Life, After

In an accident early this year, the longtime and talented CNN and PBS science and technology reporter Miles O’Brien lost his left arm. What it taught him is, almost every single thing he does now requires rethinking. Miles is a friend of BoomerCafé co-founder Greg Dobbs, and with his help, and the generous cooperation of New York Magazine, we are able to republish his moving and surprising story today on BoomerCafé. It’s called, “Life, After.”

Television journalist, Miles O'brien, who lost an arm after an accident gets ready for his day. Toothbrushing becomes a one-hand, two-knees project.   (Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine)

Television journalist, Miles O’Brien, who lost an arm after an accident, gets ready for his day. Toothbrushing becomes a one-hand, two-knees project.
(Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine)

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 lifeafter 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.

Outfitted with a special arm, Miles O'Brien is ready to resume bicycling.

Outfitted with a special prosthesis, Miles O’Brien is ready to resume bicycling.
Photo by Xeni Jardin

This might help you understand the decision I made, while I was in that Philippine hospital and then in a hotel room, that manypeople 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).

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.

Back at work -- Miles at Barrow, Alaska, producing a story on climate change for the National Science Foundation's Science Nation and PBS NewsHour.

Back at work — Miles at Barrow, Alaska, producing a story on climate change for the National Science Foundation’s Science Nation and PBS NewsHour.

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 is more, much more, to Miles’ story, from some of the things that he says “make one-handed life easier,” to a moving and admirable lesson about how lucky we are not to lose a limb, but also how lucky Miles feels for what he’s learned from what happened to him. Click here to read the entire piece as it appeared originally in New York Magazine.

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Roz Warren

Loved this piece when I read it in New York Magazine and was happy to read it again here. Mike’s girlfriend is one lucky gal — not only can the guy write, but judging from these photos — he’s hot! Yum. (Greg, I’m hoping that publishing photos of smart, sexy bare-chested Boomer guys will become a regular part of this site?)