Living Without Hands
Allan Piper’s battle didn’t end when he became a casualty . . . He’s won it since
CAPTAIN ALLAN PIPER
E. B. Reid
IT HAPPENED in a fraction of a second. I had taken a class of 47 men to the grenade practice ground at our camp in England. The date was July 26, 1942.
Forty-six of the detachment had carried out their practice. The 47th was in the priming bay getting his grenades ready. As he came over to the throwing bay the sergeant signalled to let me know this lad was highly nervous.
After giving him the usual routine safety precautions to observe I handed him the grenade. He began to take off the safety cap. I noticed that his hands were shaking very much, so much so that the tape was unravelling. It was still in his hand, with the weighted end hanging free, pulling out the safety pin, and it was up to me to do something to try to avert an accident.
I warned the soldier to stand perfectly still and told him I was going to take the grenade from him. My thought was that if I could get it I could hold the pin in place with my thumb and prevent the explosion. He made the change-over safely, but I had time only to swing away from him when it went off.
Strangely enough I did not lose consciousness. I can still remember the ringing in my ears. I could not see out of one of my eyes but the sight of the other was enough to let me know that both my hands were gone.
My memory of what happened after that is very clear. I climbed out of the throwing bay and instructed how the tourniquets were to be applied. Then I got into a truck and told the driver to get me to the firstaid post, at camp three miles away, as quickly as possible. It was a rough ride, part of it over a tank proving ground.
It was at the first-aid post, after I had been given a sedative, I learned for the first time I was not the only casualty. I heard a groan and looking over could see the outline of my sergeant’s body. He had rushed over to help me and had arrived just in time to lose the sight of one eye. The lad I was instructing lost his life, even though my body was almost entirely between him and the explosion. By a strange freak a large fragment of the grenade had funnelled along between my chest and arm and he had been struck just under the heart.
It was the morning after the accident that I spent the grimmest 30 minutes I have ever experienced. During the night, following my operation, I had been, to a certain extent, under the influence of drugs and was probably, also, a little numb and dazed. But when I awakened in the morning it was to a world of realities and to a world in which everything was dark.
My both eyes were bandaged. I could see nothing and my first thought was that in addition to the loss of my hands I had also lost my sight. I remembered clearly that after the explosion I had not been able to see out of one eye at least. I thought for a certainty that one was gone.
For a time I panicked. If I was sightless as well as being without hands I could envisage little in the future. It is a time I don’t like to think back on and it will be always, I am convinced, the most bitter half hour in my lifetime.
It is not a period I am going to dramatize. I have always been more or less a deliberate person. I’ve liked to think things out for myself. That practice of a lifetime came to my rescue then. I suddenly saw my injuries for what they were—a new problem in living, one that I had not yet experienced.
1 began to take stock of my assets. I still had my legs and I knew, from the way I felt, that my general physical condition was not serious. My arms were intact and I knew that artificial hands had been developed, which would solve many of the practical problems I would have to overcome. Above all my
brain was not impaired. If I still had my sight I still had most of what any man has, and I made up my mind then and there that if I used my remaining faculties fully, and if I had the ability to plan my life, and the determination to carry my plans through, there was no need for me to be, in any way, behind anybody else.
The question of my sight did worry me. I admit, frankly, I was afraid to ask about it and never did ask up until the time, about five weeks later, when they took the bandages off one of my eyes and I found I could see with that one at least.
Begins To Plan
HOWEVER, after I got that first half hour over I became optimistic and began to make plans. My first thought was that I wanted to become selfsufficient. I figured if I could do that I could look after myself, no matter what came up. The nurses and doctors helped a lot. I decided from the first I wanted to do everything I possibly could do for myself. They let me do it.
I decided something else also—this was that I would never attempt anything until I was sure I could do it. I was afraid of failure. Each accomplishment, I knew, would restore some of my confidence in my own ability. A failure, I knew also, would give me a setback and I didn’t want any failures.
The first test came about three or four days after the bandages were taken from my eyes. There was a hanging bell button in my room which was of itself a challenge. I began to try to map out a plan to ring that bell should I want an orderly. In about a half hour I had the method in my mind. It only remained to put the plan into practice. There was no better time than right then.
