Subject: Derek Douglas
Occupation: construction management
Disability: lost right hand and part of forearm in accident
Derek: I work for a construction management company out of Atlanta. I was on a job-site in Miami in 1996 inspecting a construction job - about 9:00 in the morning. I had just completed the inspection and was heading away from the site. A lift transferring a load of I-beams became off-balanced and dumped a load of I-beams right where I was standing. I couldn’t react quickly enough and one of the I-beams struck me, pinning me against a concrete abutment. The angle of force crushed my lower right arm. I knew my arm was fucked, but strangely enough there was not much pain. It took the paramedics about 20 minutes to arrive. When they finally freed my arm, it was only hanging by some skin. They put a tourniquet around the stump and took the amputated arm to the hospital, but it was way too FUBAR (fucked-up beyond all recognition) to re-attach. I never lost consciousness throughout the whole scene. My most vivid memory was riding to the hospital in the ambulance looking at my bandaged stump soaked in blood. You know, my most immediate thoughts were - will I bleed to death? I could have cared less about the severed hand at that moment in time. There was a really cute hottie intern in the emergency room. Incredibly I can remember thinking how cute he was. How’s that for a gay man thinking with the wrong head - pretty powerful drive, huh? I remember asking him if they were going to re-attach my arm. He was really sweet and got really close to me and told me that he didn’t think so, but that I was going to be OK. I’ll always remember that. They took me into surgery where they cleaned up the smashed bone and sewed it up nice and neat. The original amputation was just a few inches above the wrist, but they had to take off my arm about 4 inches below my elbow because the bone was crushed. They also discovered that the upper bone in my arm was fractured; so the arm had to be in a cast in addition to having my hand amputated. The surgery took about 2 hours. I woke up about 5:00 pm in recovery. Because I was out of town, no one was there - no friends, family, or anybody. It took me about 30 minutes to piece together the scene. My arm was one big bandage and cast, but I could tell that it was clearly cut-off somewhere around the elbow. I spent 4 days in the hospital in Miami. By the third day, I was feeling pretty good and was up and around. I carried my bandaged arm in a sling. I spend another week in Miami in an outpatient facility just to make sure everything was stable and then flew home to Atlanta. The trip back to Atlanta was the hardest part. The anxiety was intense about meeting my friends - now that I had one arm! That was about as hard as getting used to the amputation functionally. How do you walk up to someone and start the conversation about your amputated arm? Fortunately - my friends made it very easy. Quickly they learned to kid me about it. They literally drug me out to the local gay strip club my first weekend home. There I was with my bandaged stump in a sling - getting off on naked men. I got all of the bandages and cast off in about 5 weeks. I remember the first time looked at my arm with no bandages and rubbed the end of my stump. It was in incredibly weird feeling. I did special therapy to get my elbow joint mobile. Now have have complete flexibility in my elbow. I can even hold small objects - like a pencil. I was back to work about 6 weeks after the accident. I indented to take more time off - but was getting way to antsy to get going again.
Before the accident, were you right handed or left handed?
As (bad) luck would have it. I was right-handed. I had to learn how to do everything with my left hand. The first few weeks were horrific - just try switching from your dominant hand to do some simple things! One thing about it, when you have no choice, you have to get on with it. Just simple things like washing my left arm and hand. It took about a year before my stump had toughened-up enough to use it effectively.
How do you handle shaking hands?
That’s really funny. Invariably when I meet somebody new, they sometimes do not notice I have one hand. When they extend their right hand, I just extend my left hand and shake in reverse. I usually extend my right stump so they can see the reason for the awkwardness.
Is hugging people awkward?
Not really. I’m a great hugger. I use my right stump just like a regular arm in that regard.
I assume you drive a car with automatic transmission.
