing and dancing on a Broadway stage have not been– and will never be – extinguished. Life is truly, limBitless.