It was October 29, 1979, on a chilly, rainy October morning as I sat alone on the edge of my hospital bed in the dark before dawn at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, waiting patiently for an orderly to transport me to pre-op for a surgery that would forever change my life.
I was 29 years old, married and the father of two toddlers and a newborn baby. As I sat in the darkness trying to grasp the circumstances I would be facing and my continual battle to eradicate this demon Desmoid tumor, I couldn’t help but think that this was just a bad dream, and I would wake up from another football concussion at Veterans Stadium with the stinging smell of a broken ammonia cap beneath my nose.
Unfortunately, this was not a dream. I had three prior operations and nine doctors’ opinions at various hospitals about stopping the severe pain in my left arm from a random tumor that popped up during football season and just wouldn’t go away. My life was in jeopardy.
Now, as I sat there, I tried to brace myself for the worst that was yet to come– a forequarter amputation that would result in the loss of my left arm, left shoulder and four ribs.
Fifteen minutes before being wheeled into the operating room, the man who eventually saved my life, Dr. Ralph Marcove, appeared at my bedside and handed me a release form to sign. It was only three short paragraphs, but one sentence absolutely shocked me: “As the patient in this operation you fully understand and acknowledge that there is a 33% chance that you may not survive the event.” I didn’t see that coming and during the fifteen-minute wait, I prayed that God’s will be done, and I begged forgiveness for all my earthly sins.
That one sentence lifted the fog of calmness that I had from the sedatives given to me earlier. And from my Catholic upbringing I began to pray the “Act of Contrition” with a purpose and priority that I had never known before.
I slumbered in and out of consciousness in the intensive care unit several times before I saw a wall clock and realized I was still alive. After an eleven-hour surgery to remove a rare tumor that was trying to take my life, I had made it through!
Three days later I was out of the ICU and back in my hospital room. Now, with clear eyes and mind, I started wondering how I would make a comeback from this disaster. Did Dr. Marcove get all the tumor, will I be able to work, could I drive a car? And on and on.
Fortunately, before I went too far down that depressing rabbit hole, a Pittsburgh Steeler running back by the name of Rocky Bleier called me. We had a 45-minute conversation that included some tough love and new perspective to my situation. He knew all too well that my ego, pride and overall confidence from tackling OJ Simpson, John Riggins and Joe Namath during my NFL career to being an “amputee” was going to be a huge transformation. His advice that day was a game changer for me and worth sharing since it changed my whole perspective on life.
• Do not limit yourself from any endeavor or challenge until you fail at least 10 times.
• You are not alone in the amputee world.
• Keep perspective on how lucky you are to be alive and project a daily positive attitude.
• Your goal going forward is to be the best “one armed man that you can be.”
• Most importantly, you must pay it forward to other people: amputees, cancer patients and others who will search you out for help.
Thanks to Rocky Bleier, I learned the importance of perspective early in my comeback and the importance of paying it forward. I have learned another life lesson: helping others is very fulfilling and it makes you happy.
For many years now, I have been honored to speak and work with people who could benefit from my situation of overcoming adversity and thriving in a new normal. I was trained as a Peer Visitor and was asked to speak to US soldiers who had been severely injured in the Afghanistan War. They were rehabbing at a military facility, Walter Reed Hospital in Virginia. When I arrived to speak to them, there were about 12 amputees working on physical therapy in the gym and learning how to function now that they were missing a leg, arm or both from battle. When I walked in, they saw a “veteran,” one of their own maybe. I wasn’t military, but they were rookies in their new reality.
Most of them were in their twenties and thirties. Their attitudes were positive, but they had a lot of life questions for me, “the one-armed guy” to answer, especially being a seasoned survivor of a life altering amputation.
Some of the most pressing questions: Will my “phantom” sensation of feeling my missing limb, ever go away? Will I ever be able to get a good job? Will anyone ever want to date me?
Fortunately, I was able to answer them positively and used myself as an example.
Being a Peer Visitor gave me the opportunity to help the soldiers learn life skills that could help them reenter into careers after leaving Walter Reed. It was a positive experience for me seeing them get results. Then one day I met Marine Captain John. When he met me, he was wearing his impressive Marine Corps uniform, looking fit and with a bigger than life, gregarious personality. He was squared away in every aspect of the interview process, and he was also the first triple amputee that I had met. He was missing both of his legs below the knee, his left arm and one eye. Just when I thought I could not have been more impressed with Captain John, he asked me, “Kevin, do mind if I ask you a question? Did you lose your dominant arm or your non-dominant arm”? I replied, “ I’m lucky, because I lost my non-dominant arm.” He said, “me too. Aren’t we lucky!?” WE??? I guess we are lucky, but I’m not in the same hemisphere as him! I was humbled, to say the least, and on those days that I feel frustrated or defeated trying to do something one handed, I get perspective by thinking of Captain John.
I think of the positivity and resilience coming from these people, like Captain John, and I dust myself off and get back on my horse. I firmly believe it was his perspective that kept him moving forward. I guarantee it is a mental game changer for any problem one faces in life.
This quote by Steven Furtick says it all; “Your perspective will either become your prison or your passport!” The conversation that I had on that lucky encounter with Rocky Bleier changed my world the second that I changed my perspective. In 45 minutes, I went from wondering if I was going to be on permanent disability for the rest of my life to what do I need to do to get back to being a marketing rep for Xerox and overachieving my yearly budget. I made my first President’s Club that year.
But that’s not the end of the story, after 20 years of marriage, my wife left me without a clue for another man. Several years after that, I admitted that I had an alcohol problem and started going to AA. How did I conquer those 2 mountains? PERSPECTIVE! I Buttoned my chin strap, kept my head down and helped put 3 great kids through college and then met a wonderful woman and have been happily married for 11 years. I haven’t had a drink in 9 years and at 71 years old I just competed in a 5k race with my 11-year-old granddaughter.
Here’s the bottom line—nobody goes through life undefeated but if you believe you are not alone and you trust in yourself and your talents you can be “the best version of yourself!”
St. Francis de Sales said it best; “Be who you are and be that well!”