Accordingly, I hopped out of bed and stepped over to the bell, where it hung down by the wall. I looked at it for a moment or two and then leaned against the pear-shaped button container with my left forearm, anchoring it firmly against the wall. Then I manipulated my right elbow until it was up against the bell button itself.
I went through a lot of contortions but I rang the bell. The French-Canadian orderly who answered my ring was astounded.
The Open Door
THE second test came a day or so later. Always the door leading into my room was left ajar but one day it blew shut after a visitor. That door presented a different problem. I could have rung the bell and had the orderly open it, but I knew I was going to have to open doors if I was going to be selfsufficient. Again I began to plan and when I tackled the door I knew exactly what I was going to do. First I half knelt in front of it and in that position I placed my left stump on top of the knob and my right underneath so the knob was locked in between my two forearms. I pulled the two arms in opposite directions, turning the knob as I pulled. I didn’t hear the satisfying click of the latch the first time, but it didn’t take Continued on page 43
Living Without Hands
Continued from page 12
many attempts before I succeeded.
In those early days there were a number of petty annoyances, such as drinking a glass of water. This I soon learned to do by grasping the glass between my two wrists. Smoking was another difficulty. Here my teeth came in handy. I soon found I could hold the package of cigarettes between my wrists and extract one cigarette with my teeth. To light it I learned to shake out one match from a box, hold the box between my wrists and use my teeth to scratch the match. Then when the match was burning properly I would drop it into an ash tray, pick up the cigarette again and then lean over the flame to light it.
It was awkward, it was tedious, and it was slow, I’ll admit, but it was also a part of my self-discipline, with each hurdle I overcame adding to my confidence in what I could do.
It wasn’t long after I learned to light my own cigarettes that I began to look after my own personal toilette. It used to fascinate the other patients and the hospital staff to see me brushing my teeth and shaving myself, holding the toothbrush or the razor in between my stumps.
One of the real red-letter days was the day on which I first fed myself. Nothing had contributed so much to my feeling of helplessness as the fact that a nurse or an orderly had to feed me every meal. Mastering the problem of eating, in my opinion, was the first big step I would have to take. Everything else had been incidental.
I decided to try an experiment first. My wrists were still in bandages so one day I managed to slide a spoon up under one of them. Then I got a fork under the bandages of the other wrist. It worked and I was able to feed myself, except for cutting my meat and seasoning my food. Soon after this I had my first appliances for eating. They were a special spoon and fork with leather straps and buckles attached that I could put on and take off by using my teeth. The lads in the workshop helped me develop these.
My progress was far from easy and pleasant. I had many moments that are not pleasant to look back on now. But there were compensating incidents, however, such as the time Sgt. McClelland came to see me for the first time after he had been given his artificial eye. Somehow or other he had put it in wrong side about and it gave him the fiercest look I have ever seen in a man. He must have seen from my expression that something was wrong, but when he discovered what it was, and the correct adjustment was made, we both laughed until tears came.
As a result of people wanting to help me I had one very strange experience. One day, by arrangement, two of the sergeant majors of my unit came over to hospital to take me to camp for a visit. It was the first time I had been back since the accident. They had brought a truck across, and getting into the truck without hands was a problem I had not encountered. I suppose my equilibrium was a little disturbed, because I staggered as I started to get into the truck. One of the sergeant majors reached out a hand to help me.
I have never in my life felt such a terrific wave of resentment. I wanted to hit him. It was a reaction absolutely foreign to me, so all the way to camp I spoke scarcely a word as I tried to analyze the reason for my feelings. It
was quite a problem. I realized I would have to be sane about this thing, that I couldn’t go around feeling resentful toward people who were motivated only by kindness. I knew they would want to be helpful and I knew that I would have to accept that help in the spirit in which it was intended.
“You know you can do it yourself, so what difference does it make if people want to help you?” I finally told myself. That was the solution to the whole thing—the knowledge that I could do it myself.
When I went back to camp my first efforts were devoted to learning how to write. I got one of the boys from the workshops and together we devised an appliance, with a couple of pieces of spring steel, strapped on my forearm, and with which I could hold a pencil and a pen. The day came that it was made and I tried it out.
It worked, and my first letter was sent off to my wife. I was surprised at my own handwriting. It had changed little from the style before the accident. My signature was so like my previous one that the banks honored it without difficulty.
