Art and Much More

“Mom, I have kids in my classes who constantly whine, ‘I can’t do this!'” my daughter said. “They don’t get any sympathy from me. I tell them there are people without arms who do art with their feet. There are people without arms and legs who do art with their mouths. There are artists who are blind. I tell the kids that they have two good arms and two good legs and two good eyes and I don’t want to ever hear ‘I can’t do this’ in my classroom.”

I smiled at my spunky 26-year-old as she flipped back her long brown hair in defiance. I smiled on the inside, too, so proud of her determination to teach her elementary students much more than art.

Before I could respond, she continued. “I tell them about you, too. How you were born with one arm, but you never let that stop you from doing anything. I want you to make a YouTube video for me to play for the kids. Show them how you do things. Talk to them about how they should never say ‘I can’t.'”

“Wow, Cassie, I’d be honored to do that. I think that’s a great idea,” I said.

Over the next few days my mind swirled with possibilities. Which tasks should I demonstrate for the kids?

I could show them how I type. My computer keyboard has one simple adaption—I built up the shift key with Velcro squares so that I can press it with my prosthetic left hand and not accidentally push the keys around it. I taught myself to rest my right fingers on the traditional home keys and make all of the reaches to the other keys with one hand.

I could show them how I hook a necklace. I put the necklace around the back of my neck with the latch and ring in front. I hold the ring end of the chain in my mouth and, looking in a mirror, navigate the latch into the ring with my right hand.

I could show them how I hold things in my prosthetic hand. I move back the upper arm to trigger the lock on my prosthetic elbow. Once the elbow is locked, I can do shoulder movements to pull cables that open and close the hand, allowing me to grip things.

And then it struck me. The question kids ask me most is: “How do you tie your shoes?” That was it. I decided to make the video of me tying my shoes, an easy task for kids, a not-so-easy task for me. I first demonstrated tying my pink Sperry shoes while wearing my prosthetic arm. Next I demonstrated tying them without wearing my prosthetic arm, a larger challenge that requires using my knees and feet.

I closed the video with these words: “‘I can’t.’ Do you ever say those two words? The next time you start to do something and hear yourself saying, ‘This is too hard, I can’t,’ I want you to remember watching me tie my shoes. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You can use that smart brain of yours and figure out a way. You can keep trying until you get it. You can do amazing things if you never allow yourself to say ‘I can’t.'”

Cassie showed the video to her students. They exclaimed, “That’s your mom?”

“Yes,” she replied. “And just like her, you can do anything if you try.”

Cassie said the “I can’t” whines decreased significantly during the remainder of the school year. Her students worked hard to master basic art elements like shape, texture, symmetry, perspective, and color. When summer break finally arrived, the kids left with new art skills… and much more.

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Purple Heels

(A devotional thought from the book One Smile, One Heart)

The words of a stranger poisoned my teenage heart.

I had finished my four-hour shift in the shoe department at Target. I was feeling good. It was payday and I had a date in a few hours. I decided to try on the pair of purple heels I had been eyeing all morning. They would stylishly match my purple skirt. I slipped on the right shoe and admired it in the floor mirror. As I bent down to put on the left shoe, I sensed someone moving into my personal space. I glanced up to see an older woman stop beside me. I stood and backed away a few steps.

“What happened to your arm?” she blurted.

I was used to that question so I smiled and said, “I was born with one arm.”

But the stranger didn’t return the smile. She just kept standing there, staring at me, staring at my prosthetic arm. I took another step back.

Finally she spoke. “Well, someone in your family must have done something really bad for you to have been born with an arm like that.” Then the woman turned and walked out of the shoe department.

I stood motionless in the purple heels, watching her walk away.

Perhaps the poisonous words had gurgled in the stranger’s heart for a long time, waiting for exactly the right recipient. When she spotted me, she lurched into action—because I was perfect—young, vulnerable, impressionable. She heaved and the burning words expelled from her heart and spewed all over me. Did the woman feel relief? Did she feel contentment? Did she feel regret? Did she feel anything?

The thought that my arm could be a punishment had never entered my mind. My parents always told me I was special, that God made me the way I was for a reason. I accepted that and never questioned it. But now I was standing in purple shoes, drenched in poisonous words. They didn’t drip off like water; they stuck on like acid. They ate through my skin and oozed into my heart.

I bought the purple heels. I went on my date. I continued going to school and to work and to church and to extra-curricular activities. Life as a teenager was a new adventure and I was happy. Until bedtime… when the room turned dark each night… and I grew still… and my world became quiet… and I felt the gurgling of the poisonous words in my heart.

From childhood I was drawn to the inspiring verses and stories within the Bible. Even at a young age I read it almost daily and set personal goals to memorize parts of it. I escaped often to the shore of my grandpa’s pond where I kept a small Bible in a plastic bag under an overturned canoe. It was there, soon after my encounter with the stranger, that I stumbled upon the words in John Chapter 9.