My car is an automatic, but I can drive a straight shit with no problem. Actually I had a stick-shift car when I first lost my hand; so this was another chapter in the inventiveness that all amputees go through. Actually, my level of amputation below the elbow leaves me with considerable dexterity. To be more specific, I have about 4 inches of good stump below the elbow and my elbow joint is quite flexible. This enables me to use my stump to grip and even carry things very effectively. It is actually more useful than if my stump were longer. For instance, I can carry several grocery bags on my flexed stump with no problem. So back to the driving scenario, I just grip the lower portion of the steering wheel with my stump and steer quite well. Then I reach over with my left hand and shift! Its a little awkward, but hey, it works just fine. I use the same driving technique when using a cell phone, adjusting the radio, or any other conventional two-handed situation.
How do you handle typing (like now)?
Actually I can type pretty well. I have an elastic band I wear around my stump with a pointer to work the shift and return keys. No problems really.
How do you handle applause?
There you have me! Whenever I am at a performance that applause is called for, I usually just sit. Occasionally I find myself clapping with my left hand and right stump. It makes no noise, but the symbolism is appreciated.
How do you ride a bike? Do you?
I do ride. I have a mountain bike. My buddies and I go biking quite frequently. I use my split-hook prosthesis to ride my bike. It helps me steady the handle bars and makes for a safer ride, all in all.
Your mechanical arm does look kind of complex. What does it actually do?
I have a prosthetic split-hook arm. While there have been great advances in bionic limbs, the hand is still way too complex to replicate very well. The technology for the split-hook is quite old. It works quite well to pick up and grasp things, but it is fundamentally a tool - sort of like a hammer or pliers. I use is for certain things, but 90% of the time I don’t. I go for weeks at a time without putting it on. I almost never wear it to work - and never when I go out to party or play.
What was done with the remains of your lost arm? Do you ever think about where it is now, or what state it’s in?
It was cremated. I authorized the procedure the day after the accident. I remember the charge on my hospital bill - something like $800 for cremation of amputated arm. In retrospect, I should have just asked for a take-out bag and and put it in the nearest dumpster! Really. You would be amazed how may times I’m asked that question. I often wonder why people seem to be hung up on detached body parts. I don’t think it would occur to me to walk up to a one-legged guy and asked him what they did with his leg when they cut it off! On the other hand (excuse the pun) I don’t think I would want to keep my hand in a jar of formaldehyde on the mantle. That would not be cool either.
One time some friends and I were compiling a list of the most horrible ways to die. There were the usual listings like “being eaten alive by a shark” and “drowning in a sealed room that was slowly filling with water” and “tortured to death.” But what was weird is that almost all of us included “amputation” on the list, even though we didn’t necessarily mean that it would kill us. It’s just that the thought of having a major limb suddenly amputated was something that we imagined would be so traumatic that it was almost akin to death. Loosing like a leg or something… it in a way is almost having part of you “die.” Any thoughts on this?
Obviously I never thought about having my arm cut off in an accident before it happened. But, it is certainly a very intense experience. The term out-of-body is quite appropriate. I remember for days afterwards thinking that I would wake up from this terrible dream - that I really could not be one-armed. My biggest fear - as a gay man - was how this would impact my attractiveness to other guys. Would my sex life me over for good? There’s that sex drive over and above all other realities. Actually I have discussed the subject with straight amputees. I can report in a very non-scientific way that their anxiety over sexual attractiveness is nowhere close to my experience. (I’m also happy to report that my fears were unfounded - being an amputee has considerably expanded my sexual horizons - keep reading.)
Do you feel like you shop for clothes any different now that you have one arm?
Oh definitely. Since I don’t wear my prosthetic very much. I have to gear my wardrobe to my “short arm.” Since I actively use my stump, it has to be exposed. Coats are also troublesome. I haven’t figured out how to deal with a dress coat or suit. A floppy empty sleeve is a real pain in the ass. I have a couple of nice jackets that I have had the sleeve cut off and stitched up. I have a really sharp leather bomber jacket that I had the right sleeve cut off and sewn up just to fit my stump. It’s great for cold weather. I also have a pea-coat with the sleeve cut off and sewn up. My boyfriend loves the pea-coat. One nice thing about it - you don’t have to worry about other people borrowing your coats when one sleeve is cut off and stitched-up! I have the sleeve cut off and stitched up on almost all of my long sleeve shirts. I keep a couple of good shirts with both sleeves for when I wear my split-hook.
