Having an amputation changes your life, but it doesn’t make you a wholly different person than who you were when you were born. Our most-recent Disabled Scholar Award winner, Chloe Schmidt, wishes that this was something more people understood.
Injured in a catastrophic accident at age 3, Chloe underwent painful surgeries and traumatic experiences. She would lose her left leg from the knee downward, but not her sense of who she was. By the time she was able to return to the classroom, she was determined to live a life not defined by her disability. Through rehabilitation, prosthesis, the support of others, and her own inner zeal, she was able to participate in nearly anything she set her mind to. That ambition enabled her to secure a job as a lifeguard as a young teen, and it now drives her to seek a career in healthcare to support others when they have traumatic medical experiences of their own.
Above all else, Chloe prizes persistence and compassion, and it is those qualities that drew us towards her story when selecting her as one of the winners of our annual scholarship prize. We anticipate great things from her as she attends school in Clemson, pursuing her dreams of helping others heal while also helping them feel loved, encouraged, and empowered.
From a Traumatic Childhood to a Triumphant One
“Blinding, hot and slow streams race down my rosy puffed cheeks as the overwhelming thoughts of being alive swarm my head. I think to myself, am I truly alive…as I blink away the droplets that reside in my eyes and stare at the computer screen of familiarity. As I scroll through memories of blog posts and Facebook images, flashes of white hospital walls and clingy blue gowns, the smell of antiseptics and get-well flowers fill my nostrils. The hum of a helicopter and the shrill wail of emergency sirens echo in my mind.”
The glimmers of sights, sounds, smells, and memories that surrounded Chloe during her agonizing recovery in the hospital still haunt her to this day. With her left leg seriously hurt in a lawnmower accident at age 3, doctors had no choice but to schedule her for surgery after surgery in an attempt to help her recover from her injuries.
“I had to adapt to the cool metal sting of needles, the constant chirp of monitors, and the distant apathetic shrieks of babies in the halls,” she reflected. “Surgery after surgery, each one a little better than the last.”
The end result was that she would have to learn to walk all over again and adjust to using a prosthesis throughout her daily life, but she was alive, she was well, and she was ready for whatever life brought her way.
“After a couple of years of adjusting to my new leg, I went to kindergarten, and I was told it was like I never lost a piece of myself. That I ran, played, and interacted as nothing had ever even happened.
“Being so young, I was gifted with the ability to adapt and not care what others thought of me. Kids were innocent, kind, and curious. Many offered to push me in my wheelchair and treated me the same as if I wasn’t any different.”
These experiences forged a sense of determination in Chloe, one that said that although she had her differences from other people that she was still a person like any other. She deserved to be treated with dignity and respect and to be given the same opportunities as anyone else, without hesitation.
She says that “absorbing the positive, despite the negative, is what empowers me with such hope.”
Guarding Lives at the Pool While Living Her Own Life as a Teen
Chloe’s interests and passions as a young teen drove her to obtain a position as a certified lifeguard. The experience would prove to be one of the biggest challenges she had faced, but it also taught her the importance of adjusting, persisting, and ultimately succeeding by knowing her own strengths and limitations.
“Training to become a lifeguard challenged me to be disciplined. It was the first time I couldn’t do some of the activities as easily as others, and the first time I felt like I had failed myself.”
But despite this sense of frustration, Chloe knew that the goal at the end was worth it. Reflecting on her experiences at Camp No Limits, a camp for young amputees, Chloe knew that her own courage and inner strength were enough to overcome the obstacles she faced.
She told us: “When I passed my lifeguard physical and written exam my instructor said to me with kind words and a look of pride in his eyes, ‘You have conquered all odds throughout these past two days and we are so proud. You deserve this certification more than anyone.'”
The Importance of Visibility, Understanding, and Empathy
One of the most frustrating aspects of being an amputee, according to Chloe, is not the small challenges or differences that come up every day. Rather, it’s the way she’s treated by people who for one reason or another decide that they will not give her the respect and privacy they would grant to anyone else.
“Often, people are amazed by my disability and the things I accomplish because of being a below-the-knee amputee, Most of the time, I am offended, but I know that I cannot take these disingenuous questions to heart because of their lack of knowledge.”
Chloe’s experiences at Camp No Limits and throughout her life have taught her that strength is important to endure things, but kindness is needed to understand them. When it comes to handling people who say hurtful things or treat her in a disrespectful way, the one thing Chloe wants is for them to understand that their similarities vastly outweigh any differences.
She hopes that society in general can do a better job to “teach young kids and even adults not to invade personal space when being curious; that we are not objects on display. We need to better familiarize ourselves with the fact that disabled people are not disabled. We are able.”
Part of the lack of understanding comes from a lack of visibility, Chloe laments. The average person might not encounter an amputee, in real life nor in any sort of media. They lack knowledge and information about what it’s like to have an amputation, and their natural curiosity or sense of categorizing people leads them to say things that unequivocally feel othering. But, at the end of the day, what these people are usually seeking is not to make fun or ridicule — or “inspire” at the expense of someone else’s humanity — but rather to understand.
“If we created a world that represented the disabled in fashion, ads, and television, I feel that it would become more normalized to be different,” Chloe suggests. “Being different from others is challenging and can be taxing,” but she implies that part of that burden can be alleviated when we come to accept each other’s differences.
When it becomes the job of the person with a disability to help people understand, rather than the job of society as a whole, it can be exhausting and frustrating. Ultimately, though, it is another opportunity for Chloe to show others that kindness and patience, and love are the most important qualities anyone can have, regardless of their circumstances. She also doesn’t want them to feel discouraged from asking questions and learning, because through learning we can strive to become “a much more loving and embracing world.”
Chloe suggests that people who want to be more accommodating should not assume that a person with an amputation is incapable of performing the same activities as everyone else. Instead, they can encourage their friends and acquaintances with an amputation to go beyond the bare minimum and to excel alongside their peers. In a sense, this type of treatment seeks to meet the needs we all have — needs like discovering our unique skills and accomplishing hard-to-attain goals — not just the “special needs” we assume some people to have because of differences in ability.
Spreading Care and Compassion to Others in Recovery
Chloe’s experiences and own personal interests have pulled her towards a career in caring for others. She intends to participate in either a pre-nursing or recreational therapy program at Clemson, which will allow her to focus on healing others through medicine’s various forms.
Spending time with family and her younger cousin at home taught her the value of being a part of a community of support — that you’re rarely ever alone in the things you face. Even still, in the end, you are the only person who gets to define who you are, and you do it through your own actions.
“Through bitter tears and countless nights of furious rage of pounding into my pillow, I have learned that sometimes life isn’t fair. However, it’s not what happens to us that makes us who we are, but how we react to these difficult odds.”
As she continues her life’s journey, we want to take Chloe’s advice to heart and encourage her to excel in her classes and discover deep love of the knowledge she’s about to uncover. Many people settle for the bare minimum, easing into a career path that is convenient rather than challenging. We can’t see Chloe falling into that lull in a million years, though, because that’s simply not her style.
Closing with her own words: “My disability, even though I don’t like using this word, has taught me a sense of gratefulness for every new day. My world changed in an instant because of my accident, but this accident taught me my unrelenting passion for helping and healing others.”