St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

hen you arrive

Failure at home sent Jim Miller abroad for answers. But even his beloved France could not provide him with the one thing he needed most to walk.

By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 16, 2002


Failure at home sent Jim Miller abroad for answers. But even his beloved France could not provide him with the one thing he needed most to walk.

Day three of a 3-day series

Walking to Paris

It was late July of 2001, Lance Armstrong had won the Tour de France two days before, and Jim Miller was on his way to a prosthetics clinic in a corner of the Paris suburbs. The clinic came highly recommended by an expatriate friend living in Paris.

As the car pulled up to the sloping driveway of the Centre de Reeducation et d'Appareillage, Jim thought back on the 18 months since the accident, frustrated that after so much time he still wasn't walking. Though he had made progress with Bill Copeland, the Tampa prosthetist who had worked with him for a year, Jim considered their relationship a failure. Jim had concluded Bill's practice was too small to handle a case as unique and difficult as his. What Jim had learned from his friend in Paris led him to believe that this clinic might be the answer.

A doctor in a three-quarter-length white coat guided Jim through the pleasantly lit corridors, past the gymnasium and the room where patients practiced walking between parallel bars. Jim began to appreciate the advantages of a larger operation. Everything was under one roof. He would be fitted for legs in one room, and across the hall an expert in gait training would monitor his every step.

At the end of the tour, the doctor, who was the chief of the medical staff, asked Jim to climb on the examining table so he could look at his stumps. Jim wasn't an athlete and he wasn't 17, the doctor noted, but his stumps were in good shape thanks to the reconstructive surgery he'd had in California. If Jim had the determination to handle the treatment, the doctor said, he'd probably do well.

Then they came to the inevitable subject of cost.

You're not a French citizen, the doctor said, so you'd have to pay the full amount.

How much would that be? Jim said.

About 84,000 French francs. A little less than $12,000.

"That's a quarter what I would have to pay in the U.S.," he told the doctor. "I can't afford not to come."

He decided then he would begin treatment in France as soon as possible.

////////////////

Jim came home with a proselytizing fervor. He had not taken the first step in a pair of French-made legs (it would be two months before he could begin the program), but he was convinced the French system was not only less expensive, but also less obsessed with technology (the clinic in Valenton still carved about 40 percent of its sockets out of wood) and, therefore, more humane.

He did not hesitate to share his discoveries with Bill Copeland.

"They told me that people who learn on stubbies take longer to walk," Jim said.

"I don't agree with that," Bill said. "It depends on age. Young people can go straight to knees, but older people might get freaked out."

Bill might have pointed out to Jim that he had reacted exactly that way several months earlier, but he chose not to. Generally, I noted during these appointments, Bill said nothing during Jim's critique of the American way of making prostheses, which, after all, was Bill's life's work.

Bill, for example, did not remind Jim that the French doctors were recommending the same kind of knee that Bill had first given him, the ones Jim had rejected. Nor did he mention that French prosthetists can ignore profit margins because they are subsidized by the government. Bill never said that his price of $14,000 (roughly $2,000 more than Jim was prepared to pay in France) was too low for him to make a profit.

Bill shared these concerns with me, but he knew arguing with Jim was pointless. Jim had too many complaints about Bill's work: the fit of the sockets, how to put the legs on, and that Bill had no one on staff to teach him how to walk in them.

While it was clear that Jim was headed to Paris for treatment, he and Bill had yet to find a satisfactory end to their foundering relationship. Bill wanted out. Jim wanted his money's worth. Until they came to some agreement, Bill had to listen to Jim use French words like les cuisses instead of thighs.

"They're too painful, too cumbersome," Jim said of the legs Bill had made. "The window of time in which you can use them is too narrow."

"It's going to be tough," Bill said, suggesting as he had before that there was more to the process than just the equipment.

"Then it's time to quit right now," Jim said, bristling. "I can deal with phantom pain, but I can't deal with real pain."

"I've never stopped trying to make them comfortable for you," Bill said.

"I've never doubted your sincerity," Jim said.

