by Connie Corcoran Wilson
Apotemnophilia. What-the-hell is THAT? Sounds like a breed of hippopotamus. The word slid deliciously off my tongue as I sat in the waiting room, thumbing through the reference work the psychiatrist had given me.
Body integrity identity disorder. What’s that got to do with me? There’s nothing wrong with me. Nothing that a little amputation won’t fix, that is. I’ve wanted to be rid of my left leg, now, since I met my first amputee at the hospital with my mother when I was six years old.
“What happened to your leg, Mister?” I asked. Mom was around the corner in the hospital, visiting Grandpa, who was in an oxygen tent. She had parked me on a bench near the elevator. She told me not to move a muscle before she entered the room where my Grandfather lay dying. I think she was afraid that I would be too upset seeing Gramps in his weakened condition. The end was near.
The stranger smiled. “It’s a long story, little boy.”
“That’s okay. I’m waiting for my mom, anyway.”
“I think your mother should be here if I’m going to tell you how I lost my leg. She might not approve of my story.” He held his hands outstretched, in the universal gesture that means, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.” Sort of a half-shrug, palms upward.
And so Mr. Burden, sitting in his wheelchair waiting for the elevator, did not tell me until much later how he had gone to the park that warm September day in Florida, sat cross-legged on the lawn, rested the shotgun on his right thigh, cocked the trigger and intentionally blown off his left leg. The shot caused little pain. He made sure of that by aiming the barrel at a pre-selected point on his knee. Blood and muscle were exposed everywhere. The lower leg was hanging only by a grisly thread of bone and tissue. He tied the tourniquet tightly enough around his upper thigh to keep from bleeding to death.
Mr. Burden, a retired architect, then reached for the cell phone, which he’d placed next to him before the blast, dialed 911, and summoned help. Today, as he sat in the wheelchair in this hospital, five feet from the bench where I waited for my mother, he was not about to tell me his story. I would only learn it later, in adulthood.
But his story became my story.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the mysterious man and his missing leg. I kept looking at my left leg. When I returned home, I started tucking my left pants leg up under me, pretending that my left leg was gone.
“Gregory White! What are you doing?”
“Just playing around.”
“Go outside and really play. Run around with the other boys. Quit that!” My mother walked back into the kitchen from my room. She seemed upset.
Let’s face it: I was a strange kid. From the time I was six, I often thought of Mr. Burden’s missing limb. And I wished with all my heart that my own left leg were missing above the knee. I felt deep guilt at hating my left leg, but I couldn’t rid myself of my loathing for it. I wanted it gone. Permanently. It was my burden.
For a long time, I thought I was the only one in the world with this bizarre desire. I felt deep guilt. I wanted this aberrant wish of mine to disappear. I wanted to be “normal.” If Mr. Burden had told me what had happened to his leg, that day in the hospital, would it have made me feel more “normal,” knowing that there were more of me? I don’t know. Finally, I acted on my secret suppressed dream and contacted a physician. I was thirty years old.
“Doc, I want you to remove my left leg above the knee.”
The physician looked startled. He glanced away from me. “What?”
“I want you to amputate my left leg. Above the knee.”
“Is there something wrong with your leg?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then why do you want it cut off?
“I’ve had this feeling since I was six years old. I just do.”
The orthopedic surgeon took out a pad and scribbled Dr. Hans Frank, 210 West 42nd Street, Suite 703. Before he handed it to me, he said, “My agreeing to amputate a healthy limb would be crazy. It would be a violation of the Hippocratic oath. It would be tantamount to a paranoid-schizophrenic coming in here and telling me to ‘talk to the other voices’ in treating him. We all live by the credo, ‘First do no harm.’ You don’t need a surgeon. You need a good psychiatrist.”
Dr. Frank, in turn, recommended the article I had been reading in his waiting room, Apotemnophilia, sub-titled “Two Cases of Self-demand Amputation As a Paraphilia.” The only promising thing about the article was its inclusion in The Journal of Sex Research. I was sure Dr. Frank was a very good psychiatrist, but I didn’t think I’d be a very good patient. I tossed the article in the glossy magazine towards the stack of reading material on the waiting room table. It hit the top of the untidy stack, and a small landslide of stacked-up magazines and papers slid noisily to the floor, causing the other patients to stare in my direction.
Embarrassed, I rose to leave, before I had even been seen. Disappointment, again.
I knew I was absolutely fine, despite the first doctor’s reaction. I also thought that finding some other people like me would be helpful. That is how I met up with Paul Campagna on the Internet.
“The apotemnophilia group is divided into pretenders, devotees and wannabees, “ Paul told me during our first phone conversation. Paul would stop to cough a deep smoker’s cough every few minutes.
