Interview with Elaine Walshe: Amputee, Blogger, and Network Design Engineer
Elaine approached me about a month ago after we connected on an amputee Facebook support group. She had just started her blog, Some Assembly Required, and wanted to interview me since we have similar life experiences and interests. But after speaking to her more, I knew I needed to pick her brain too. She has such an aura of positivity that is contagious, and I hope to pass that on to all of you. Her faith in God is unwavering despite the challenges she has faced, and I am inspired by her resilience.
When speaking with Elaine, I learned that she is a congenital Left below knee (LBK) amputee due to amniotic banding. She was blessed to be raised by parents like mine who didn’t let her amputation get in her way. Elaine is currently working as a Network Design Engineer for an internet company and is earning a Master’s of Arts in Teaching in order to pursue her dream of being a middle school math teacher. Much like me, she hopes her blog will be an avenue for sharing her story and experiences with other amputees, as well as her passions about philosophy, theology, crafting, food, and many other things.
What follows isn't your standard interview. Elaine and I decided to ask each other the same questions in hopes of sharing two different perspectives about the same topic. For each question, I listed both of our responses in hopes of showing how every person with a disability has a unique story and diverse ways of handling the challenges they face . Although some of our answers are similar, there are a few differences that allow us to stand out in our own way.
Interview with Elaine Walshe
What was something that made your childhood unique as a consequence of being an amputee?
Elaine: When I was little I had a lot of extra appointments, so I had to miss classes a decent amount for fittings, adjustments, and surgeries. However, my prosthetist is right near Disneyland, so sometimes when I had an appointment we would go and walk around Downtown Disney and get lunch. It was just a little thing, but it definitely made having to go to the appointments more fun. I also was able to build relationships with my doctors and prosthetists since I saw them so often.
Kendra: My family would make my trips to the Shriners Hospital (where I got my prosthesis worked on) like a vacation. I loved making the two hour trip to Lexington, KY every 6 months to a year because my parents made it a fun experience. I also found out that kicking people hurt a lot more when I did it with my prosthesis. We had a rule in my house that I couldn’t use my leg as a weapon. We also made up crazy stories to tell people about what happened to my leg. An alligator bite was my favorite :)
What was the biggest challenge you faced as an amputee, and how did you overcome it?
Elaine: The biggest challenges I’ve faced have been the periods of time when my mobility was compromised for months at a time, whether due to surgery or injury. These periods have come up at various points in my life, and each iteration comes with it’s unique challenges, but the first time it really got to me was my junior year of high school. This time was different for me because my leg had been injured and we didn’t know how to fix it since we couldn’t really figure out what was wrong. Every time before I had been recovering from a surgery, and while that was frustrating, there was a timeline. My junior year, however, all I knew was that I couldn’t even stand normally without pain, and nobody knew how to fix it. It took about six months for my leg to heal, and while we had many appointments, tried cortisone shots, and even contemplated surgery, but none of that worked. I remember thinking for the first time ever, “I wish I hadn’t been born without my leg” as I sat on the crinkling paper of yet another Dr.’s office bench. I felt so frustrated that my health was so far out of my control, and I really struggled to trust God as I was going through my confirmation process that year. Ultimately, my support network of family and friends and the faith I was still hanging onto got me through it, and once my health improved, my mood bounced back as well. I found a lot of comfort in a particular song called “Give Me Faith,” as the chorus seemed to be speaking to me directly.
I may be weak
But Your spirit’s strong in me
My flesh may fail
My God you never will
Kendra: That answer is two-fold. Confidence issues would probably be the first challenge. I had ebbs and flows of wavering confidence throughout the years. Sometimes I faked it really well, and others I probably didn’t. I felt different… I was different. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re a teenager. I tried to make jokes about it and own it, but deep down, I was so self-conscious. I didn’t care much about how girls viewed me, but I tried desperately to overcompensate for my limb difference with the guys. I thought I needed their validation to somehow change my mind about my worth or beauty.
Another factor that I had to contend with was my constant fight to compete against able-bodied people. I pushed myself so hard and had more drive than most of the other girls on my teams because I knew I had to. Even then, it was hard to admit that my disability did in fact hold me back. I was so competitive and loved sports. I stood out as being the best on my teams for a long time, but as I got older and the competition got steeper, I started to get outshined. That was hard to deal with.
What was an opportunity that came about because of your being an amputee that you are grateful for?
Elaine: I have had the opportunity to make friends and connect to a community that I never would have met if I were not an amputee, but I think the coolest and most unique opportunity was being on the Kaiser float for the Rose Parade in Pasadena, CA on New Year’s Day. My pediatrician nominated me to be on the float, and I had a great time. I was able to help decorate the float and attend events prior to the day of the parade, meet the Rose Queen and her court, and my family was able to watch me from right below the grandstand. That was a really special experience, and one I won’t ever forget.