Bill proposed returning to a donning method he had first tried before Jim's surgery in Sacramento. This method used roll-on liners with pinky-sized metal pins on the end that locked into the sockets. The pin system was not as stable as the suction method, but it might be much easier for Jim to put the legs on.

He told Jim he would recast a set of sockets by the following week.

"Polycarbonate sockets?" Jim said.

"We can do that," Bill said. He paused to judge Jim's reaction.

"We're okay with that?" Bill said.

"I've fired off all my cannons," Jim said. "I'm ready to move on."

But for a few cursory follow-up appointments, that was the end of slightly more than a year's work.

////////////////

Days before Jim was scheduled to leave for Paris to begin his program at the clinic, Ivonne told him she was four months pregnant with their second child. She had waited to tell him, fearful that he might change his plans if he knew.

Jim was excited at the news, unexpected as it was. Ivonne's due date was not until March, so Jim figured he would be walking long before the baby was born.

Ivonne and Giselle accompanied Jim to Paris to help him settle in. Once they left, Jim was alone in a small unadorned room in a businessman's hotel in an out-of-the way corner of the city. He had his copy of 501 French Verbs, a few recent snapshots of his family taped to the wall by his laptop computer, and a partial view out his window of a drab plaza full of people rushing to get someplace else.

Against this, Jim was no match for "the glooms," as he called them. His French was spotty, and he didn't mix easily with people. He didn't like going into the center of the city -- cabs were expensive, the subway had few elevators for wheelchairs and even fewer that worked.

This was a form of torture for Jim. He knew all the places he would go if getting there weren't so difficult. He'd eat at Chartier, where the taciturn waiters add up your check on the corner of the tablecloth. He'd watch the sun go down from the steps of Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmartre. He'd poke his nose inside the food shops along Rue Lepic or stop for a glass of Seize Soixante-quatre, the national beer.

Even if he were willing to endure the inconvenience, he saw no point in doing things alone, especially in a city that he loved.

All he had to focus on were his three weekly visits to the clinic.

////////////////

When Jim first arrived at the clinic, his prosthetist, Jean-Paul Schoenstein, the most veteran of the legmakers at the center, quickly attached a new set of knees and feet to the sockets Bill Copeland had made.

Schoenstein changed the alignment of the shins in relation to the sockets so that Jim didn't need to bow his back to stand straight. Most dramatically, he restored Jim to within a couple of inches of his original height.

Such was Jim's confidence in Schoenstein that he didn't blink at the sudden increase in height and the simultaneous addition of knees. Months earlier, Jim had been upset when Bill Copeland had made a similar adjustment. What Jim viewed as a reckless miscalculation in Bill's office was now evidence of the center's admirable frugality. Going straight to full height meant not having to make several sets of prostheses, Jim reasoned.

Jim used these hybrid legs to practice walking while Schoenstein worked on crafting an original set of sockets. I was in Paris at the end of Jim's second week when Schoenstein presented him with a pair of plaster etudes (studies) that would serve as the models for the new pair of legs.

Unlike the last set of sockets Bill made, which used the pin-locking system, these new legs employed the nylon-bag method to pull on the sockets. This was the same system Jim had askedBill to abandon because it was too difficult to put on. Jim was so happy with the way these new sockets fit, that he did not question the decision to use a method he had once rejected.

"These are so much better," Jim told Schoenstein, who spoke only a few words of English.

Minor problems existed, to be sure. The right socket was pinching him in the groin.

"Ca fait mal?" Schoenstein said. "Does it hurt?"

"C'est un peu . . . too much," Jim said. "This is impossible for me to do in French."

Language, or the lack of it, was a real barrier for Jim. It turned sessions with Schoenstein into exercises in sign language and pidgin French. Combined with Jim's awkwardness in public, it isolated him from others at the clinic. Jim would rather eat lunch alone than risk ruining a meal in an attempt to understand verb tenses and vocabulary.

But Jim wasn't beyond attempting a bit of bilingual humor.