Have you ever bought any kind of gloves and thought “what a rip off for me?”
Definitely. I love snow skiing - and as you know ski gloves are very pricey. Last year I bought a new ski glove and paid $70 for one glove. I left the right glove in the store. I guess one-legged guys say the same about boots and shoes!
When you weigh yourself do you think “OK, add a few pounds for my missing arm?” Do you think about how much your missing arm weighs? Do you ever think you are “cheating” when you think about what your typical weight should be for your height and build?
Do you ever think about the day of the accident? Like “Oh if only I hadn’t been standing there at that moment” or “If only I had paused for a few more seconds before entering that room?”
No - not really. I’m not into metaphysical shit. Like it really matters!
Are you religious?
No. Not at all.
When it first happened, did you feel any need to hide the fact that you were missing an arm?
Oh yes. I remember for about a year after my accident, I would wear long sleeve shirts and pin the sleeve over my stump trying to hide my amputation. I was very self-conscious about showing my stump as I thought it might really turn people off. I eventually just got over it as it was too much trouble to hide. Later on, I began to realize that it was frequently an advantage - even a major turn on in certain situations. Now I have no problem. When I go out to bars, I always wear short sleeve shirts.
I imagine your missing limb is a conversation piece, but with some obvious awkwardness. Have you ever gauged how long it takes in getting to know someone, like a new friend or coworker, before they ask you “So what happened to your arm?” Does that normal time period change in different settings? Like I would think coworkers in an office might take like a week of being around you before they might ask. But at a bar, like where people are drinking and being friendly and letting go of social inhibitions, some stranger might just literally walk up and drunkenly say “So what’s the story on your arm?”
Oh yeah that’s interesting and also very irritating. After ten years as a amputee - I would really like to get over being the “one-armed guy” - like being one-armed is the defining aspect of my being. But let’s face it, I will invariably be the “one-armed guy.” The scenario varies: Frequently in social situations, it’s the logical ice breaker. Alternatively in professional situations, people almost never bring it up - especially when I am in the field with my work.
Have you ever felt the need to lie about the facts on how you lost your arm to impress anyone? Like turn the story into some kind of wild adventure?
Yeah I have this long list of dramatic occurrences. Like it was bitten off by a shark. Seriously though, not really. The actual accident was dramatic enough for me - and most others. Along the same lines, I have had some terrific fun over time pretending I just got my arm cut off. One my best Halloween get-ups is to paint fake blood on my stump like it has just been severed and shock the shit out of people. Everyone always want so know now I make it look so real! But my friends got tired of that shtick.
Do you ever feel like you’ve gotten special treatment as a result of your missing arm?
Yes - and I hate it. When someone starts deferring to me because of my arm, I usually set the record straight. I don’t need any special treatment. Like I need it!
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like if you made your missing arm visible, you would get preferential treatment?
Well now you’re getting to the social aspects of being an amputee - more to the point a gay amputee. I guess your readers are waiting for this. There is no concealing the fact that an amputee is a major turn-on to lots of guys. Whether its a latent fascination or a out-right sexual attraction, it makes life very interesting and challenging some times. There is no doubt that amputees are a major turn-on to certain people. While some amputees find this disgusting and a turn-off, I have never been particularly alarmed by the phenomenon. Hey, everyone is attracted to something: Blue eyes. Red Hair. Large breasts. Bubble buts. You get the point. So what’s so particularly shocking about an attraction to amputees. Once in while I hook up with a guy that is really obsessed with my arm in a twisted sort of way. If it’s too kinky, I usually just back off. I’m not interested in totally objectifying my arm. They best way to explain it is ó I don’t want to be with anyone who just wants my arm. If they find my arm attractive in a holistic sort of way, that’s cool by me. Bottom line - being an amputee is fundamentally a plus, rather than a minus, when it comes to sexual attraction. Go figure. I’ve learned to play it for what it’s worth!
Of course I have to ask you… have you ever used your amputated arm sexually in any way, like in bed with a partner?
