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

Fear of falling

Jim was the only American at the clinic. The other patients admired his willingness to travel such a distance for treatment.

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.

The most reliable means of transportation for Jim was also the most expensive: a taxi. Four days a week he paid about $44 roundtrip to the clinic.

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.

* * *

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