His first stop each morning was the receptionist's desk, where he would collect his fiche de circulation, a daily registration card. Except Jim would ask for his poisson de circulation, which baffled the receptionist. Jim explained the French word fiche sounds like the English word "fish," which in French is poisson. Voila, a bilingual pun.

From then on the receptionist would hand him the card, saying, "Votre poisson, Monsieur Mee-laire."

Jim was the only patient at the clinic from the United States; most of the other foreign patients were from other French-speaking countries such as Algeria. Some staff members referred to Jim not unkindly as "our American celebrity."

The violence and severity of Jim's injuries set him apart, too.

As in the United States, most of the clinic's older patients had suffered amputations because of vascular problems or diabetes rather than trauma. The traumatic amputees tended to be young men who had lost one leg, and sometimes an arm, in motorcycle accidents. And, as is the case in the United States, Jim was one of a small minority of double above-the-knee amputees.

By the end of Jim's third week, Schoenstein presented him with a more refined, though still provisional, pair of legs with knees and fiberglass sockets. They offered Jim his first chance to compare Bill craftsmanship with that of his French counterparts.

"It's a win. Best sockets I have had yet, and I am very happy," Jim wrote in an e-mail to his friends in the Europe and the United States. Bill was on the list, too. "The whole question of donning them remains to be dealt with, but for now I am satisfied to be able to walk pain-free."

"After almost two years of work, searching and misery in the U.S., I only wish I had come here sooner."

////////////////

FEAR OF FALLING

* * *

The therapist assigned to teach Jim to walk was a slim, silver-haired man named Pierre Laplume who moved with the casual confidence of a dancer.

Three times a week Jim met Laplume in a room where parallel bars were arranged like lanes in a swimming pool.

"Don't take too big steps," said Laplume, who spoke perhaps the best English of the staff. "You are too much -- how shall I say it? -- enthusiastic."

On occasion, when he wasn't traveling, Dr. Domenico Menager, the chief of the medical staff, would stop in to check on Jim's progress.

"Take your time," Menager said one afternoon in October.

"I'm too old to take my time," Jim said.

"We have a saying in French," Menager said, smiling. ""Ne confondez pas vitesse et precipitation."' Don't mistake haste for speed.

But if Jim was in a hurry, he was also afraid. A few days later, he deliberately avoided doing an extra session of work with Laplume. He hid in the break room and watched 45 minutes tick away until he could rationalize there was no point making the effort for only 15 minutes.

He felt guilty that he was squandering this opportunity, but his doubts were nearly paralyzing.

What if the mobility I have now is the best I can expect? he thought. I might have to give up on this. Or it might be worse than giving up. I might be able to walk across the damn parking lot or a block or two blocks, but I'd be so exhausted at the end that I'd just choose never to do it again.

Jim's imagined failures tended to be vividly detailed. But he seemed less inclined to think about it the other way -- about what he would do if he could walk

"It's not so good today," Jim said to Laplume one afternoon as he struggled with some balance exercises.

"Slowly," Laplume said.

"I don't know why I'm having so much difficulty."

"It is difficult," Laplume said. "You cannot succeed every time."

Gradually, over the course of the hour, Jim progressed from the parallel bars to a walker. He made a trip to the bathroom with Laplume by his side. His gait was stiff and his legs spread out beyond shoulder width, sort of like an A-frame. But his knees bent ever so slightly -- enough that it resembled walking more than just a man on stilts. At the end, Laplume allowed Jim to exchange the steadiness of the walker for more precarious arm canes.

As he made a circuit of the therapy room, Jim stepped on the cane tip and lurched forward. Laplume caught him.

////////////////

Jim tended to avoid the center of Paris on his days off.

Negotiating the narrow sidewalks in a wheelchair, not to mention the hills and the cobblestone streets sapped his energy. Dawdling only increased the likelihood he would need a bathroom, most of which he couldn't get into. In emergencies, Jim would find a secluded bush in a park or wedge himself between two parked cars and urinate in the gutter. It made him feel scummy.