“What’s the difference?
“A pretender just wants to make a person think he’s disabled. He uses a wheelchair or crutches. Stuff like that.”
“OK. What’s a devotee do?”
“A devotee is sexually attracted to people who have had amputations.”
“Really,” said Paul.
“Wannabees get the most attention. They really and truly live for the removal of the healthy limb. You and I are wannabees. Do you want to do something about it?” When he asked me this, he leaned forward, cigarette in hand, the ash on the end hovering perilously above my martini on the bar, “Jimmy’s Place,” where we had agreed to meet in person. There was a glint in his eye that told me he was not just making idle conversation.
Paul began, “I feel like my legs don’t belong to me. They shouldn’t be there. My legs cause me to feel an overwhelming sense of despair.” A heavy sigh followed that statement. The smoke from his cigarette spiraled towards the bar’s ceiling, as I re-distributed my weight on the bar stool covered in the fake red leather. Naugahyde, I think it’s called, and my butt made farting sounds when I slid atop it. This was the neutral location we had selected to meet and talk about our mutual ailment. No commitments, no recriminations if we didn’t get along when we met. We’d just play it by ear. It was a seedy-looking place, with old Sinatra songs like “My Way” playing in the background, as Paul smoked and coughed his way through his comments.
I nodded my head in agreement with Paul’s words about being comfortable in your own body and cracked a joke, “I’m just trying to get a leg up on this thing.” Puns were my weakness. If Paul had no sense of humor about our condition, we wouldn’t get along. But he smiled appreciatively and raised his martini glass to clink against mine, saying, “Touché.” Followed by “Cheers!” We drank in silence for a moment, considering our mutual plight.
Paul was not as new to this disorder as I was. He had been trying to convince a reputable doctor in his home state of Connecticut to amputate both of his legs for the past fifteen years. He had logged more shrink time on the couch than Woody Allen. Now he was sixty years old and he was just….ready.
“What can we do…if we’re wannabees?” I asked Paul.
“I’ve been doing some research,” Paul said. “There’s supposed to be a doctor in Matamoras, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. He’ll perform the surgery, …for a price.”
“How much does he want?” I asked.
“Twenty thousand dollars for me. It’s ten thousand per leg.”
I emitted a low whistle. Twenty thousand dollars was a fair chunk of change. But Paul was a wealthy attorney, and the insurance game had been good to me. Paul and I set off for Matamoras, full of hope that the doctor he had read about would free us both of our unwanted appendages.
When we arrived in Matamoras, we searched for the doctor’s office in the winding streets of the old city, near the Cathedral. The trees in the park across the street from the church were festooned with winding, upward-spiraling strings of white lights, as it was near Thanksgiving. It was a surreal Disneyland effect, given our reasons for being here. When we couldn’t find the doctor’s office, we called the cell phone number he had given us.
“No. I don’t do the surgery in the office, and I’ve recently moved,” he told Paul on the phone. “Check into a suite at the brand new Holiday Inn on the edge of town.” It seemed that being brand-new was a trade-off for not being a hospital.
“But…you won’t do the surgery there, will you?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. It’s quite safe,” he said. “Do you have the money?”
Paul quickly reassured the mysterious “Dr. X,” as he wished to be called, that he had twenty thousand dollars for the removal of both of his legs, and I had ten thousand dollars for the removal of just my left leg, below the knee. We proceeded to the Holiday Inn, as directed, and checked in. I used a fake name; I was prepared to pay cash. The motel already had Christmas trees set up in the lobby, decorated with gold bows, even though it was only Thanksgiving. Nothing like rushing the season, I thought. And then I thought, Christmas this year I won’t have to live with my left leg. And I smiled for the first time since I had left home in New York, thinking what a nice early-season present that would be.
At the desk, we asked the receptionist if she knew “Dr. X.”
She looked away and then said, “Yes.” Nothing more. After that, she scurried from the desk and into the back room. Paul and I exchanged wary glances.
When we had each checked into our suites, which were, as advertised, brand new, we met in the bar for a drink. Paul began chain-smoking immediately, as the plastic palm tree in the corner alternately lit up blue and then green, advertising a brand of tequila I had never heard of.
“I don’t know, Paul. I’m not so sure about this,” I said. Paul sensed my uneasiness, but, by this point, he had adopted a certain fatalistic attitude.
“Nothing ventured; nothing gained,” he responded. He put out the cigarette he was smoking, shrugging as he did so and coughing as though he might not make it till surgery in the morning.
“I know you’re right, but what do we really know about this doctor? He won’t even give us his real name.”
