What I Wish I Knew Before I Became an Amputee
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s life after losing your leg.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
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In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Today, I woke up earlier than usual, at 6 a.m. Every morning, I wake up and put on my leg. At night, I take it off again, plugging it into a charger — the fancy new way prosthetic legs are made today.
I’m an above-knee amputee, which, in science speak, makes me a “transfemoral” amputee. When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher — mostly that’s what I had seen around me. But I decided to major in biology because when I took my first biology class at Wheaton College, it just felt right. I’m so glad I went that route, and now, having won an OZY Genius Award, I’m so excited about moving my dreams to reality.
Right now, I’m working on designing a cheaper adjustable prosthetic socket for amputees in developing countries. But what I really want to do in the future is start a clinic for amputees in Rwanda. The prosthetic leg I have now, you can’t really find in developing countries. They’re way too expensive. When I was living in Rwanda, I had a really hard time getting someone to make me a comfortable prosthetic socket or prosthetic leg.
I remember screaming so loudly that the kids from the orphanage came to the window and were trying to see what happened.
I was 5 when I lost my parents. I grew up in a town called Gisenyi in western Rwanda. After my mom and dad were killed, I was sent to live in an orphanage alongside other children victims of the genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The conflict saw people killing each other and neighbors resenting one another. My dad was shot and killed in 1998, but I was too young to understand how serious that was. At the orphanage, there were about 100 other kids — all victims of the conflict. We had a good coping mechanism: We all shared the same background, so we never felt like we were alone.
I fell sick with cancer at age 12. Before then, I played all kinds of games. I loved playing with my friends. But one time, when the ball hit my knee, that’s when I started feeling the cancer pain, in the proximal end of my tibia. I had osteosarcoma — bone cancer. I’ve never really played since. Learning that I had cancer was hard because it was also the day I had to lose my leg. I was crying and screaming at the doctors: “Why?” I remember screaming so loudly that the kids from the orphanage came to the window and were trying to see what happened. I really hated the doctors in that moment. I started spending more time at the hospital than at the orphanage. I went from one hospital to another. I ended up coming to the U.S. for my cancer treatment. I had 11 months of chemo while living with a host family in the U.S. I was 12 then; I’m 24 now.
This weekend is Spring Weekend — people will get drunk and go to parties and stuff. But I actually won’t be able to do that. I have a paper due. I’m doing an experiment to compare the gait analysis of people with flat feet and people with arched feet. I want to see how they walk differently. I’ve had a really, really busy week. Most of my projects are due, and I have not been sleeping at all, just a few hours. I’m watching Gilmore Girls. I usually don’t watch TV during the week. But I had so many projects due this week that I had to treat myself.
Success, for me, would mean creating something that helps people live better lives. That’s my goal, and that’s what I’m most excited about with OZY Genius Awards. I hope to visit different developing countries, like India and Rwanda, to learn about their ways of developing prosthetic sockets and to interact with amputees. Because the best way to learn and design is to talk to the people you want to design for — that’s every engineer’s dream.