I had worked hard on the Fukushima stories and felt they were important. They needed to be ready in time for the anniversary of the meltdowns. But there was also a practical urgency to the matter: As a freelancer, I eat what I kill. I had spent a lot of money on travel, and on hiring local help. I had to deliver the completed work or take a huge loss. So I wrote my scripts, and when friends and family checked in, I acted as if all was well. When they found out later, most of them understood my decision.
As soon as I got back, I told my kids in a Skype conference call. My 21-year-old son is studying in Beijing. My daughter, 19, is at college in North Carolina. I dreaded breaking the news to them, but they expressed love, support, and gratitude that I was alive. It brought tears to my eyes—mostly because I was just so proud of them.
My other big worry had to do with my livelihood. I am in a business where looks matter, and I wasn’t aware of any one-armed TV correspondents. Would my empty sleeve end my on-camera career?
At the PBS NewsHour, where I am treated like family, they were just as accepting and supportive as my own children. When I asked if I should shoot and edit around my disability, my boss told me, “No one cares. Just be your smart, engaging self.”
And then came a call from the old girlfriend who had ditched me: CNN. We had been in a committed relationship for 17 years when she dumped me in December 2008. It was a bitter breakup, but I had moved on. Now she was obsessed with the missing Malaysian airliner, and I am a pilot and aviation geek. I was the right guy—once again.
They wanted me on the air as fast as possible. No one gave a damn that I could count only to five on my fingers. I called it my “Vindication Tour.” It would’ve been sweet enough even if I still had two hands. But for a newly minted amputee unsure of my future, it was the best medicine imaginable.
I’d always heard amputees talk about the stares and the acute awareness of being viewed as different. During my first shoot for the NewsHour with one arm, I was wearing a blazer when I met a researcher I was to interview. She left the lab, and I took my jacket off. When she returned, it was a good thing she wasn’t sipping her coffee, because she would have offered up an amazing spit take. As we both looked at my stump, I shrugged and said, “It happens.” She smiled and nodded and then we pressed on. It didn’t really bother me for some reason—perhaps because of the honesty of her reaction. What makes me more uncomfortable is when I notice people consciously looking away. Is that pity? Revulsion? On the sidewalks, I look straight at people looking at me, and lots of times, they smile. Maybe I am still attractive. Or maybe I’m a freak.
My girlfriend was the one most upset about my silence in the Philippines. When she saw me for the first time, we fell into a long embrace. With tears welling, I asked her if she could still love me despite my diminished body. She caressed and kissed what is left of my arm. I took off the bandage and showed her the stitched wound. She kissed it.
The mono-mano life is more manageable than you might think. If you were to tie one hand behind your back and go through your day, you could accomplish just about everything. It takes longer, but it can be done.
There are some things that make one-handed life easier. I use a cutting board that sits on suction cups and has a lip and some spikes that can hold a slice of bread or a piece of fruit in place. I have a one-armed bottle opener, a mezzaluna (a knife shaped like a half-moon), a fork with a knifelike edge called a “knork,” a hook that allows me to button and unbutton my one cuff, some very sticky material called Dycem that can hold a jar steady on a counter, and, of course, an electric can opener.
I’m also learning to use a prosthetic arm. The one I wear is body-powered, meaning I wear a harness and move the elbow and hand by moving my stump forward, broadening my shoulders. The basic technology dates back to the 16th century. By comparison the split hook that is my new hand is a modern marvel, patented in 1912.