Claire’s Other Leg

by | Sep 5, 2018

Imagine you were going to the beach. You’d put your swimsuit on under your clothes, drive or walk to the beach, and then what? For Claire Williams, she spreads out her towel. Takes off her shoes, then she takes off her clothes, takes off her watch, puts on her swim cap and finally, she takes off her leg. Then she hops down the beach and jumps into the water.

You can bet when she takes her leg off and hops to the water people all around her stop and stare. That’s understandable; it’s not every day that you see someone with a prosthetic leg. Especially not in a setting where you see them take it off. But for people like Claire, it’s just their reality. It’s like taking your eyeglasses off or your hearing aids out of your ears, though neither of those actions would make anyone look twice. Taking off her leg to swim is as natural to Claire as taking off her shoes.

Claire has an above-the-knee prosthesis, which means her prosthetic leg has a knee joint. If you have a below-the-knee prosthetic, you have the use of your own knee joint. A below-the-knee prosthetic is simpler, since you don’t need a mechanical knee. Claire’s situation is even more rare than just having an above-the-knee prosthetic because it was her thigh that did not form before she was born. That, in turn, means she doesn’t have a good hip joint, which makes walking harder than if she had a “typical” above-the-knee prosthetic. Claire got a lot of help when she was born because she lived in St. Louis, where the St. Louis Shriners Hospital helps lots of kids like her.

Most kids start trying to walk when they are about one year old and Claire was no exception. Claire got her first prosthetic leg when she was about one year old. She learned to walk the same day she got it!

Every time she grew, Claire had to have a new leg made for her. Instead of outgrowing her shoes like other kids, Claire was outgrowing her limb! Her first legs did not have a knee joint in them. The prosthetist (You say it just like it is spelled: PROS-the-tist. It’s a tongue twister, but it’s the term for people whose job it is to make prosthetic limbs) thought that was too hard for a small child to use, so Claire had one-piece legs until she got so tall that she had to be able to bend her leg in order to fit in the car seat.

It helps that Claire is strong and coordinated, not to mention determined. But she gets tired of hearing people say how impressed they are and how they couldn’t imagine doing what she does. It makes her mad because it’s not like she had any choice; this was just how she was born and if she wants to get around she’s got to use a prosthetic.

Claire, and others like her, is more than just her prosthetic leg. And don’t you dare call it a “fake” leg or artificial. It is as real as your leg!

What can you do if you see someone like Claire? Well, first it’s tempting to stare, but it is nice to try hard not to. Second, try to notice other things about the person. Are they about your age? Maybe you might wonder where they go to school? Are they wearing interesting clothes? Maybe you could ask them where they got that sharp outfit. Do they have nice hair? Perhaps you could compliment their hairdo. Are they bobbing their head and wearing earphones? Consider asking them what music they like to listen to.

In other words, try to look past the whole prosthetic limb thing and see them as a whole person who has interests and tastes just like you do.  And finally, whatever you do, if you see someone with a prosthetic limb doing the same thing you are doing, like riding a bike, or swimming, or climbing something, don’t tell them they are an inspiration.

Also, even if you become friends with someone who has a prosthetic limb, I would recommend you not ask them what happened to their limb. It’s really a personal matter. Eventually they might become comfortable enough to tell you. But if they don’t, well that’s their business.  Wait for your friend to open up that subject! People like Claire sometimes talk to their friends about their prosthetics or their experiences.

Claire, in case you are interested, likes to cook; she likes to read; she still swims; she likes Beyoncé. Claire is about to graduate from law school and is going to work as an environmental and energy lawyer, trying to help protect the environment by enforcing the existing laws and making sure our electricity works when we want it to.

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