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

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.

Alone in Paris, Jim was no match for ‘the glooms.’ His French was spotty and he was shy with people.

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.

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Jean-Paul Schoenstein, left, and Dr. Domenico Menager, center, took a special interest in Jim’s case. In mid-December 2001, after several setbacks with the fit of the sockets, they found a method that suited Jim.

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."

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