One afternoon in October, about a month after he arrived in Paris, Jim went back to Rue Blanche, his old street, to pick up some laundry he had dropped off. The location of the laundry was not convenient to his hotel, but Jim had used it for years and it made him feel connected to the city.

To reach the laundry, he had to pass by L'Avenir, the same restaurant he had attempted to visit the summer after his accident. That day in the taxi he had turned away in shame when he saw the astonished looks of the two owners.

Just as he rolled past the door, one of the owners stepped out, the other right behind him.

"Mais, Jim, qu'est-ce qui est arrive?" Jim, what happened?

In awkward French, compounded by his embarrassment, Jim tried to explain about the accident and the clinic.

"Je suis desole," one of the brothers said, patting his shoulder. I'm very sorry.

Maybe in three months I will come back, Jim said, and I'll be walking.

/////////////

After a quick trip home for Thanksgiving, Jim returned to Paris to discover the much-anticipated set of final legs did not fit. Worse yet, the doctors told Jim that because of this delay, it would be unlikely they could successfully refit and manufacture the legs before Jim left for the Christmas holidays.

From the beginning, Jim had let the staff determine the course and pace of the program. He trusted their expertise and didn't want to taint the outcome by meddling.

But the delays made Jim anxious. He felt he had no choice but to become more assertive. He asked to increase his time at the clinic from three to four days a week.

The extra time improved his walking -- Laplume noted with pleasure that Jim had virtually stopped falling since his return after Thanksgiving. But Jim seemed to be outpacing the effort to make prostheses he would be comfortable wearing. Schoenstein's second attempt at the final legs appeared in mid-December, a week before Jim would depart for Christmas.

These new legs used the pin system -- the same method that Bill had proposed because it would be easier to put on. But Jim wasn't satisfied with the fit at the ends of the stumps.

Jim confronted Menager about the delays.

"I've done everything you asked me," he told the doctor. "I can walk, but it's useless without prostheses. You dropped the ball. You said I would have prostheses by Christmas. I don't. After three months I am right where I started."

Menager proposed a solution: We'll start from scratch on the sockets and we'll try a new kind of liner. They'll be ready before your next appointment.

Jim agreed. But privately he fretted that he had antagonized the person whose support was crucial to his success. My fate is in Menager's hands, Jim thought. He could call this off at any time.

///////////////

TWO NEW ARRIVALS

* * *

The walking room was filled with patients and their therapists when Schoenstein appeared with a pair of basic plaster etudes. No social pleasantries were exchanged as Schoenstein and Menager focused on pulling the soft liners onto Jim's legs.

"How do they feel?" Menager asked.

"Pretty tight," Jim said.

Since the surgery, the diameter of Jim's right leg had remained larger than his left. It was difficult to find a pair of elastic liners that fit the left stump without squeezing the right one.

Then Jim slid into the sockets and pulled himself upright with the parallel bars.

"How do you feel?" Menager asked.

"No pain," he said. "It feels quite good."

With the fit taken care of, and an easier donning system, all that remained was to turn these test sockets into final legs, a process that would be handled by the small manufacturing plant adjacent to the clinic. Schoenstein was confident the legs would be ready for Jim after the Christmas holidays.

But Jim returned to the center the next day convinced that the sockets he had pronounced pain-free hours before were now a problem.

The new sockets did not leave enough space for the rubber ends of the new liners. As a result, the liners bunched up, pulling the skin on his stumps.

"They are not actively painful, but uncomfortable," Jim said.

He drew Menager and Schoenstein a diagram, which Jim said Menager stuffed in his jacket pocket.

Schoenstein couldn't understand how these sockets did not fit when they came from the same molds that had been used to make the practice legs that Jim liked so much.

Jim believed the problem was not a lack of technical expertise. They don't respect my opinions, he thought. They're not used to being challenged by patients, and they don't like it.

Four days before the second anniversary of his accident, Jim prepared to fly home to Florida. He had covered a great deal of ground and spent a great deal of money during the past two years -- approximately $63,000 for surgery in Sacramento, $24,000 to Bill Copeland and another $12,000 to the French clinic (and that didn't include thousands of dollars in airfares, hotel rooms, meals and taxis).

