Brace Yourself (Guest Post from The Spouse)

I was born 76 years ago with one leg shorter than the other. Well, that’s the easy explanation. Currently my right leg is, in fact, 10 inches shorter than my left, but the medical explanation is somewhat more complicated. The textbook calls it “focal femoral deficiency,” which means that I lacked a femur, and, hence, the hip socket that awaited the head of that femur went without. Happily for me, a small nubbin of bone was the single representative of the missing femur, and, as you will see, it was pressed into service.

My mother must have been horrified to find that her second baby girl was going to be “crippled” (as they said in those days). She had classic Rita Hayworth legs of which she was justifiably proud, and would have expected to pass them along to her daughters. More than the absence of pretty legs, though, her second baby girl might not walk.

Mother being at a loss and, no doubt, bereft, my father took on the orthopedic duties. Good man that he was, he took a leave from graduate school and moved the family lock, stock, and barrel from Evanston, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. World War II had ended the previous summer, and the Veterans’ Administration was geared up for equipping returning soldiers with artificial limbs of all sorts. Dad must have known someone in the VA because he seemed certain that people there could outfit me with some sort of apparatus that would allow me to walk. He was right.

Let me stop to interject a word about prosthetists — those people who make braces and artificial limbs. In my opinion they are among the most creative problem-solvers on the planet. Prosthetics were pretty much in their infancy after WWII, and these guys were confronted with a vast variety of injuries. Braces are not made on an assembly line — not in those days anyway; they had to meet a wide spectrum of individual needs. They routinely work one-on-one to develop a constructive strategy. As it turns out, these folks also are among the most patient of all people. I have had many over my lifetime, and they are all good listeners, kind, and just plain nice.

My first brace was an elaborate piece of metal sculpture. These men (and they were routinely men in those days) were artists as well as craftsmen. There were two steel uprights surrounding my leg; a shoe could be attached to a metal footplate; and below the steel footplate were some more steel uprights reaching to the ground where there was a rubber “heel.” A leather strap encircled my leg just below the primitive “knee.” But that’s not all. There was something called an “ischial seat,” a semi-circle of padded leather that tucked in under my right buttock. And yes, I could “sit” on it. But wait; there’s more. A leather belt was attached so that I was strapped in from waist to toe. There must have been a hinge at the waist because I think I could bend over. Otherwise, there was no flexure; the uprights were unbending.

But I could walk (which was, after all, the point). Stiff-legged, but I could walk. And this contraption turned out to be more than just a crutch. With constant use of my legs, that little nubbin of bone managed to grow into a functional femur. It found a place to attach itself, not at the hip socket, but to some soft tissue in the vicinity of my hip. It nestled there, and that attachment became strong enough to support me even without the brace. However, its journey northward pulled my leg up with it resulting in shortening the leg. During most of my childhood I wore the brace to school, but at home I ran, jumped, rode bicycles, climbed trees and swam without it. It didn’t bother me that one of my legs was 4, 6, or 8 inches shorter than the other. Looking like a “normal” person, however, required the brace. Interestingly, I never named it.

But the brace was uncomfortable. In summer, the leather was hot and stuck to my skin. That ischial seat was fine while standing, but it was like a large lump on a schoolroom desk chair. And I couldn’t bend my knee. I was a stiff-legged robot with it on. And heaven knows how much the thing weighed. It also affected my wardrobe. I couldn’t wear slacks because I couldn’t get them over the brace, and I certainly wasn’t going to wear it outside the pants!

As I grew stronger (constant lifting it probably helped), the upper leather belt of the brace was removed, considered unnecessary. A relief for sure, but I was still a robot. In junior high school I was invited (by a boy!) to attend the “Eighth Grade Dance” (catchy title). His dad was going to pick me up with another couple or two and drive us to the dance and then home afterward. I was horrified to find out that I was to be squashed into the back seat with four other people. My brace had nowhere to go. It ended up poking a hole into the back upholstery of the front seat. I was too mortified to say anything. I don’t think I was invited to do anything with that boy again.

(Concluded Jan. 11)