Chandler Balkman - Overcoming every mountain
In August in 2006, I was just a 16-year-old swimming in a lake with swim fins on my feet. While holding my breath and kicking along silently below the surface of the water, my sister inadvertently drove our family boat right over the top of me. The blunt skeg of the motor slammed into me, and the propeller followed, tearing down the entire length of my leg. The leg was unsalvageable, and that night I ended up with a hip disarticulation, or an amputation of my entire leg to the hip.
Since that crazy night, I have experienced all manner of life's highs, lows, and many days somewhere in the grey middle:
One of the hardest periods of my life as an amputee was my first month at college.
After losing my leg before Junior year of high school started, I had unending support from my childhood friends, teachers and community. They helped raise money for my prosthetic leg. They cheered me on in my recovery. They even kindly voted me as royalty at prom and as an elected graduation speaker. They fueled my strong recovery. Then came college.
To leave my support network of family and friends behind in Seattle to go to school in Utah was like pulling the rug out from under me. It hadn't occurred to me before I left that my friends back home knew me before my accident. To support me afterwards was easy because they were loyal. New college friends, however, would perhaps just view me as "the guy with one leg", and that would define me. I was unsure how people would respond to that version of me. This was uncharted territory, and my confidence suddenly started waning.
Moving from cool, temperate Seattle to the high desert of Utah was a shock to my system. I was constantly too hot in the dry August heat, and it became difficult to wear my prosthesis as my skin began to crack, sore and break down. My school was a "walking campus" with poor parking options, and I refused to use a wheelchair, so my skin problems got worse and worse.
In high school I had worn shorts almost every single day since getting my prosthesis. It was cool to show off my leg and people loved it. In this new environment, I suddenly felt the need to wear jeans, out of a subtle fear of others' reaction to my amputation. Almost inexplicably, I switched to long pants full-time, subconsciously tanking my body image and somehow losing pride in who I was.
In this new place I was in pain, needed help, and life suddenly was harder than ever. Welcome to college!
Happily, things steadily improved. I found genuine friends who accepted me as I was, without going too easy on me (just what I needed). Along with some family in the area, they were my new support network. Day by day, things just got better. I began to stop worrying and to have more fun. Life was back on track.
Years later, I can say my highest point was in August of 2013, when my wife and I were married in front of our closest friends and family. She loves me for who I am and am not. She doesn't make my amputation a factor in how she views me. She does help me when I need it, but she also lets me have my independence and self sufficiency. After my accident, my mom was worried I wouldn't ever get married. She is glad to report now that she worried in vain. Life does move on. I am now working on a master's degree and am working full-time. Life is good. I still struggle with lots of the old issues from time to time. Because I live in Houston, I feel overheated almost daily. Some days are comfortable, and some are still downright painful. Although every day might not be perfect, life is moving forward.
Looking back, some smart choices were made to help my recovery. My parents were extremely supportive (as were the rest of my family members and friends) in the wake of the loss of my right leg. They pushed me early on to commit to the goals I had set for myself. I had a goal to walk again, and they made sure to help me make that happen. They took me to endless amounts of physical therapy, helped me seek out specialists, and even set me up with a personal trainer to get stronger than ever before. They also encouraged me to attend amputee support groups. To their credit and certainly to God's, I walked much earlier on my own than the doctors and therapists expected. Because I went to amputee support groups, I was able to quickly build a network of friends who had amputations. I was averse to going to these groups at first. I was 16 and I thought it sounded lame. However, once I went, I was able to meet people who had progressed from the hospital back to normal life. Many had steady jobs, lived independently, had families, and even had fun hobbies to brag about. Just to meet them had a huge effect on me. It helped me find solidarity and confidence. Many areas don't have local groups like these, but the internet is connecting people better than ever before. Even though no two people have the same experience with amputation, I hope hearing my story will give others a sense that they are never alone in their challenges.