As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:1-3 NIV).

My mouth fell open. I read the story again. I couldn’t believe the clarity of the words on the page! They were a direct message of explanation from my Heavenly Father to me. My arm was not a punishment issued to my family for doing something horrible. My arm was part of a plan to bring glory to God! I had been chosen to display God’s work to the world. What an honor.

That night as I lay still in the darkness and quiet, I felt no gurgling in my heart. Only joy.

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“Above all else, guard your HEART, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV).

New Arm- Part 3 (Building the Arm)

For those who might be interested, I invite you to walk with me through the tedious process of getting a new prosthetic arm. I’m journaling the steps and my experiences along the way. You can interact with me by sharing thoughts and comments, if you wish.

I facilitated a three-hour leadership seminar recently in Auburn, Alabama. Community leaders were seated behind tables arranged in a “U.” For a full hour and thirty minutes I spoke in the center, moving about and interacting with the 35 participants. Just before I dismissed the group for a 15-minute break, I told a personal story about being born with one arm to help illustrate a point. During the break, a woman approached me.

“Until you mentioned your prosthetic arm, I had not noticed it!” she said. “I had checked out your cute outfit and even your shoes. But I did not see your arm!”

This happens to me quite often. Half of the credit goes to the great prosthetics people who help me so much. The other half of the credit goes to the slick operator with 54 years of experience.

6/20/16- The lower arm was made when I arrived. It was very thin and had no outer lamination. Adan (Prosthetist), Caitlin (Prosthetic Resident), and Brad (Fabrication Manager) worked diligently with me for seven hours.

  • We concentrated on positioning and mounting the elbow. Two separate pieces were involved—the locking unit on the inner side next to my body and the joint unit on the outer side. These connected the upper arm to the lower arm. Once again, I had to make sure the angle of the lower arm when bent was where I wanted it (left to right).

Elbow 1Elbow Joint 2Elbow 3

  • We decided how much to cut out on the top side of the lower arm at the elbow to allow for flexion (how far up I can bend the arm).
  • The gap between the upper arm socket and the inner elbow unit will be filled in with foam and laminated over. This will make the shape and size of the upper arm match my real right upper arm.

7/1/16- The inner and outer elbow units were laminated in when I arrived and the gap between the upper arm socket and the inner elbow unit had been filled in and laminated over. For eight hours, Adan, Caitlin, and I worked on suspension and line-of-pull. These are difficult to explain, but I am going to try.

Suspension & Line of Pull 1Suspension & Line of Pull 2

  • Suspension is how the prosthesis is held onto the body. Straps attach the prosthesis to a harness. The harness goes across my back and under my right arm. Line-of-pull involves attaching additional straps to cables that operate the elbow and hand.
  • The straps, harness, and cables have to be positioned in exactly the right places and at exactly the right angles for me to be able to operate the prosthesis smoothly. A slight change in a position or angle can make a huge difference in the ease or difficulty of operation. I’d put on the arm, I’d attempt to operate the arm, they’d evaluate, I’d take it off, they’d make a slight adjustment, I’d put on the arm, and repeat the cycle—all day.

Suspension & Line of Pull 3Suspension & Line of Pull 5Suspension & Line of Pull 4

  • We made progress, but we didn’t yet find that sweet spot. When we do, I will be able to use shoulder and upper left arm movements to raise and lower the forearm, lock and unlock the elbow, and open and close the hand.

7/15/16- I hung out with my friends at Fourroux Prosthetics for eight more hours.

  • We finalized suspension and line-of-pull.
  • Adan sewed padding on the harness in spots that were uncomfortable.
  • I decided exactly where I wanted the hand positioned most of the time. (I’ll still be able to manually rotate it at the wrist slightly to type.) They drilled a hole just above the wrist unit, fed the hand cable through it to hide it, and brought it back out near the elbow.

  • I “took delivery” of the arm (paid my portion) for insurance purposes so I could take it home and wear it for a few days. I will make sure it works like I want it to before they do the outer lamination.

8/31/16- I dropped off the arm to Adan. I was not able to test it as originally planned because the hand made a noise like fingernails on a chalkboard when I opened it. I couldn’t stand it! We are not sure what is going on. He will have the team get on it right away. No rush on my part though. I am going to be speaking several places and leading tours over the next two months. I won’t be able to return until November.

Thanks for walking with me through this process. What are your thoughts about the building phase?

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“It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.” (Psalm 18:32 NIV)

 

Read “New Arm- Part 1 (Picking Out Body Parts)” here:
https://onesmileonearm.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/new-arm-part-1-picking-out-body-parts/

Read “New Arm- Part 2 (Designing the Arm)” here:
https://onesmileonearm.wordpress.com/2016/06/18/new-arm-part-2-designing-the-arm/