That day I wrote again I was on top of the world. I realized that my worry about becoming self-sufficient and earning my own living was over. There was little I could not do. I was no longer handicapped.
On Nov. 10, less than four months after my accident, I was sent to Roehampton hospital in England to be fitted with artificial attachments. I should explain here that it is not customary to fit amputation cases with prosthesis in England, because of the difficulty of getting parts for the English appliances, but it was arranged in my case, following a visit to England of Major Austin Bell, of the Canadian Department of Pensions and National Health. Major Rell is an amputee of the last war and he could see value in a case such as mine being fitted with the English appliances in order to study them in Canada.
I took to my new hands—metal hooks really, which opened as a result of a shoulder motion—like a duck to water. At first I must admit I was a little clumsy, and had to unlearn n lot of the things which I had learned without them, but almost immediately I saw new horizons. Ten days after I was fitted I was asked to put on a demonstration for medical officers. When I came into the meeting I had no attachments on at all and proceeded to put each of them on myself, took cigarettes out of packages, lighted them myself, shaved, brushed my teeth, used a typewriter and wrote by hand. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it.
P.eople have often asked me if I am not sensitive about my hooks. My answer to that is a very firm negative. Those hooks are my hands. I need them to live. They make me selfsupporting and self-sufficient. I go to restaurants regularly to eat. I cut my own meat and require no more attention than any other diner. People look at me, of course, but I don’t mind that. I realize it is an education for them, and that, indirectly, I am doing a job for all amputation cases.
From the day when I received my artificial appliances everything has been clear sailing. Each day, of course, is apt to bring me a new experience, and at any time I may be faced with a further test. One of these was the day I arrived home. I was afraid that the full realization that I was without hands might provide a very severe shock to my wife. I needn’t have worried about that for she took it in full stride. Sympathetic officers of the Department of Pensions and National Health had Continued on page 46
Continued from page 43 prepared her for that, calling on her almoat as soon as word was received that I was an amputee.
The next test was when I applied at the Howard Smith Paper Mills Ltd. for a job. I needn’t have worried about that either, for I was told they were glad I was back and that I could try any job I wanted, and if 1 failed in one 1 could try others. With the psychology for living which I have adopted, you can make sure the job I selected— that of paper inspector—was one I knew I could handle right from the outset. It is not a sinecure. I work hard. I use calipers and other tools. I cut paper to size and use scales to weigh single sheets.
How unconscious people are of my artificial hands is best illustrated by the fact that absent-mindedly fellow workers often hand me a sheet of paper and say “Here, Allan, feel the texture of this.”
Today I am self-sufficient. I work every day on the job. I dress and undress myself completely. I have my own workshop in my cellar and I have tended my own furnace all through the winter. Last summer I bought my own home, and the first thing which I did was to spade up my own victory garden. The upstairs of the house required some remodelling of rooms, work which necessitated the removal of existing walls and the erection of new ones. I am doing much of that myself.
“I Am Not Handicapped”
I do not consider myself handicapped. I am not, except to the extent I permit myself to be. I am active in community affairs, and last winter
coached an intermediate hockey team in Cornwall. I am also planning a workshop which will be a meeting place for the boys of the city. I have been asked to do this, and hope soon to get it under way.
If I have a message for the amputation cases of this war it is that they are disabled only to the extent which they themselves allow. It is not what we have lost but what we still have that counts, and very few of us have lost the ability to think for ourselves.
To the next of kin of those boys who have already suffered the loss of a limb, or who may bo gravely wounded before the war ends, I do have advice which will be of value. Don’t despair if you should get such news. A long, useful life is ahead of every amputee if he gets the right sort of encouragement and support. His training for civilian life will commence before he ever leaves hospital. Government and volunteer civilian agencies will be at work finding suitable employment for him even before he is ready for employment. The chances are his future will be all planned before he is discharged from hospital. Encourage him to do things for himself. Don’t let him feel that you consider him handicapped and don’t do anything which may make him sensitive about his appliances. They are supplied to him for his use. They will be of real benefit all through life.
The horizon before war amputation cases is much broader than it was after the last war. It will continue to broaden under the intelligent training and placement plans which have been laid down. In my opinion we can all look toward the future with confidence, for that future will be as bright as we make it. The answer lies within ourselves.