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How People Commemorate the Day They Lost a Limb

Inside the growing trend of "ampuversaries."

The day was oddly peaceful for Jamie Kvamme. She read a book, had a cup of coffee, and walked down to the dock near the lake house she and her husband had rented for a few days. It was an odd juxtaposition to what had happened exactly one year ago to the day, when she lost most of her left leg in a motorbike accident.

"Today was uneventful in the best way," Kvamme, 31, wrote on Instagram below a sunny selfie from the dock, a fishing rod balanced on her above-the-knee prosthesis. "My heart is full. My heart is thankful."

She signed the post with #ampuversary.

If you search that hashtag on social media, you'll find plenty of others commemorating the day they lost their limbs. The stories are simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring—and many choose to remember the day as the time they received a second chance at life.

"It is a day of nostalgia, to see how far they have come," said Dr. Catherine Atkins, a psychologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, who assists amputees with mentally adjusting to their new body and life. "[Last year] just getting to the bathroom might have been difficult, and now they are riding a bike."

There are about 2 million Americans living with limb loss. A little over half of amputations are the result of vascular disease and diabetes; about 45 percent are like Kvamme's, with a limb or limbs lost through trauma. Another 2 percent of amputations are due to cancer. While it is unclear who coined the term "ampuversary," the Amputee Coalition has welcomed the term. The coalition is now planning a campaign during April, Limb Loss Awareness Month, to encourage the community to share ampuversary stories.

For Saul Bosquez, 32, who lost part of his left leg and two toes on his right foot while serving in Iraq, each ampuversary is different. Like many people in the military, he calls it "alive day," referring to the fact that he lost his limb but not his life.

Bosquez wasn't sure how he wanted to commemorate his first anniversary. He was still at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC. He was running on a prosthetic leg about three months after the roadside bomb ripped into the side of his humvee, but he still struggled psychologically. In the end, he chose to commemorate his first year as an amputee alone, enjoying a steak dinner, poker, and a few cigars. 

On other ampuversaries, he's played a round of golf; this year, his tenth, he said that he and his wife are planning something special.

Others have taken the celebration even further. When Angela Wojtaszczyk, 33, a baker in Hampton, Virginia, received an order for an ampuversary cake in October last year, she assumed it was for Halloween. After emailing with the customer, she discovered the cake's purpose was very different.

"I was curious if that would make [an amputee] feel happy or sad? How does someone feel about celebrating the day they lost their limb?" Wojtaszczyk told me. She drew her inspiration from a gruesome "amputated leg" search on Google. It resulted in some detailed work with a cross section of a leg that included skin (fondant and chocolate), flesh (red velvet cake), and bone (more fondant and chocolate). She chiseled tiny lines in the icing to give the illusion of hair. "It was really fun to make, but I'm not sure how I would feel about eating it," she said. Wojtaszczyk was relieved when the person of honor, an extremely upbeat amputee, came to get the $175 cake. 

Priscilla Sutton celebrates her ampuversary each year by having dinner with her closest friend. One year, someone made her a brooch decorated with a leg. Photo courtesy of Priscilla Sutton

It wasn't until Priscilla Sutton's 11th ampuversary that a colleague made her a cake in the shape of the leg she lost. The Skittles-covered cake mirrored her colorful disposition, which is also reflected in the sentences that sum up her ordeal. 

"Basically, chronic pain from birth and chopped it off to start again. Greatest decision of my life," said Sutton, 38, who was born with multiple health defects, including toes that were "bundled together." As she talked on the phone from Brisbane, Australia, she told me she still has her leg: It was cremated rather than disposed of as medical waste. 

"Every year, I really want to respect [my aputated leg], how hard she worked for 26 years," Sutton told me. 

A huge range of factors can determine how people cope with limb loss, according to Atkins from the medical center in New York. Did they lose a limb through diabetes? That could lead to self-loathing if they weren't diligent in managing their disease to avoid amputation. Did their amputation cost them their career? Do they have a history of alcohol and drug abuse? What about the state of their finances? Regardless of the feelings, ampuversaries should take a measured approach.

"How do we translate it into a celebration while balancing it with the reality of the loss?" said Atkins. 

The posts on social media that are positive to the extreme can be misleading for how the amputee community copes as a whole. Numerous studies show that depression and anxiety disproportionately impact that community.

For many years, Peggy Chenoweth represented those statistics. Just after college, a computer crushed her foot (it was 1998 and well before the MacBook age). She spent almost five years and 20 surgeries trying to save it. The day of her amputation, she told me, "was one of the hardest of my life. I remember waking up in the morning and looking down and knowing it was the last time I would see my biological toes." 

For years, she felt like this body with its missing foot wasn't her own. Chenoweth, 42, who now has a podcast based on amputee life, tried to lace the first few ampuversaries with celebration. "I faked it for a lot of years," she said. "It was a doubled-edge sword: So many people telling me I was strong, but I felt like a fraud because I knew I wasn't doing well."

A friend eventually confronted her on the distance between her façade and her true mental health. Now, July 3, her ampuversary, is commemorated with a lot of reflection, perhaps a jog, and sometimes a cake. 

"You're not going to forget the date" she said. "You kind of have no choice."

Follow Serena Solomon on Twitter.