You might remember this post three years ago in which I laughed at a woman on a Segway pushing a baby stroller for being lazy. Well, I'm a giant asshole, and I want to apologize to Melissa Hofstetter. I'm sorry Melissa.
It'd be easy to extrapolate the cause of the events to lay blame on it being standard internet behavior, general anonymous jerkitude, and looking for a cheap laugh instead of actually looking into a subject and finding out what really happened. But no—this one's all on me. Apologies Melissa.
Here's the story: Melissa is a 15-year cancer survivor who lost her left leg to the illness. She started using the Segway as an assistive device because it's both maneuverable and because she has difficulty walking, especially on hilly areas. It also allows her to be in the standing position and look people in the eyes during conversations, and be mobile in ways that wheelchairs are not.
The photo came to be when she was visiting her family in Seattle a few years back, helping take care of her grandniece while her grandnieces parents were busy. Someone—no idea who—took a photo of this and put it on the internet. It spread quickly, as unique images are apt to do. Here's a better photo of her taken at about the same time, with the same cute little girl.
Again, apologies Melissa. If it wasn't for your kind nephew Joshua, I wouldn't have known that there was an actual, legitimate reason behind the photograph, and would have kept on happily being a dick, thinking that it was a lazy woman on a Segway.
And thanks to Josh, an actual cancer specialist, here's a more detailed background of what happened to Melissa. By all accounts, she's an awesome lady.
Melissa was diagnosed with mesenchymal chondrosarcoma (a cancer in the sarcoma family) in 1995. At the time she had 3, 5 and 9 year-old kids and was given a 50%, 5-year survival probability. She endured several months of chemotherapy aimed at shrinking the tumor which was unsuccessful so she ultimately underwent an above the knee amputation. After a slow learning curve, she now ambulates efficiently with a prosthetic leg. Her husband saw how much she struggled to keep up and travel longer distances, frequently developing sores on her stump when traveling longer distances. In 2001 he purchased a Segway for her as a personal mobility device. With the help of good doctors and a little luck, she has remained cancer free and traveled the world with her Segway, never letting her disability get in the way. The Segway has been around the world with her and allowed her to be an active part of her kids (and extended family's) lives, never making her the rate limiting factor.
I have a particular interest in this topic as my aunt's experience led me to the field of orthopaedic oncology and allows me to now care for young people like her with cancer. I was actually in training at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and SCCA while we were living in Seattle. These young people who have undergone major tumor resections with or without limb salvage are certainly a minority when it comes to people with disabilities. i have experienced this first hand with my aunt when someone yells at her for taking a handicapped parking space or teases her for using her Segway to navigate a mall. 80 year-olds in wheelchairs are not the only people with disabilities, as our young veterans returning form Iraq and Afghanistan without their limbs would attest to. Increased awareness and acceptance is always needed.
If you search the ADA and Segways, you will see that people like my aunt have actually been pioneers in the use of this novel device for improving their quality of life. The original ADA language was created in 1992 and only included 3 and 4-wheeled devices as the concept of a 2-wheeled device was still years away from reality. The reason she was pushing my daughter across the street in the given picture was that she was going to the grocery store to get food for dinner. This person who 12 years prior had been given a 50/50 chance of survival, had traveled to seattle by herself, was babysitting her grand-niece while my wife and I, who are both physicians, were working and then had dinner ready for us when we got home. To me this is a pretty remarkable story and a more remarkable person.
Here is a more recent photo of Melissa with her family at Thanksgiving 2009.
Again, sincere apologies to Melissa and Melissa's children and Josh, plus anyone else I've offended with the original post. If you're one of the millions of people who forwarded on the original image in its various incarnations on the internet to your friends for a chuckle, it might be good to show them this explanation. Who knows, it might make the internet a better place to remember that the people in photos are actually people. [Thanks Joshua!]