Kendra: Probably broadening my scope to meet other amputees has been the best part. Networking with people has brought about different opportunities for me. I've become a peer mentor for new amputees. I actually got to donate my book to two new amputees that I met in the hospital that were having an especially difficult time coming to terms with their new identity as an amputee. I also got to meet a little 5 year old boy in my hometown who was in a lawn mower accident and lost his foot. He had never met another amputee before. I was able to meet him, compare legs, have a jumping contest, and sign a book for his grandma. Other amputees that I’ve met due to being involved in triathlon have really inspired me to push myself, get better products/equipment, and have inspired me to compete at a higher level. I've become a model, represent a brand, and another opportunity is in the works right now that I'll be excited to share soon. None of these things would have happened if I wasn't an amputee. I'm so pleased that I get to use my platforms to help others and give back to the community that has helped me in so many different ways.
How did your faith play a role in your life as a child, and how has it changed as you got older?
Elaine: When I was little, I had a strong sense of certainty that God was looking out for me. My mom tells me the story of the day I came home from the hospital after a surgery when I was seven, all laid up in a cast that went so high I couldn’t even sit up. Yet once I got through the door, I burst out singing, “This is the day the Lord has Made” because I was so happy to be home. I never questioned my disability for a second. I always knew there was a reason why I was born the way I was. When I hit high school and encountered more mobility issues, I did begin to question why I had to deal with these struggles, and my relationship with my faith became strained as I struggled to find a reason for the suffering. However, I was grateful to come out the other side of my struggles with a renewed and matured version of my faith. In college, I was able to go to a school where I studied theology and had a chance to learn even more about the reason that backs up my beliefs. I even wrote about the relationship between Christianity and suffering in my thesis, and I can approach my faith confidently with both my head and heart.
Kendra: My faith was a game changer. Believing that there is a God who made me to be exactly like I am helped me form my identity knowing that I was a gift, that I was whole and perfect the way I was, and that I was never intended to be anything other than what I am. If I didn’t have a strong faith in God, I would have had a much harder time accepting the question of why I was made this way.
Now that I’ve gotten older, I feel that God has given me a purpose and has equipped me with the skills needed to see it through. I feel called to advocate for those with limb difference and those who view themselves as different. My hope is that able-bodied people will learn how to accept us and know that we are capable and beautiful just how we are. Whether that’s by showing others what amputees are able to do through my participation in triathlon, through learning my story about how God led my parents to make the difficult decision to amputate when reading book, or by seeing pictures of me that display my limb difference in a positive light through modeling, I hope to spread positivity and awareness.
What is a trait that you developed that came about because of your unique challenges?
Elaine: I definitely am tenacious, and I think that comes at least in part from having to work to get through the periods where my leg wouldn’t cooperate. I’ve also always had to work a little bit harder to keep up with my peers physically as well, and I know that getting up and walking around the next day is not always a given, especially if I don’t take proper care of my leg. I am more likely to ask for help and accept help than other people my age because I have had many times when I was physically unable to care for myself. I think that I gained a certain level of humility through these experiences, and recognized that I can get much farther when I allow others to help me through things. Another thing I knew from a very young age is that different does not mean bad, and so I think that has helped me to really appreciate people regardless of how we might differ, and I have a special empathy for people experiencing health issues because I know how painful it can be physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
Kendra: Stubbornness, tenacity, acceptance, and persistence. Most of these traits have both positive and negative aspects to them. My stubbornness, tenacity, and persistence have helped me break through physical and emotional barriers that I would have struggled to tear down otherwise. I tend to dream big and stop at nothing to accomplish what I set out to do. However, sometimes that’s a downfall. I’m stubborn for the sake of being stubborn, and I almost get blinders on that make me tune out other things that are important. However, you never can be too accepting. My disability has made me more sensitive to people who are different for all sorts of reasons. My kids are the same way. We believe that God makes people special and designs them that way for a reason. We accept others who look different than us more readily because I know what it’s like to be made fun of, ostracized, and made a spectacle of.
Did you have any strategies that helped you navigate growing up as an amputee?
Elaine: I was really lucky to have a group of people around me who accepted me for who I was, so I didn’t have a whole lot of stress around my leg. My mom came into my classroom when I was young and read story books to my classmates about kids with disabilities, and she explained my leg to my classmates, which saved me from a lot of questions about my leg. I still did have to navigate some peers who didn’t understand that asking about my leg every day was inappropriate, but I learned to brush off the negative attention and move on. When I was very young, we dubbed my stump “little leg” and I would make it “talk” by moving my muscles, which I thought was a lot of fun. I’ve always had a sense of humor about my leg, and believed that there was a purpose behind it, and I think that those two things allowed me to confidently embrace many of the challenges of being an amputee.
