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Life, After

An accident in February cost the TV reporter Miles O’Brien his left arm. He soon discovered that every movement, no matter how small, requires rethinking.

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Toothbrushing becomes a one-hand, two-knees project.  

Denial is powerful. It can be a crucial coping tool when experiencing loss or trauma, but it also can unmoor you from reality. From the time I lost most of my left arm in February, I was living in that parallel universe, one where I’d power through, barely acknowledging the amputation—until I went for a run on the sunny afternoon of April 6.

It was nothing more than a slightly uneven sidewalk that took me down. No problem for a runner with two arms. In fact, this particular sidewalk is right behind my home, and I had negotiated it uneventfully for years. But here are two things you need to know about life after an arm amputation: First, your center of gravity changes dramatically when you are suddenly eight pounds lighter on one side of your body. Second, while my arm may be missing physically, it is there, just as it always has been, in my mind’s eye. I can feel every digit. I can even feel the watch that was always strapped to my left wrist. When I tripped, I reached reflexively to break my very real fall with my completely imaginary left hand. My fall was instead broken by my nose, and my nose was broken by my fall.

Lying on that sidewalk, moaning in pain, I reached the end of Denial River and flowed into the Sea of Doubt. It finally dawned on me in that instant that I was, indeed, handicapped. That may not be the term of choice these days—“differently abled” or “physically challenged” may be de rigueur—but as I touched my bloody face, feeling embedded chips of concrete in the wounds, “handicapped” sure seemed to fit.

The woman I was passing on the sidewalk when I fell took one look at me and cried out in panic to her husband: “My God, what’s happened to his arm?” “It’s gone,” I said. “But don’t worry, that didn’t happen today.”

Truth be told, my arm never did feel “gone.” The whole thing is such a fluke I have a hard time making sense of it. Frankly, I’m not interested in revisiting the excruciating details (more denial!). But the sound-bite version of my gory story is this: I was on a reporting trip in the Far East, first to Japan for a story about the Fukushima reactor and then to the Philippines for one about genetically modified rice. As I was packing up my TV gear, a heavy Pelican case of equipment fell on my left forearm. What began as a fairly bad bruise evolved, over a couple of days, into something life-threatening: acute compartment syndrome, which blocks blood flow. When I got to a doctor in Manila, he recognized the problem and sent me in for emergency surgery. He tried to save the arm, but it was too late. It was a life-or-limb decision.

When the anesthesia receded and I rejoined the world of the living, I was convinced that the doctor had saved it. It was a good thing drugs were still coursing through my veins when I took my first look. No hand. No forearm. No elbow. All of it gone. No, the surgery had not gone well at all.

I had been traveling alone, hiring local drivers and fixers. As an independent TV producer, I am always looking for ways to save a few bucks, but I have also always been a do-it-yourself kind of guy, and I truly love shooting my own stories. The lifestyle of being a “one-man band” reporter suits me just fine. That ethos is also part of why I am not very good at reaching out to others for help. But beyond that, I grew up in a boozy, dysfunctional household that left me with a core of self-reliance and a compulsive desire to fix other people’s problems that is not healthy.

This might help you understand the decision I made, while I was in that Philippine hospital and then in a hotel room, that many people have second-guessed: I didn’t let anyone know what had happened to me for more than a week. I imagined an armada of flights heading my way and imagined myself worrying about their travel, their flights, their hotels. All I really wanted to do was manage the pain and think. Maybe I could just heal a little, then sneak back home. You know, denial.

Instead of calling in the cavalry, I enmeshed myself in work, writing my Fukushima stories. So the first real obstacle I encountered in my mono-mano life was the QWERTY keyboard. I hunted and I pecked and then started leaning heavily on voice-dictation software (as I am right now).


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