“Well, you understand why that is, don’t you? He’d be arrested. No doctor in the United States will knowingly amputate a healthy limb. This doctor is from Brownsville, but he crosses the border to do the surgeries here, for fear he’ll lose his license to practice medicine if the authorities in the United States find out. If it’s any consolation to you, I found out that his real name is Dr. Miguel Ortega, even though he wants us to call him ‘Dr. X.’”
“Yes, I understand why that is,” I said, “but it’s hardly confidence-inspiring.”
“Look at it this way, Gregg. You don’t have to go through with it. I’m going to do it. It’s now or never, for me. I’ve been this way for over twenty-five years. I just don’t want to go on living this way any longer. This doctor has done many sexual reassignment surgeries. Compared to cutting off some guy’s schlong, cutting off my sixty-year-old legs shouldn’t be a big deal.” He threw back another vodka martini and smiled. We both laughed at his use of the word “schlong,” and Paul lit another cigarette.
And so it was that Paul’s legs were surgically removed at the Holiday Inn in Matamoras, Mexico, at daybreak. During the night, I had a moment when I realized I could not go through with my surgery. I dreamt of limbless legs, like those iron statues in Grant Park in Chicago, marching towards an open flame-filled crematorium door. Bodiless legs. When I awakened, I was shaking like a Mexican hairless and drenched with a cold sweat. I just was not as brave as Paul. Or maybe not as desperate.
When I left him, Paul was recuperating in his suite, two Mexican nurse’s aides by his side. He was very groggy and doped up on painkillers. I squeezed his hand, wished him well, and left for the airport. I pocketed an OxyContin pill or two from the tray near his bed, figuring I’d find out what old radio Rush found so addictive about them. Might not have the opportunity again; Paul wouldn’t mind. Plus, Paul was currently in no condition to argue about it, if he did.
One week later I read about the arrest of a Dr. Miguel Ortega in Brownsville. He was charged with murder after the body of a sixty-year-old man, Paul Campagna, was found in a suite at the Holiday Inn in Matamoras, Mexico. The victim had been dead for three days. Gangrene.
I put down the USA Today, stunned and nearly bit through my lower lip. Paul! It’s Paul! I can’t even honor his memory by going to his funeral. If anyone were to find out that I had been Paul’s companion in Mexico, who knew what might happen? I could lose my job. Insurance agencies frown on their top agents running off to Mexico to have their healthy legs amputated. I could hear the water cooler talk now. Thank God I paid cash and used an alias when I checked into that Holiday Inn!
A few months passed, and my longing to become limbless grew more intense. First, I contemplated killing my lower left leg by submerging it in a vat of dry ice. I’d read about a woman in Wales who had succeeded in doing that. After that, the doctors had to help her. Then it came to me.
I would follow the lead of the very first amputee I had ever encountered: Mr. Burden. Only I wouldn’t use a shotgun because, quite frankly, I feared I would lack the necessary courage to pull the trigger at the moment of truth. After all, I had failed to pull the trigger in Matamoras, figuratively speaking.
First, I charged up my cell phone. I already had an Amtrak schedule. Sometimes I use the train to travel into the city. I began drinking vodka martinis in the afternoon, in honor of Paul, and I drove to the deserted railroad crossing. The midnight train would come through. I would tie a tourniquet in place before the train’s arrival, place my leg on the track, and call 911 to summon help. It would work! It had to; I owed it to myself, and I owed it to Paul.
I had taken the Oxycontin I had taken from Paul’s motel room (Paul’s purloined pills) and the several martinis I’d drunk helped me quell my fear, as I held tightly to the cell phone that would summon the ambulance after the train had done the dirty work. To be honest, I was so smashed by the time I heard the sound of the oncoming locomotive that I was actually drunkenly humming “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The wet grass beside the tracks had stained my white shirt. The cold steel of the rail, cooler in the drop of the evening temperature, felt comforting, somehow. It reminded me of my childhood bicycling days, when I’d put my legs up on the handlebars and roll full-speed down Twelfth Street near my house. I was ready to roll now. Full speed ahead.
The pain, when the train crossed over and amputated my leg, was excruciating. I was almost zonked out… just drunk enough to lay there, my left leg extended across the tracks. I was scared, yes, but I was determined. This time, there would be no turning back. I kept thinking, I hate my leg, I hate my leg, I hate my leg.
After the train came barreling through, oblivious to my presence on the tracks, I picked up my cell phone and dialed “911.”
I heard, “We’re sorry. Your carrier has no service in this area.” The no-service message repeated five times, followed by a tinny three-toned beep.
Please hang up and try your call again. Robotic. Chilly. Useless. The phone fell from my grasp as I lapsed into unconsciousness.