The Compounding Benefits of Privilege

This year, I had my left leg amputated below the knee, and it took off the blinders to how privileged and lucky I have been. As I recover and catch up with friends and acquaintances, everyone is encouraging. People occasionally use the word “inspirational” in that I’ve maintained a relatively positive attitude through it all. While it’s been a long journey, truthfully, it has been relatively easy to stay positive. There were rough moments to be sure, but overall, it hasn’t been too bad.

I’ve spent a lot of time surprised at how easily I have been able to stay positive. Why am I not more upset or frustrated? I’m a little surprised how ok I am with it. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a tough journey, and it’s taken a lot out of me. In many ways, however, it’s just a blip on the radar. Think about that for a second. An amputation as just a blip on the radar? How can that be?

When we step back and look at the advantages I’ve had in my life, it starts to make sense.

I grew up with both parents present to support and encourage me. This was probably the easiest advantage to take for granted. Unfortunately for too many people, this isn’t the case.

That solid family life and support meant that we could move to a new city so I could have a great education. We weren’t rich by any means, but many families don’t have the means to pick up and move like that in the first place.

I also had access to a computer in my home whenever I wanted it. That sparked an interest in computers that set many events in motion. That’s an opportunity that’s certainly not available to everyone. It was absolutely a novelty when I was growing up.

My parents not only encouraged me to study and go to college, but they also helped with the costs where my scholarship didn’t so that I wouldn’t graduate in debt. There’s no doubt in my mind that I obtained that scholarship in large part thanks to my parents moving so I could have a better education.

I worked part-time throughout college, but it was never a struggle to meet basic needs. For many, making ends meet is difficult enough. Paying tuition, finding time for classes, studying, and helping their family members is on a whole other level of difficulty.

That education and financial assistance combined with access to a computer helped guide me down a path to a computer science degree which in turn all but guaranteed the ability to find work for the rest of my life. I never had to stay in a terrible job or work in an unhealthy work environment for fear of not being able to find another job.

After graduation, I could financially afford to move to new states for jobs not once but twice. There was no risk or fear because I could always move home to a supporting family at any point, and I did. Not once. But twice.

Then a few years ago, I was financially able to have elective surgery to reduce some chronic pain so I could stay active as I got older. For plenty of people, this wouldn’t have been an option, and if they worked on their feet all day long, it would have limited their ability not just to be active, but to work and make a living.

When recovery from that surgery brought complications, I had health care and a small but healthy business that enabled me to take off all of the time I needed to visit doctors, gather opinions, and recover from multiple additional surgeries. For many, health care wouldn’t have been available, and taking enough time off work would have been nearly impossible.

Then, when things went wrong, we had an incredible support system of friends and family to help us out through multiple recoveries. When you can’t get out of bed and can barely take care of yourself, even putting together a meal is a struggle. Plenty of people don’t have that system of help. Plenty more are that system of help for others before they have their own difficulties.

Having grown up with other privileged people, I knew multiple surgeons that I could reach out to for advice and insight. That meant instant on-demand help and guidance to better decision-making that didn’t require appointments or taking time off work to meet with doctors. That’s certainly not readily available to everyone.

Then when I spent three weeks in the hospital when our first daughter was two, we had enough family help around to enable Lauren to make it to the hospital every day to spend time with me. Kids under 12 aren’t permitted in ICU, and two-year olds don’t make for relaxing or calming visits, so Bella only came a few times. Finding that time to be with family while they’re in the hospital is as important as it can be stressful. For many, it would have meant added stress of trying to find a babysitter and the cost of paying the babysitter.

Through all of this, our out-of-pocket expenses have only been about $25,000. The fact that I’m able to use the word “only” in the same breath with $25,000 is yet another example of that compounding privilege. $25,000 is a lot of money, but it’s nothing we couldn’t handle. There are far too many stories where medical costs create unimaginable financial duress, and that can be just as challenging as the physical recovery.