Oh yes. An amputated arm can be a major turn on to certain people. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to leap to a phallic context. My friends kid me about having a super dick. It’s not unusual for a partner to want to lick or suck my stump. Actually, the end of my stump is quite sensitive and erotic in certain situations. And yes when lubed-up - well you get the picture. The concept is fisting without a fist. In answer to your question: Yes I have on numerous occasions. And yes it puts them on the ceiling. Not to get into too much level of detail, but the end of my stump is naturally extremely sensitive, logically because of the severed nerve endings. The only other natural extremity with similar amount of nerve endings is the head of the penis - quite literally. Is it erotic in same sense of the penis? No, not exactly, but stroking it directly along the line of the scar (where the skin and muscle tissue was stitched over the bone) does produce a very unique sensation. When we sit and watch TV or relax, my boyfriend frequently massages my stump and it is very pleasurable. This same sensitivity also enables me to develop a keen sense of ìtouchî with my stump - so I can exert pressure (as in tying my shoes) quite precisely on a specific point.
Actually, do you ever get annoyed with people bringing up that subject? I was actually rolling my eyes as I was typing it. Do you ever feel like maybe people ask you sexually-oriented questions about your amputated arm and all they are really doing is trying to impress you with how shocking or uninhibited they are trying to seem? I guess there’s a psychological thing at play there, that I’m trying to figure out as I type this question… do you think there is? Do you think some people feel like maybe people are always treating you with kid gloves and maybe they want to “shock” you or “blow your mind” by bluntly asking you a question like that, in a kind of self-centered way? Any thoughts on that?
Occasionally in a bar someone feels the need to make a snide comment about my arm - in a sexual context. It depends what kind of mood I am in - whether I play it up or not. It also depends on how attractive the commentator is!
Have you ever been in a fight since you lost your arm?
Well sort of. I was at a major league football game a couple of years ago with some guy-friends. A couple of drunked-up rednecks felt the need to make some fag comments in a boisterous sort of way. Much to their surprise, my group of “fags” are predominately buffed-up jocks. After exchanging a few insults, we ended up kicking their asses - making a quick exit before the cops came. I was right there in the thick of things - throwing some good punches with my good arm. It was a real rush.
If people refer to you as “having lost an arm” do you feel the need to correct them, because in actuality you’ve only lost part of one arm? Do you feel the need to clarify?
No not really. I usually don’t indulge in that level of minutiae.
Do you ever think about wishing you’d lost a different limb or something else, like an eye, instead of one arm and hand? Do you ever weigh the value of different things you might have lost… the pros and cons?
No, not much. Actually, I think losing my arm is better than losing a leg. I can’t imagine not being able to walk or run normally. After almost ten years, I rarely think about having only one hand. I have forgotten what it is like to have two.
From looking at your mechanical arm in the photos, it seems like all it does is pinch or clasp around an object. This seems practical, but then when I thought about it, I wonder if this actually has any real-life benefits? What can you actually pick up with that thing? And do you think it’s worth it?
I sort of touched on this earlier. A split-hook has some very practical uses. From raking leaves to slicing tomatoes, you can really put it to practical use. Lots of arm amps wear their split-hooks all of the time. I just don’t like to deal with it.
I’ve done some research on robotics and I was amazed at some of the advances in artificial limb technology and bionics. Do you keep abreast of such fields or topics? Do you ever feel the need to save money so one day you can afford like a really expensive, high-tech bionic hand?
No. I’m OK the way I am. I don’t obsess over prosthetic advances. Maybe one day they will produce a prosthetic arm indistinguishable from a real arm. I doubt that will happen in my lifetime. Frankly I have a lot more investment priorities with my money.