Kendra: As they say, humor is the best medicine! I play games like catch the stump, joke around by playing piano with my stump, and I have shirts that contain humorous statements such as: “It cost an arm and a leg, but I was able to negotiate.” I have found that if you embrace your differences and appear to have confidence, it makes people more comfortable, tears down barriers, and creates an overall feeling of positivity.
I also try to turn things into teaching moments. If kids are curious, I take time to explain things to them. If adults stare, I say, "Do you want to know what happened?" If we don't talk about our differences, how are we going to learn about each other? We fear the unknown. I don't want people to fear me or be afraid to ask things. I am very upfront about my disability now because I think people will learn to love each other if they understand each other.
What advice would you give to children who are amputees or their parents?
Elaine: Do not be afraid!! I think this is the most important thing because the way a parent treats the amputation will influence how the child treats the amputation, which will turn into the way the world treats it. If you allow your kid to try and fail, they will learn to adapt and persevere, but if you bubble-wrap them, they’ll learn to be afraid. I am so grateful that my parents pushed me and let me push myself because I know that I developed into who I am today because of it. I also think that it is crucial to help your kids know that being an amputee or having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of. I was raised knowing that God made me this way, and he does not make mistakes, so I could confidently go into the world knowing that the way I am is good. If you can instill this confidence in your children, they will be able to truly thrive.
Kendra: There is nothing you can’t do! Don’t set limitations on yourself or your children. When things get tough, get creative. Find a way to still do the task but in your own way or with your own adaptation. Also, there is SO much support out there for you. You’re not alone. Times have changed. There are so many more support groups, grants, organizations, etc… that can provide assistance than when I was growing up. Don’t feel bad using it. It’s there for us! Embracing the amputee community will help your confidence and get your questions or concerns answered. Use your resources! I just received help from the state of Ohio to do a bathroom remodel because I was having trouble getting in and out of my shower, and I didn’t have a place to sit to put my leg on. I was sitting on my countertop, which is pretty dangerous. They helped fund the project and made sure the work was done in a timely fashion and was done with quality craftsmanship. I got the idea to seek assistance from people in my Facebook support group!
What is something that you think many people misunderstand about being an amputee?
Elaine: The experience of being an amputee is unique, so I can only speak for myself here, but the most frustrating things that I have run into are people pitying me and underestimating me. There are some people who struggle to imagine that my life can be wonderful because I am not “whole,” and this mentality drives me nuts. I’ve had exchanges where people try to narrate my story with a life of deprivation that is somehow less good than their own, and this is a mindset that I find very frustrating. On the other end of this is the surprising adulatons for simple day-to-day tasks. For someone who is newer to being an amputee, small tasks may very well be a big deal, but as someone who’s never known any different, the thought of being called brave for going to the grocery store quite frankly seems ridiculous. Another, more understandable mistake that people make is assuming that I am always in pain. Since I was born without my leg, I do not suffer from phantom pains, though many amputees do. In response to the question “does it hurt?,” I always say, “not if it’s working properly.”
Kendra: I have experienced a lot of misconceptions:
A lot of people assume I served in the military.
Many think my amputation is new.
Others that know me a little better think I never have any struggles because they see me thriving. But, I have my bad leg days too! Sometimes the pain is so bad that I can barely bring myself to walk. I try to appear strong, so I understand why they may think I don't struggle. But, some days are very hard.
People assume all amputees have similar stories. We don’t! We are vastly different depending on which limb we’re missing, how many limbs we still have, when we lost our limbs, how much access we have to quality products/good insurance, etc…
Anything else you'd like to share?
Elaine: While I have yet to be too deeply immersed, I see such a wealth of knowledge, kindness, and support in the amputee community. I had thought about getting involved but had been waiting for the right time to do so, and this past year brought about more of that opportunity. I think that many amputees struggle to find acceptance from people who are unfamiliar with our situation, and I hope to be able to help change that by being an advocate for members of my community, showing that people with limb differences are first and foremost people. I'm actively working to provide an alternative perspective on disability through my blog, Some Assembly Required, and I hope that this will provide people with a new idea about what it means to be an amputee.
Kendra: People always ask me if I had the chance, would I want me have my foot back. Of course I would like the convenience of being able-bodied. But, being an amputee has made me who I am. It has taught me many valuable lessons and positively changed my character. God isn't done using me yet. I know He has give you all special gifts that He intends for you to use for His glory. I sign a lot of my books with this phrase: "Remember me the next time you stub your toe. I have a bit of a LEG up on ya, huh? Remember that we get to choose our reaction to everything life throws at us. Choose positivity." I truly believe that we get to choose our mentality each morning when we wake up. Make the most of what you're given and embrace who you are!