At my lowest point in this process after years of not being active, I discovered I was able to ride a bike without too much pain. Then, when I discovered that a full-suspension mountain bike could remove almost all of the ankle pain, I was financially able to afford one without hesitation. This may seem small, but being active was the therapy that helped me find myself again. After months of barely being able to get around, riding a bike was liberating and lifted me up. Had I been struggling to work more hours or not had the means to buy a bike because of medical bills, that couldn’t have happened.

After going through everything, I decided to sell my small business because even though it made the journey easier up to that point, I wanted to be able to focus on my family and recovery. In a way, that company was a direct result of all of the cumulative benefits I had throughout my life. The fact that I even had a company to sell was an inherent advantage in and of itself.

Then, through all of that, there’s the fact that financially I could afford to consider a moderately elective amputation when the lifetime costs of the decision will likely be well over $100,000. If my career required being on my feet, it wouldn’t have been as elective, but that’s beside the point. If my career was less certain, that would have also created incredible financial strain.

Circling back to computers, my career enables me to make a good living while sitting at a desk. At home no less. Even with a slow recovery, amputation never presented a risk to my livelihood. If my career required me to be on my feet, amputation would have, at a minimum, meant months off of work no matter how willing to work I was. Working from home is yet another privilege not available to everyone, yet it was absolutely central to making recovery less stressful.

Of course, on top of all of this, as a straight white man, I’ve never had to deal any of the racism, sexism, harassment, or hatred that many face every day. In many ways, that privilege was the foundation upon which all of the others took root.

Remove any one of these advantages from that chain of events, and the ripple effects are easy to imagine. Remove a couple of those advantages, and the chain of events might collapse. Remove all of those advantages, and we can start to begin to see just a sliver of the challenges faced by so many people every day.

Growing up, I was taught that you can do anything you put your mind to and that if someone wasn’t successful, they had no one to blame but themselves. At the time, that seemed reasonable since I was surrounded by people who could do anything they put their mind to. It was difficult to see, but being able to do anything was largely a function of privilege and advantage.

The more I’ve seen and learned, however, the more obvious it has become that some are inherently disadvantaged. We’re all capable of much more than we realize, but there’s no denying that many begin their journeys with distinct advantages through little more than luck. We couldn’t see those advantages for what they were because we didn’t have any other context. To us, these weren’t advantages. They were normal, but I’m starting to see just how abnormal they are.

My journey wasn’t easy, but it was easier than it would be for most people. We can all do a little bit to help spread these advantages. One helping hand at the right time can set off a chain reaction of compounding benefits for that person and every other person that their life touches.

I’m not yet entirely sure how I’ll be spreading my privilege to others, but it’s something I think about daily. Recently, I’ve been focused on my recovery. I still have a lot more work to do on that front, but with every bit of returning strength, I’m more excited than ever about finding ways to help others through their journeys.

Short-term, the most likely channel for my family and me to help others is by focusing on amputees because that’s what we’re familiar with now. We have an idea of how amputation can affect one’s life and that of their family.

That likely means getting involved at first by simply talking to others facing amputation or new to amputation or helping bring more attention and awareness to the resources available to amputees. In particular, I’d like to find ways to help those facing amputation under financial duress, so they’re able to focus more on their health and less on how to pay for all of it.

Having spent months between wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches before recently getting my new leg, I assure you that prostheses are worth their weight in gold. A prosthetic device gives people their independence back, and that independence, dignity and ability to do more for yourself is life changing.

I’d also like to go a step further and become involved in adaptive sports to help people stay physically active and participate in activities that bring them joy and help them realize just how capable and strong they are.

With any luck, those efforts can help others facing the same decisions and help them move forward with less burden. If my journey and experience can translate into advantages for others to make their journey easier, then that feels like a natural way to channel my energy.

It’s not about whether you or I have worked hard. It’s about whether that next person has to work twice as hard for half as much. That’s the difference that comes with privilege, and once you see it, it’s impossible to unsee. Recovering from any health issues is hard enough, and fighting financial and logistical battles doesn’t help.

Privilege is a thing, and my journey is what it looks like. While I made the most of what I was given, too many aren’t given anything, and many others have everything taken from them through no fault of their own. Recognizing is the first step to addressing it. Let’s recognize it and do what it takes from here on out to lift each other up.