FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- I never saw it coming. It happened so fast, there wasn't even time to think. I remember the deafening sound of glass breaking and the concerned looks on the faces of my friends.
To be honest, my first instinct was to laugh, I mean it's not every day that one falls through a sliding glass door. One glance at my leg and I knew ... this cannot be good. I was a dancer for most of my life. I was dancing before I could read.
Even though I retired from dance in my late twenties, I still relied on it to stay limber which helped when I joined the military and fell in love with running. So naturally when I was in the emergency room, my first question to the nurse was, "Will I ever run again'"
"Yes." She said.
She was humming an indistinguishable country song while she was looking over my leg. I had two major lacerations. One extended over the top of my knee and the other across the outside of my ankle. Both cuts went clear down to the bone.
"Will I ever dance again'" I asked.
She continued humming while she began prepping my leg for x-rays. She was quiet for some time.
"What kind of dance'" she asked, without looking up.
"Ballet." I said. And in the most nonchalant voice I have ever heard she said, "Probably not."
I will never forget those words. I don't think she was aware of how serious that was to me.
Dancing wasn't just a hobby, it was my life and, just like that, it was over. It took close to 50 stitches and months of walking with a cane before I was able to take my first long walk. But inside, I was still bitter.
Sadness turned into anger, anger turned into frustration and frustration eventually turned into resolve. I would just have to accept the fact that life would be different and ballet would no longer be a part of it.
I would be a liar if I said I never once felt sorry for myself. I had lost motivation. Let's face it. Getting news of that sort can be a real spirit crusher.
Then, I met Lt. Col Patti Collins. I was at Fort Hood Texas, covering the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion's change-of-command ceremony. Collins is the new commander. I was reading her biography in the program and I was immediately impressed with her credentials.
She has the Senior Parachutist Badge, the Military Free Fall Jumpmaster Badge, she worked under the First Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta at Fort Bragg, N.C., just to name a few. I was discussing her achievements with another Soldier while we waited for the ceremony to begin.
"She is quite impressive," the Soldier said. "And she only has one leg."
I was speechless.
Suddenly, I was looking at this new commander in a completely different light. I immediately had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask, and much to my surprise, she was very willing to answer them.
On July 17, 2006, Collins was riding her bicycle to work on Fort Bragg when she was struck from behind by an automobile. Initially, it was a very bad ankle break that resulted in a total loss of cartilage to her tibio-talar joint, Collins said.
"It took me seven months to walk without crutches, but the pain during simple walking from my ankle bones rubbing on each other because of the lack of cartilage was incredibly painful," said Collins.
"Previously, I had competed in marathons and triathlons, including an Ironman, so this was very difficult for me to accept physically and emotionally."
Collins said she was working alongside three other amputee Soldiers at the time and they seemed to be doing pretty well. She consulted with doctors about whether an amputation might give her more mobility than an ankle fusion, which is what was initially recommended by her surgeon. After weighing her options, Collins decided an amputation would be the best way for her to return to a life with the mobility she had previously enjoyed.
"I wanted to compete in triathlons and return to airborne status again," she said. "It was important to prove to myself that although I have a part of my leg missing, I'm still the same person." Learning how to run again is something Collins referred to as a blessing. "I grew up as a high school cross country runner and continued on after college," said Collins.
"Running was my outlet, my favorite pastime. It was very difficult to lose it. It's something we don't think about because most of us grew up, learned to run as a young child, played sports, etcetera. Losing something I loved and then (re)learning that again as a grown woman made me appreciate it all the more. It's as if I can smell the proverbial roses now."
Collins said people have been extremely supportive, and some, like myself, have lots of questions. Whenever Collins and her son spend time at the pool or playground, naturally the other youth become curious and inquisitive.
"Typically, their parents are apologetic and slightly embarrassed," Collins said.
"It doesn't bother me at all. Kids are curious, and I will show them my leg and residual limb and answer all their questions. Their parents are curious as well. It just seems, as an adult, we have a 'censor' mechanism and we don't ask questions although we're just as curious. What I have learned from this whole experience is once people understand it, and see that it's really got nothing to do with who I am as a person, it's not a big deal. I'm just another mom at the playground."
One question Collins is typically asked is how many different prosthetic legs she has. Collins has five different ones the Army pays for; an everyday leg, a spare everyday leg, a running leg, a bicycling leg and what Collins refers to as a "Barbie" leg.
"It has fake skin and it's the shape of my other leg. I wear it with skirts or my dress uniform. It has an adjustable heel height, so I can wear heels or sandals."
Collins made me realize that just because my life would never be the same, it doesn't mean it was over. I would feel guilty because I knew someone out there had it much worse than me. Collins said you can't compare yourself to others. Recovery and rehab and acceptance are personal things and we can't expect everyone to work through issues the same way.
Collins said one phrase she tells Soldiers is, "My bag of gold is SO heavy. I have a wonderful life and an incredible family. Everyone has their own issues they face. Mine is almost easier because people can see it immediately."
"Lots of people struggle with emotional issues, relationship issues, cancer survivors, etcetera. I just have to put my leg on in the morning. In the grand scheme of things, it's just an inconvenience," said Collins.
Sometimes, it takes hearing another person's story before you see things clearly. Of all she said, the statement that says the most is, "I'm not what I once was, but I can be the best 'new me' I can be."