Miles O'Brien on life after losing an arm

Television journalist, Miles O'brien, who lost an arm after an accident, gets ready for his day.

Television journalist Miles O'Brien gets ready for his day. (Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine)

While on assignment in the Philippines in February, reporter Miles O’Brien had an accident and lost his left arm. In the weeks that followed, he learned that every movement, no matter how small, requires rethinking. In this week's New York Magazine, he describes his "Life, After."

Denial is powerful. It can be a crucial coping tool when experiencing loss or trauma, but it also can unmoor you from reality. From the time I lost most of my left arm in February, I was living in that parallel universe, one where I’d power through, barely acknowledging the amputation—until I went for a run on the sunny afternoon of April 6.

It was nothing more than a slightly uneven sidewalk that took me down. No problem for a runner with two arms. In fact, this particular sidewalk is right behind my home, and I had negotiated it uneventfully for years. But here are two things you need to know about life after an arm amputation: First, your center of gravity changes dramatically when you are suddenly eight pounds lighter on one side of your body. Second, while my arm may be missing physically, it is there, just as it always has been, in my mind’s eye. I can feel every digit. I can even feel the watch that was always strapped to my left wrist. When I tripped, I reached reflexively to break my very real fall with my completely imaginary left hand. My fall was instead broken by my nose, and my nose was broken by my fall.

Lying on that sidewalk, moaning in pain, I reached the end of Denial River and flowed into the Sea of Doubt. It finally dawned on me in that instant that I was, indeed, handicapped. That may not be the term of choice these days—“differently abled” or “physically challenged” may be de rigueur—but as I touched my bloody face, feeling embedded chips of concrete in the wounds, “handicapped” sure seemed to fit.

The woman I was passing on the sidewalk when I fell took one look at me and cried out in panic to her husband: “My God, what’s happened to his arm?” “It’s gone,” I said. “But don’t worry, that didn’t happen today.”

Read the entire essay. It's beautiful.


[Disclosure: I am the girlfriend mentioned in the article.]