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

Jim’s most prized possession was a Mooney airplane he had bought not long before the accident. Since the accident, he had struggled to retrofit the plane with hand controls for the brake and rudder system so that he could fly it.

On a day in early June 2001, a day that hinted at the stifling heat to come, Ivonne and Giselle came back to St. Petersburg with Jim. He had spent the previous 10 days in Orlando helping Ivonne shop for a new house.

At lunch in the courtyard of the Garden, Jim couldn't remember a time since the accident when he had been happier. Jim and Ivonne had continued to draw closer after he returned from Sacramento. Divorced though they were, Jim still called Ivonne his wife. As they held hands across the table, they looked very much like a married couple.

Being divorced is the key to a good relationship, Jim thought. The paradox amused Ivonne, too. But neither of them wanted to look too deeply into why they were getting along so well now.

Time with his family, however, had come at the expense of time in his legs. Jim didn't wear them the entire 10 days he was in Orlando.

Though Jim had just sent Bill a check for $14,000 to cover the cost of new legs with knees, he didn't think he was ready for them. He thought that all of his progress of the past two months had drained away.

Ivonne had promised him that Jim's legs would be the No. 1 priority of the family now that her new house was in order. They agreed that after lunch they would go back to Jim's house so he could spend some time practicing.

After Giselle went down for her nap, Ivonne left to get her son Adrian from his day camp.

But Jim didn't put on his legs. He stayed in the living room.

He thought about how unfair it was of Ivonne to leave him alone at the house with a young child and two kittens and expect that he would be able to practice walking. If my walking were a priority, she wouldn't have done that to me, he thought.

Later, when Ivonne returned with Adrian, Jim was sitting in the same spot she had left him.

"Can I have a hug?" he asked.

* * *

Jim wore shoes for the first time since the accident on the same day in July that Bill gave him knees. The shoes were light beige Rockports -- ProWalkers. Jim had bought them just before the accident. They were so new they hardly had any dirt on the soles.

He needed the shoes now because the new legs came with realistic looking feet that were angled at the ankle to accommodate the slight lift of a shoe heel.

"I'm really excited," he told Bill as he laced the shoes onto the rubber feet. He didn't have to bend over to do this -- the feet were attached to legs he had propped in his lap. "You try not to expect too much, but I'm really excited."

Getting into the legs was harder than Jim expected. With the old straight legs, Jim would perch on the edge of his chair and force his weight into the socket. But Jim couldn't keep the same pressure on the bendable legs without the knees giving way. It took him three tries to get one leg on. He gave up on the second one.

"I hate these sockets," Jim said.

After several more attempts, and a lot of sweat and swearing, Jim managed to get both legs on firmly.

Holding on to the parallel bars, Jim walked across the room. His gait was awkward. He rolled his hips to keep his feet from catching on the floor. But his knees bent a little with nearly every step.

"You're looking good," Bill told Jim.

But Jim didn't smile like he had in March when he first got up on the short legs.

"It doesn't look doable from a practical standpoint," Jim said. Without parallel bars at home, he wondered how he would put the legs on by himself.

"And we've got to get sockets that fit," he said.

So Bill took them back to the workshop to reshape them. While he was gone, Jim stewed about the new legs. The knees were not identical. Close, but not identical. They were used, to boot. He and Bill had agreed to go with the used ones to keep the cost down, but now that he had seen them, Jim thought Bill was making money twice on the same hardware.

Who knows how much these knees cost, Jim said to himself. Bill could say $50,000 apiece and I wouldn't know any better. Jim was convinced that this would not be happening in Europe. This is what happens in a profit-driven system.

Bill tried to boost Jim's morale when he returned with the reshaped sockets. Again, Jim put them on and again he walked between the parallel bars.

"You're doing it," Bill said. "All these other things are little things that can all be worked out."

Jim wasn't convinced.

He confronted Bill about the costs. Bill showed him the prices that he typically submits to insurers such as Medicare. Jim said he didn't understand the insurance codes.

He made Bill reattach his old feet and straight legs to the sockets. There was no point in taking the new legs if he couldn't put them on at home. Jim left the knees sitting on Bill's workshop table.

By June 2001, Jim had nearly reached his original height and was wearing legs with bendable knees. He was also reaching the breaking point with Bill Copeland.

Beyond repair

Three days later a letter from Jim arrived at Bill's office.

In it, Jim accused Bill of ingratitude and incompetence. The letter sounded a lot like the one Jim had sent to Ertl back in December -- a personal and professional broadside.