I actually knew this guy in college that lived in my dorm my freshman year, I never met him but I used to see him all the time. He was missing his left arm below the elbow. He had this very odd way of kind of “hiding” his handicap. He carried with him, at all times, a large black leather shoulder tote bag that was kind of this big square. The bag’s strap/handle was just long enough in length to where when he carried the bag, with the strap over his left shoulder, the top of the bag, the opening, would come just to where his left arm was amputated. So if you didn’t look closely, it looked like a guy walking around with a large bag that he kept his arm inside for some reason. Also, he almost always wore a jacket, even in the very warm Texas months. But in weather where it was obviously ridiculous to wear a jacket of any kind, he would always wear the exact same kind of button-down, short sleeve shirt, and the sleeves would actually be kind of big and billowy for a short sleeve shirt. The ends of the large short sleeves would reach pretty much to where his nub started, and where the top of the bag begun - they would just almost meet. And he would carry the bag over his shoulder with the amputated arm pointed down, again, like he has carrying his arm in a bag - but of course if you looked closely you saw what was going on. He also dressed very, very conservatively… well, not conservatively as much as innocuous. It looked like he wanted to fade into the background as much as possible. Almost painfully boring attire and hairstyle. I saw this guy for years and he always had this bag, carrying it like that. I never met him, but me and my friends had all kind of theories about him… like that he was actually kind of mentally addicted to the weird kind of passive-aggressive attention he received from doing this. Because after a short while everyone was onto what he was doing with the bag, you know, he was around the same people for years. Like the reality was that he was actually this very sly attention hog. But I never got his story because I never met him or knew anyone that knew him or saw him in any situation where he didn’t have the bag, like sitting in a class or the eating hall or whatever. Any thoughts on this?
Sounds like this guy needed some major therapy. I have no idea what his hang-ups were.
Do you look at things in movies and TV differently? Like certain unreal characters or horror movies or science fiction, now that you are missing a hand? I guess I’m thinking specifically of “Hand” from The Addams Family.
Sometimes. Mentioning “Hand” from Addams Family is really funny. My boyfriend bought me a working replica of “Hand” last year for Halloween. The card was really cute - something like: “Here’s an emergency hand; handle with care!”
How do you feel about parents scolding their children not to “stare” at you in public, which I’m sure you’ve probably experienced quite a lot?
Kids are really great - especially younger ones. Usually when I catch a kid staring at my arm, I walk over and ask them if they have any questions. I show them how I can move my stump at the elbow joint and pick up things. I let them touch it if they want to. I think this is important so that they accept people with disabilities as perfectly mainstream.
How do you feel about the word “stump?”
That’s what it is: a stump, isn’t it? I laugh when I hear PC terms like “residual limb.” I just cut to the chase and call it my stump.
Do you look at other people with handicaps any differently, like before your accident, and after?
Oh yes. I’m not stuffy about it, but I definitely advocate for people with disabilities.
How do you feel about people who dislike certain words, like insisting on using “handicap-able ” instead of “handicapped” or “mobility challenged” or whatever instead of “wheelchair bound.”
What do you think of catch phrases like “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it was also the best thing that ever happened to me” or “everything happens for a reason” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”
I think it’s for people with a lot of time on their hands. What nonsense. Since I am not religious, those sort of mind games are really boring. I didn’t set out to become an amputee - and I would not wish it on anyone. But that’s what happened to me and it’s who I am now. I don’t know that my life would be substantially different - and that’s really an honest answer.
Anything else I haven’t asked that you thought I might?
I can’t believe you forgot to ask about tying my shoes (similar line of questioning)! As I really like lace-up shoes, one of my best ìtricksî is tying my shoelaces - a technique I have developed all on my own. While it’s difficult to describe, I can actually tie the lace with my left hand, using my stump to hold the knot in place while I tighten it. It’s a real crowd pleaser!
Any thoughts on one-armed celebrities? I guess I’m thinking of Rick Allen, the drummer for Def Leppard who lost an arm and still continued to be the band’s drummer to much acclaim… but then later was arrested for beating his wife… so things go kind of weird. Any thoughts?
Actually, I am not aware of too many one-armed celebrities. Rick Allen, of course, is sort of iconoclastic in gimp circles. But, yeah, I hear all sorts of stories about his social dysfunctionality. That being said, it’s hard not to feel profound empathy with Rick up there on the stage. It’s a one-armed thing; you wouldn’t understand. [:>}
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