But he boarded the flight without any legs to show for his efforts. He dreaded having to explain to his family that he was not coming home to stay.

////////////////

Back in Paris in early January, Jim detected that Menager's demeanor had become coolly professional. Jim knew that he had a talent for rubbing people the wrong way -- he called himself "Mr. Diplomacy" -- and he regretted that. But he felt that confronting Menager had served its purpose.

Things were moving again, but his e-mails to me indicated it wasn't always clear in what direction.

Jan. 10: "A new type of liner has shown up and new sockets are in the works as we speak. I have faith in the whole thing as long as Menager is pushing it."

Jan. 21: "Major changes today. The new liners do not allow my stumps to descend into the sockets far enough. There is somewhere between a centimeter and 2 centimeters empty space at the end. (Schoenstein) is going to fill it."

Jan. 25: "Good news/bad news. I finally have sockets in plaster that fit well. The bad news is they think it will take another four weeks."

Jan. 29: "My new sockets are done and are being mated with the alignment devices. Thursday I will wear them for the first time. Exciting stuff for me."

Same day: "Each time I fall I suffer a real terror that perhaps I am really just in denial, perhaps all the people were right, and I should just get a good chair and get a life."

Feb. 2: "The left leg is okay for now, but it will need a bit of work before I can truly walk (for) long times in it. The right one still has a lot of space at the bottom and as a result pistons up and down when I walk with the sound of air leaking around the locking mechanism like a steam locomotive. This is a real roller coaster ride emotionally."

Jim flew back to Orlando on Feb. 4 to check on Ivonne. He stayed for six days before returning to Paris.

On Feb. 12, he tried on what everyone hoped would be the final version of the legs. Jim was satisfied. All that remained was to cover the apparatus with foam muscles and rubber skin.

On Feb. 13, to the surprise of the clinic staff, Jim flew back suddenly to Orlando to be with Ivonne. Her mother was ill and near death.

Two days later, Jim's legs were ready.

Ivonne's mother died five days after that.

In the middle of the afternoon on March 2, Marcelle Miller was born.

A few days later, Jim's legs arrived in an air freight box.

And that's where they stayed.

///////////////

Pierre Laplume once said to Jim that his real success walking would come in the six months after he returned home. Laplume assumed that Jim would continue to practice. But days passed and then weeks and still Jim did not use the legs.

Instead, Jim decided what he really needed was a pair of shorter legs, something more like the stubbies Bill had first made for him. The shorter legs would be safer to use around the house, he believed.

Casting around for a local prosthetist, Jim had an unpleasant experience with a large outfit that had no interest in duplicating the French sockets. He then found a family-run business that finally agreed, after some cajoling, to forsake its computerized design system in favor of simply pouring plaster into the French legs. They were not perfect, but Jim felt more confident in legs with no knees.

Jim's quest for new legs confounded me. From my perspective, he seemed to be spinning his wheels, throwing more money at a problem he had already solved. I waited for things to settle down after the baby was born before I visited him in Orlando.

It was the middle of the afternoon on an uncharacteristically hot day in mid-April when I arrived. Jim seemed deflated.

"One of the biggest battles for me is the daily cycle," Jim said, his arms draped across the handlebars of his motorized scooter. "I get up and I'm ready to do anything. But by 3 in the afternoon my estimation of my potential has sunk to zero.

"There's a psychological component that's very hard to deal with. I liked the routine at the center (in Paris). I could get in there easily and know that I was going to do my hour and a half in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. Here there's no time. It's been five weeks since I have effectively walked."

Ivonne joined Jim in the back yard as he talked. She was carrying her sleeping daughter in a sling across her chest. She let Jim finish, and then she spoke up.

"You can't expect with a baby and a 4-year-old and a 13-year-old and a wife who's going through some things that you're going to have a window that's going to open up with nothing going on," Ivonne said. "If you put it off, it gets put off. My feeling is you should do it in spite of what's happening."

