Healing the Greatest Wound
by Ella Strzepa
“OK,” I said to myself as I took one more glance at the prosthesis that was lying on my bed. “It’s just another challenge; I’ll be fine,” I thought. Then I picked up my crutches, shoulder bag, and keys and left the apartment.
It was supposed to be my first day back at work after taking a week-long vacation to celebrate my 30th birthday, settle into my new apartment, and let the wound on my stomach caused by the prosthetic socket heal.
Unfortunately, the wound kept getting worse, and I was forced to see a specialist, who recommended that I not wear my prosthesis until the wound healed. You might think that after 14 years of being an amputee and a cancer survivor, I’d be comfortable in my own skin and all right with not wearing the prosthesis, but I wasn’t.
I got into my car, started the engine, and drove off. I got to work early, so I parked my car and stayed there for a while, wondering what it was going to be like for everyone to see me. After all, most of my coworkers didn’t even know I was missing a leg.
“Relax,” I said to myself.
As I took a deep breath in, I closed my eyes and suddenly found myself in my orthopedic surgeon’s office 14 years ago.
“She has osteosarcoma of the hip. We will have to amputate her leg,” the surgeon explained to my parents. I was just sitting there, ignored because I didn’t speak the language, and I felt invisible.
I kept ignoring one very important issue – my prosthesis and how much I relied on it to feel normal.
I had moved to New York City from Poland a week before and didn’t speak or understand English well enough to know what was being said, except for two words: cancer and amputation. Not knowing the language meant that I wouldn’t be involved in any decision making.
“She’s lucky,” the surgeon said. “The tumor didn’t spread anywhere else, and she has a better chance of recovery being treated here in New York rather than in Poland.”
I didn’t feel lucky. I was about to lose my leg, along with the life I used to know. And no, I didn’t want to talk about it either.
A year later, I successfully finished treatment, was fitted for my prosthesis, and started a new school.
Years passed, and I found myself graduating from high school, college, and then graduate school with a degree in social work. I wanted to help people, but I felt like a wounded healer. I would smile and put on a brave face even when I felt like crying, all while counseling clients on how to cope with difficult life situations.
It wasn’t until I followed my heart and became an oncology social worker that I realized it was time for my own healing to begin. I learned a lot about what cancer survivors go through, which allowed me to mentally re-experience my cancer and to heal. Somehow, though, I kept ignoring one very important issue – my prosthesis and how much I relied on it to feel normal. That was probably the greatest wound I needed to let heal, but I didn’t realize it until I was forced to live and function without my prosthetic leg.
Thinking of all this made me so anxious that I considered calling in sick to work. Then I heard a knock on the window. I opened my eyes to see one of my coworkers. Too late.
“Hey! Give me a second,” I said as I grabbed my bag and my crutches. When I got out of the car, she looked at me in disbelief.
“What happened?” she asked.
“The wound on my stomach got much worse. I need to let it heal completely before I can wear my leg again.”
“OK,” she said calmly, letting what I had just revealed begin to sink in. As we walked toward the building, I realized that by the time I’d be ready to put my prosthesis back on, I’d be a completely different person.
I need to let the wound on my stomach heal, but more importantly, I must allow myself to heal and become whole again.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Ella Strzepa is an osteosarcoma survivor living in Cedarhurst, NY.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.