Until a little more than 6 months ago, Christine O’Connor had never owned a pair of shorts. The 27-year-old right transfemoral amputee from Farmington, Mo. never had the courage to put her prosthesis on display for the world to see. But all that has now changed, and owning shorts is just one bullet point on a long list of firsts for O’Connor.
Born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a congenital length deformity in the lower extremity where the proximal femur is partially absent, resulting in varying leg length, O’Connor had her right leg amputated above the knee when she was 2 years old. Her identical twin sister, Crystal, was not born with PFFD. Although she has always been an outgoing and engaging person, the disparity between her and her twin sister forced her family to naturally be overprotective. Although she understood and could empathize with her parents’ concerns, frustration seemed a constant in O’Connor’s life.
“I never really did anything athletic growing up. I wasn’t a competitive person – I was always kind of laid back, made friends with everybody, didn’t want to make any enemies,” she said. “I did want to play volleyball in high school but my parents were too protective.”
O’Connor, who now works as the office manager for Cobb Prosthetics, could never completely come to terms with how her amputation was viewed in a social context. She was always concerned with her prosthesis in a cosmetic way, relying on her effervescent personality to take the focus away from her disability.
O’Connor even had reservations about taking her driver’s test. Unsure if she was allowed to operate a car with her left foot, she found herself in a static state – too afraid to even ask. She eventually passed the test and received her license when she was 19, but only after she had struggled with the decision to give it a shot for more than 3 years. Fortunately for O’Connor, that resistant and hesitant mindset began to change as she moved into her 20s.
A newfound confidence
“It has been within the last 2 or 3 years that I’ve really broken out of the shell of being so reserved. ‘Shy’ is not really the word, because if people asked me what was wrong I didn’t mind telling them. It was more along the lines of I wanted to be as cosmetic as possible,” O’Connor said. “But the older I get, the more I realize that if somebody has a problem with it, I don’t have to deal with that, that’s their problem.”
It was this new found sense of confidence that led O’Connor to the O&P Extremity Games by College Park. At the urging of her boss, she began to look into adaptive sports and instantly found a home with rock climbing. She will be competing in recreational rock climbing at the Extremity Games in July in Orlando, Fla.
“I started climbing and I loved it. Especially the shock factor. I’m up on the wall climbing around and people are like, ‘Oh you see that girl, she’s climbing,’ and then they say, ‘and did you see that she’s missing a leg?’ People are kind of amazed and I get a lot of encouragement and that helps me.”
O’Connor was hooked on the concept of the Extremity Games from the first time she stumbled across the Web site. In hindsight she wishes there was an event like the games when she was growing up and feeling ostracized as a result of being an amputee. O’Connor said the games provide a huge opportunity for disabled athletes, especially children.
She is currently looking for ways to counsel disabled children, amputees or not, and let them see that there is no need to be closed off from the world because of an amputation or some other disability.
“I’ve seen how reserved I was for so long and I don’t want kids growing up with disabilities, especially amputees, to feel the same way that I did. To be so protected and to be so scared of trying new things because they are afraid of being told no. That was the biggest [reason] why I never did anything. My parents were so protective and I just got that mindset that I was going to be told no,” O’Connor said. “I missed out on a lot because I had the mindset of being so afraid of being rejected. It was unfair to me that I didn’t know all of the opportunities available and all of the things, being a young amputee, that I could do.”
Although O’Connor didn’t have a chance to compete in an event like the Extremity Games when she was growing up, she still came to the same conclusions that she believes the games helps expedite. Learning not to feel self-conscious about her prosthesis, finally being able to wear shorts without a cosmesis covering her prosthesis and even finding a foot that could accommodate high heels – something that an able-bodied person might take for granted could mean the world to an amputee – have made O’Connor into a strong, more self-assured woman.
“I don’t even have a cosmetic cover on my leg anymore. It is mechanical and bionic-looking. People now, they don’t say, ‘Oh what happened?’ They can tell. Now they say, ‘Well how did it happen?’ not, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I was always open to tell what happened, it was just that ‘what is wrong with you’ part that I couldn’t swallow,” O’Connor said.
She won’t be getting any ‘what is wrong with you’ looks when she is among the athletes in Orlando – an added benefit according to O’Connor. She said the large gathering of disabled athletes shows amputees what kind of support system is available, as long as a person is willing to ask for help. Afterall, she knows how hard it can be to take that first step.
“That there are so many amputees, and some who their whole life have had the same attitude that I’ve discovered just recently, to be around that, to just soak up that feeling is going to be great.”
Andrew Kelly is the assistant editor of O&P Business News.