"But look at what happened," Jim said, referring to the minor scheduling crises of that morning.

"But you did it," Ivonne said, cutting him off. "You walked."

"I took a big chance," Jim said. "What if I'd fallen?"

"You did take a chance," she said. "But at least you got from 11:30 to 1. That's better than yesterday. It's not going to stop. There's always going to be something going on. If you want to do it, the opportunity is there. You've got to seize it in spite of everything."

Jim didn't say anything and soon Ivonne took the baby back inside. Some time later, while Ivonne was still busy with the baby, Jim returned to the subject. Out of her earshot, he had the last word.

"There is no time in this household," he said. "I don't think Ivonne accepts this."

But he put the legs on again anyway. For the second time that day.

It took him about 7 minutes from the time he rolled on the liners until he stood up.

He didn't even bother with the walker. He went straight to the canes.

He took a few laps though the living room.

Giselle giggled as she scooted between his legs.

He hung out in the kitchen for a while. He popped open the fridge, which has a route map of the No. 84 bus in Paris taped to it, and pulled out a couple of beers. He brought one to Ivonne in the bedroom.

Back at the stove, he stirred a pot of stew he'd cooked that morning.

For about an hour Jim was the 5-foot-8 father he had hoped to be.

He didn't fall.

Not even close.

"You know what?" Jim said. "This is going to work."

///////////////

Why then did he not walk in them the next day or the day after that?

There seemed no explanation for this. Indeed, Jim had everything he needed to walk. He had good-fitting prostheses that he had gone to great effort and expense to acquire. He was healthy, and his legs, thanks to Ertl's surgery, were in excellent shape. Ivonne wanted him to succeed.

Jim had even demonstrated the benefits of the all-under-one-roof French system -- the value of having other patients nearby for support and a deep roster of in-house experts to consult on technical problems. His indictment of the U.S. system was less conclusive, given the existence of similar programs here. In the end, it was clear that the argument over which health care system was better had little to do with whether Jim would walk.

Jim had once told me, "I define myself by my ability to stick to things and get them done." At the time, he was talking about the 51/2 years he spent with his first wife building their 46-foot sailboat.

But where was that determination now?

For more than a year and a half, I had watched Jim's unorthodox and laborious journey. Several times I thought he would quit. Who could have blamed him? He had endured intense physical and emotional pain. Sometimes, the act of walking again seemed to promise only more of the same.

But Jim never quit.

Then why, after all that work, was he not using the legs?

Jim had three answers. The first was that he had no time. The second was that he was afraid to fall.

The third reason didn't have anything to do with his legs. It had to do with his life.

In the first months after the accident, Jim's motivation to walk had been a stubborn determination to prove the experts wrong.

In time, that stubbornness ebbed in favor of his belief that he needed to walk to pursue the life he considered worth living. That life was centered on Paris. To get to Paris -- to live in Paris -- he needed legs.

Later, as he reunited with Ivonne, walking became a necessity for the day-to-day functioning of his family.

But then, with the family together, he realized that goal was too abstract, or maybe not exciting enough. He said he needed a tangible dream, something that he wanted to leap out of bed every day to tackle.

"My greatest single challenge is psychological," Jim said. "Why do so many legs end up in the closet? Some people have badly made legs. Some have bad surgery. But I think the biggest reason is they don't have an objective. Once they get up on their legs, what have they got to look forward to?"

"I don't have it," he said. "I have to find a way to motivate myself."

Whatever that dream was for Jim, it certainly wasn't, by itself, walking. Just looking at those legs with their Superman-size thighs depressed him. What was the point, he asked himself, of all the extra effort it took to lurch around in them?

All along then, Jim's quest to walk had really been a quest for a reason to walk.

He had answered the question: "How do I walk?" But there was one more he hadn't anticipated:

"Why do I walk?"

//////////////

Not long after his second daughter was born, Jim rolled his scooter up to his computer and began a search for that answer. He had an idea what he was looking for before he logged on.

