St. Petersburg Times: Special report


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Bill Duryea

Day One:
Deciding to go
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Day two:
The way there
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Day three:
When you arrive
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Walking to Paris: Story by Bill Duryea,  Photographs by Bill Serne  of the Times

No excuses

Coming home from the hospital was different this time. Ivonne flew to Sacramento to help Jim on the plane flights back. She agreed to stay with him in St. Petersburg, at least for a night, to make sure he was comfortably settled.

On the drive back to Jim's house from the airport, they stopped at the Garden restaurant for a couple of glasses of red wine. It was nearing midnight and Jim was worn out, but mellow. Ivonne had a serenity about her that seemed to rub off on Jim. He leaned across the table and embraced her.

This was the first time I had seen Jim and Ivonne together. They didn't seem like people who were days away from becoming officially divorced. If anything, they appeared to be drawing closer. Everything Ivonne said expressed her concern for his recovery or her amazement at his perseverance. Jim was grateful for her encouragement. He needed every bit of it.

"I don't know if I'll ever get the nerve to go back to L'Avenir," he said, referring to the restaurant next door to their old apartment in Paris.

"If you can walk up the street, maybe you will."

"If I can walk."

Later, Ivonne told me that although she supported Jim's effort to walk, she was not convinced that Jim needed to succeed to regain his sense of himself. The things that gave Jim pleasure -- writing and flying, for example -- were still available to him. Strange to say, but in some ways the accident had improved Jim, Ivonne said. He had become less dictatorial, she said, because he was forced to rely on others for help. He couldn't pace around nervously like he used to, relentlessly amending his list of projects. He had to move slower now, which made him calmer.

The biggest change, she believed, was that he had become more tolerant of people, especially those he had to rely on for help.

With Ivonne living two hours away in Orlando, Jim spent most days at Albert Whitted Airport, fixing his hangar and trying to find someone who could install the hand controls he needed to fly alone. Progress on the plane was frustratingly slow, but he enjoyed hanging around at the airport far more than staring at the walls in his house.

At Albert Whitted one afternoon, Jim began to get the first twinges of phantom pain. At first it felt like ants crawling over his toes. When his feet began to feel fiery hot, he reached into the satchel slung over the back of his motorized scooter. He pawed through the contents but could not find his pills.

He had no choice but to ride home. A mile and a half. Every crack in the sidewalk shook his legs until he wanted to scream.

At home he swallowed a Percocet. He lay down. The day faded away in a vapor.

When he awoke later that night, the phantom pain hadn't disappeared. He felt a crushing ache in the arches of his feet as surely as if they were still there. The doctor had prescribed Valium for these episodes.

But Jim was confused. He forgot about the Valium and he couldn't remember how much of thepainkillers he had taken. He was afraid of overdosing. Well after midnight, he called Ivonne.

Help me, he said. I'm scared.

She talked him through breathing exercises and reminded him about the Valium.

In the morning the pain had ebbed, but Jim was shaken. Once again, drugs were dulling his mental edge. Just like after the accident, Jim feared the drugs were getting in the way of walking.

Jim doubted he would be healed enough to wear prosthetic legs in time for Ertl's visit at the end of March. Bill Copeland was determined, though. He scheduled Jim for an appointment only days before Ertl was to arrive. Bill was confident he could make the legs in time.

* * *

"I've been dreading this and longing for this for a long time," Jim said.

He was sitting in his wheelchair in Bill's Tampa office at the end of March 2001, sipping a cup of coffee and hoping his pain medication would last the day.

The walls were full of pictures of patients Bill has worked with over 20 years. One picture showed a young man who had won a gold medal in the 800-meter run at the Paralympics in Sydney. His left leg was a slender carbon bow that started below his knee and curved into a running shoe.

Bill Copeland, Jim’s prosthetist, was certain he could make Jim’s first pair of legs in one day. He needed help to meet the deadline. Arlene Diaz-Gillis examined one of the rigid Plexiglass sockets moments before Jim tried them on for the first time.

Nearly six weeks had passed since the surgery. Jim's legs had healed enough that the pain was manageable. But he had not tested them yet. He had not walked on them. His ambivalence was clear in everything he said.

"I'm ready," he said as Bill wrapped his stumps in moist plaster bandages to make molds for the prosthetic legs. "I think this is going to work."

"There are times when I'm on the edge of blowing this off," he said as Bill poured plaster into the molds.

"But any person with any guts would never forgive himself if he didn't at least give it a shot," Jim said as Bill shaped the hardened plaster with a rasp.

The workshop in Bill's office was long and narrow. At one end was an oven that had once cooked chicken in a Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant. It was perfect for the task of heating the thick sheets of heavy-gauge plastic from which Bill made test sockets.

Bill placed the plaster forms on a vise next to the oven. He heated the clear, silicone-based plastic until he could see it slump inside the oven. Then he draped the plastic sheet over the form and used a vacuum to suck the material tightly to the plaster. This would be the flexible sleeve that would fit snugly around Jim's stumps.

At the end of a long day, Jim walked in the legs that Bill Copeland had made for him. Jim was elated that he could wear them without pain. The sockets were transparent so that Copeland could see if there were white pressure points on Jim’s skin, indicating a bad fit. There weren’t any.

Bill repeated the process with harder plastic. This would serve as the rigid shell within which the soft sleeve would sit. It was the same clear, bulletproof material used for cashier windows. The clear plastic made the sockets look like flower vases. Bill made them see-through so he could spot white pressure points on the skin that would indicate a bad fit.

By the middle of the afternoon, Bill had made the sockets for both legs. He drilled small holes near the bottoms for the air valves that would create enough suction to keep the sockets on Jim's legs.

Next, Bill took the "feet" off Jim's old sockets, the ones Jim couldn't wear because of his bone spurs. Bill screwed the feet to the bottoms of the new sockets, making what looked like a leg without shins. The feet were rectangular with hard foam soles. They faced to the rear to give Jim extra balance.

"The tendency for someone without knees is to fall backward," Bill said.

Seven hours after he started, Bill carried the legs out of his workshop into a room with a set of parallel bars bolted to the floor.

Jim, sitting in his underwear, slathered lubricant on his stumps and lined the inside of the sockets. With the legs standing in front of his wheelchair, he slid slowly off the edge of the seat, letting his weight push down inside the sockets. The air escaping from the bottom valves made a flatulent sound.

Grasping the parallel bars, Jim pulled himself upright. Then he let go.

He was standing.

"Right now I have no pain," Jim said. "Thank you Dr. Ertl. Thank you, Mr. Copeland.

"This is going to work, buddy."

* * *

Two days later, Jim and Bill drove to Sarasota to see Ertl.

In a meeting room off the hotel lobby, Ertl watched as Bill pulled the legs out of a large gym bag and handed them to Jim.

"Let's take a peek," Ertl said, rolling his chair toward Jim. Jim pounded on the ends of his stumps.

"No pain," he said.

Then Jim slid into the sockets for the second time.

Jim toddled across the floor like a child, arms waving at his sides for balance. As he got closer to Ertl he stretched his arms toward him, smiling.

"Hey, dude," Jim said.

Ertl smiled so hard he blushed. "Oh, fantastic," he said. "This is beyond my expectations."

"How do you feel, Jim?" Ertl asked.

"I'm scared shitless," he said.

"What are you scared of?"

"I had an excuse before. I saw the pictures you took of those bone spurs. Now I have no excuse at all."

* * *

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