Jim said he had made Bill "an interest-free loan" of $10,000 to start his business. "A word of thanks would have been nice," he wrote.

He mentioned a mix-up over an appointment Bill had forgotten to schedule in early July. "You blew it. If I had driven over, a whole day would have been wasted," Jim wrote.

Then he got into the bill. The accounting he had given Jim for the legs was incomprehensible, written in insurance-speak, Jim wrote.

Putting on the suction sockets was enough to make Jim break out in a sweat. If he couldn’t achieve the proper seal, then his leg would twist inside the socket, making it almost impossible to walk.

The sockets didn't fit, the knees didn't match and the feet were the cheapest available, Jim wrote.

"This is a shabby way to treat a friend and a customer and you know it," he went on. "I do not have time to waste on this nonsense. I will be your customer, your friend, but not your patsy."

Jim demanded an explanation of the bill for the new set of legs with knees. He wanted a pair of sockets that satisfied him. He wanted Bill to devise a way for him to get into the legs at home.

"If this is unacceptable let me know, I'll seek other professional help and I'll turn this letter over to my attorneys," Jim wrote in closing.

Bill was stunned. He told me he hadn't seen any of this coming.

That $10,000 wasn't a loan, Bill said. Bill had made Jim two pairs of legs for that price -- the ones that didn't fit because of Jim's bone spurs (which Bill had helped diagnose) and the second set after Ertl's surgery. Every office visit -- be it 10 or 100 -- was included in the flat fee. Other prosthetists told me that what Bill was charging Jim was so low that they didn't think he could possibly make a profit on his work.

Jim makes everything so difficult, so negative, Bill said to me. He's always finding an excuse. That's what he wants. He's trying to find an excuse to quit.

* * *

A few days after the letter arrived, Bill went to Jim's house after work to clear the air.

"If you don't feel I have your best interest at heart," Bill said, "we need to end this right here."

He reminded Jim of the chores he had done for him around his house, of how he had called the doctor in Sacramento after Jim's surgery, worried that Jim sounded incoherent on the phone. Bill explained that there are only so many ways to put on prosthetic legs, and said he'd keep experimenting until he found one that worked for Jim.

He did make one concession. He agreed to give Jim a new set of knees, hydraulic instead of pneumatic, for no extra charge.

After two and a half hours, they agreed to keep going.

The next morning, Bill spent a few hours widening the sockets at the top of the thigh and shrinking them at the bottom. After each adjustment, Jim said they felt better.

But the problem of how to put on the legs remained. A colleague Bill had consulted reminded him of a donning method in which the lightweight socket liner is put on first and the socket frame and leg go on after that. Bill mentioned the idea to Jim.

"You've known this all along," Jim said. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"We hadn't gotten there yet," Bill said.

No matter, Jim said to himself, now the information is here and we can move forward.

* * *

Jim worried his family was paying an emotional price, but he was constitutionally incapable of quitting. If he were a quitter, he told himself, he would never have finished building his 46-foot sailboat years ago. He wondered though if this was all worth it.

Jim wasn't sure he really believed this.

He told Bill he was satisfied with his effort, but he was making plans to consult a prosthetist in Michigan who had worked for many years with the Ertls' patients.

Jim wasn't really sure he wanted to do that either.

Even as he said he would fly to Michigan, Jim was bemoaning the stress that his efforts to walk were placing on his family. Giselle wasn't eating properly and he needed to pay attention to that. Ivonne was exhausted caring for two children and him, too. Everyone was being pulled into his vortex.

Still, he didn't want to stop trying to walk either.

He worried that his family was paying an emotional price, but he was constitutionally incapable of quitting. If he were a quitter, he told himself, he would never have finished building his 46-foot sailboat years ago.

He wondered though if this was all worth it.

As far as he could see, walking was an excruciatingly painful chore that offered little advantage over his wheelchair.

Nothing would change, Jim decided. At least not for the next two years or so. That's how long he estimated it would take to learn to walk. Until then, this was always going to be a labor-intensive, expensive, life-consuming chore.

He didn't go to Michigan. Nor did he stay in Orlando to be with his family.

He came up with an entirely new plan.

At the end of July, Jim packed his legs in a carry-on bag and, once again, flew to Paris.

* * *

The series


After losing his legs in a violent accident, Jim Miller vows to walk again. He begins an odyssey he never imagined.


Jim has much-needed surgery and slowly reconnects with his family. But conflicts within himself and with others stall his efforts to walk.


After a lonely but productive time in France, Jim returns home and discovers what he needs to move forward in his life.

Times staff writer Bill Duryea can be reached at (727) 893-8457 or