She stands in the drenched paddock after the thunderstorm, fork in hands, picking horse manure. We get a lot of production here on the farm. They say an average horse drops nine tons a year. Do the math. We have four average horses.
We get lots of time to think while we’re mucking stalls and picking the paddock. As I watched her pick, I thought of her legs—those beautiful legs she uses to walk—those legs that have been casted and sliced and crutched and chaired through the years. Her legs remind me of the hidden stories, even the scars, we all have.
As she walks through the muck of this day, I remember the time she did not walk . . .
Anna was born with a congenital birth defect called Amniotic Band Syndrome where fibrous amniotic bands entrap fetal parts while in utero causing constriction, lack of development, and sometimes natural amputation. In Anna’s case, her left leg was banded right below her knee resulting in a shorter left leg than right by an inch, smaller circumference, poor blood circulation, and nerve damage creating numbness and a chronic cracked foot that bleeds often. Because she received no medical attention in the orphanage to correct her leg length discrepancy, Anna learned to walk on her left toes to compensate for the inch difference, putting added stress on her foot.
We began visiting an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee shortly after adopting Anna when she was six. Trips to Dr. Lyons became regular, lasting twelve years. His first attempt to help Anna was with casting to stretch her heel cord which had atrophied over the years. Months in a cast did not prove helpful. We tried a brace. Nothing. We tried physical therapy. No improvement. Our only other option was surgery but we had to wait until Anna was done growing. In the meantime, we used a specially made shoe and a lift to help Anna walk properly so her spine would not be compromised. When other girls got to wear pretty shoes, Anna had one pair—white tennis shoes with a clunky outer lift. She never complained.
Finally, when Anna was old enough, we prepared for surgery to stretch her heel cord. The x-ray preceding surgery changed our course of action. Dr. Lyons showed us the films compared to the year before—films from her waist down. The films revealed that Anna’s right leg—her good leg—had grown a very large tumor above her knee. We could see that the tumor had eaten its way through most of her femur. Dr. Lyons was shocked that Anna felt no pain or had not broken her leg, there was so little bone. He said he needed to operate, remove the tumor, and perform a biopsy to determine if was malignant. Cancer? Could it be? He couldn’t reassure us at that point. The complicating issue was that Anna would need bone to fill the gap the tumor had created. Dr. Lyons suggested that Anna should not provide her own bone for the graft because of her slight frame and we opted for a cadaver bone instead. We knew rejection is possible with any kind of transplant.
Thankfully, the first surgery was successful, the tumor was benign, and we waited for the donor bone to take and create new bone. A month after beginning high school, Anna was in a wheelchair. She appeared to heal quickly and graduated to crutches, then a walker. And then, she broke her leg! Right at the spot of the graft! Anna went back into a wheelchair in the middle of our heavily snowed, persistently iced Wisconsin winter.
A year later, her right leg was healed enough for surgery on her left leg. Thinking the heel cord extension would be rather routine, Dr. Lyons made the incision, extended the tendon, and sutured her up. Turns out, Anna was allergic to the sutures! Her body had a fit, trying to reject the stitches. The incision pulled apart so quickly and wide that it could not be sutured. An open, oozing wound was left on the back of her ankle requiring daily hospital visits for several months to a wound specialist and a contraption she had to wear 24 hours a day to drain the infection. She called it “The Frog” because every time it sucked out puss it made a ree-beep sound. She found it quite embarrassing when it went off in classes causing others to look.
After a year, the wound finally healed completely and physical therapy ensued. Today, Anna walks well without the need for special shoes or lifts. Her left foot is still a complete size smaller than her right which requires us to purchase two pairs of shoes in two different sizes whenever she needs them. She still has circulation problems that cause painful cracking. But the wheelchairs are gone, as are the several sets of crutches, the braces, the walker. She can move freely around that paddock and through those stalls on her own two legs, picking up muck left behind from the four-legged beasts.
What beauty came out of such a challenging season?
Humility and joy. Wheelchairs and crutches slow down life, causing a certain dependency, a need to allow others the blessing of serving. We experienced students helping Anna through doors, down halls, carrying her books, picking up her lunch trays. Helping her helped us all. There is no greater joy than when one serves freely. And learning how to be served humbles—a good thing. Serving and allowing oneself to be served—both create profound joy because both connect us with one another. Real connection is what we most want and need in life, right?
Gratitude. For all who served, especially Dr. Lyons and his assistant Erin, who became like family, we are filled with gratitude. Saying our final goodbyes at Children’s Hospital was bittersweet when Anna was discharged after twelve years of treatment. We are deeply grateful for the tender care we received, not just physically, but emotionally. Love received and gratitude given make the heart beat strong and the tired soul fresh.
Increased trust and faith. The body is an awesome creation. We learned how little control we have over its healing, ultimately. We can do what we can do and then we have to pray and trust that the Creator will knit together flesh, cause bone cells to grow, keep the body from rejecting life-giving foreign donations.
So legs and muck? They do go together. And often it’s the muck in life that produces the beauty—that leads us to joy. Every spring I dig in bare hands here on the farm—in the manure pile—and pull some up to my nose. Gone is the stench. The appearance is changed. What was once muck is transformed by the tossing and turning, the wetting by rain, the warming by sun. And then it’s ready—crumbly and sweet, soft for the planting, rich for the growing, and the feeding of many.