It did not involve moving back to the cobblestone streets of his old neighborhood. Though he still wanted desperately to live in Paris, he didn't want to do it alone, and Ivonne was not eager to leave Orlando.

Neither did the dream involve his plane, which after more than two years had yet to be retrofitted with the hand controls he needed to fly it.

It didn't even really involve walking.

"I want to go sailing again really bad," he said.

The years he had spent sailing the Caribbean with his first wife had been some of the best of his life, Jim often said. But he and Joyce had returned to St. Petersburg without accomplishing their ultimate goal -- to sail the Atlantic and live in ports around the Mediterranean.

He wanted to fulfill that dream. To do so he needed a boat, a special kind of boat. He contacted a broker who specialized in catamarans. The broker put him in contact with a manufacturer in South Africa. In early May, Jim flew to Durban, prepared to spend $300,000 and wait nine months for the 44-foot boat to be constructed.

Ivonne did not begrudge him this dream. She understood Jim's fear of failure, his perfectionism and his dissatisfaction with suburban life.

"He needs something bigger," she said. "This is something he's wanted for a long time. Basically, it's his last hurrah."

///////////////

Though he had never worn his legs outside his house -- not even into the back yard, not even to the end of the driveway to get the mail -- Jim had no choice but to bring a pair of legs with him to South Africa. If he intended to learn whether the boat's design could be modified to accommodate him, then Jim knew he would have to climb on board. That wasn't going to happen in a wheelchair.

He did not bring the French legs. He left those resting in a corner by the fireplace in Orlando. He brought the shorter legs, the ones without knees.

They broke on the first day. The pin in the right leg wouldn't stay locked into the socket, so he rigged up a duct-tape harness that he slung over his shoulder to keep the leg on.

One afternoon he went to the boat yard to see the work on another catamaran. Jim ended up pitching in to laminate one of the bulkheads.

"I felt useful in a way I hadn't since the accident," he said. "I forgot all about the legs."

Another day he went sailing with the owner of the factory. It wasn't easy getting into the cockpit (he'd need to install rails in several locations), but Jim took the helm. For a while he steered the 44-foot boat through the azure waters of the Indian Ocean.

When I saw Jim back in Orlando, I could tell by his demeanor that something had changed while he was away. The boat (which he was thinking of naming Sea Legs) was months from being done, but he seemed less gloomy.

He was still apprehensive about using the tall French legs, but he walked in the short ones for several hours that day. He even wore them out to dinner with his family -- a first. Overall, Jim seemed calmer. By his standards, almost at peace.

"At the center (in Paris), I thought that once I could walk, that would be it," Jim said to me. "But I realized, what's the point of walking if you have nowhere to walk to? And no reason to walk there?

Jim had discovered a fundamental truth about walking and about his life, something more essential to his happiness than whether the United States has universal health care.

"If you are a dreamer it makes it easier to handle a disaster like this," he said.

/////////

"I'm taking the French legs," he said. "I've been getting better and better on them."

This was about as buoyant as I had heard Jim sound. He had recently received some distressing news: his bone spurs were coming back. But even the prospect of another surgery couldn't dampen his enthusiasm. Jim had made the transition from the short, straight legs to the bendable French legs and that was clearly a good sign.

I didn't accompany Jim to Paris this trip, but our photographer Bill Serne did. Bill sent back the photograph you see here. I had that photo in front of me when I called Jim in Paris last week.

Walking in Paris was tougher than Jim expected. Jim had grown used to walking on the parquet floor at home, but he found that everything in Paris slopes just enough to make him feel off balance. Curbs, steps, gravel -- every block was an obstacle course.

In the picture, Jim's eyes are on his feet and I knew that meant he was struggling a little bit; Pierre Laplume had always admonished him to look forward, not down.

"I was terrified," Jim said. "I was really afraid of falling."

Shortly after the photo was taken, he caught his foot entering a restaurant and crashed to the floor. A waiter helped him up and Jim walked to the table.

Lunch was good.

He was in Paris.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.