Paul Venner scooted
forward just a bit in his wheelchair.
His new prosthetic
leg, ending in a tennis shoe matching the single one Venner wore when
he arrived at Hangar Clinic in Ames just a few days before Christmas,
dangled — an unfamiliar weight.
Venner, 89, edged
forward, then up, trying to remember the steps he’d heard but
hadn’t yet tried.
Adjust this switch.
Lock the metal knee. Align the foot.
It would feel
unusual to balance his weight on two feet after he’d grown
accustomed — as much as possible — to just one, prosthetist Laura
Freeman cautioned. Trust the right side of his body, connected to the
floor for the first time in months.
“I know you
haven’t been able to depend on it for a long time, but you can
now,” she said.
For what felt like
the first time in forever, Paul stood up on two feet.
He took a step.
'Life or death'
Venner grew up in Breda, attending St.
Bernard High School. He raised cattle for years.
He met his wife, Rita, who graduated
from the all-girls St. Angela Academy in Carroll, through 4-H
Paul showed livestock. Rita
participated in home-economics activities.
“I suppose I thought he was pretty
handsome and pretty nice,” Rita recalled this week with a laugh.
He hasn’t changed, she added.
They were married in 1951 and had eight
kids: Christine, Jim, Susan, Liz, Tom, Dale, Joan and Mark.
Life hasn’t been easy.
They lost two daughters to cancer
within a year of each other. Susan died from ovarian cancer in 2006,
and Christine from multiple myeloma in 2007.
Today, they have a passel of grandkids
and great-grandkids scattered around the country.
With their own children out of the
house, the Venners moved from their farm near Breda to a house in
Carroll in late 2014. They were getting older and wanted to be closer
to town, particularly when Rita, 85, had two shoulder replacements.
“Don’t ever get a shoulder
replacement,” she admonished as the car sped from Carroll to Ames
for Paul’s appointment a few days before Christmas, with Venner and
his son-in-law Tom Kurt discussing farming and Tom’s engineering
work in the front seat.
While she was recovering from her
second shoulder replacement and Paul was taking care of her, he
bumped his knee.
What followed was pain and doctor’s
appointments and the discovery that he had a rare infection that had
converged to his knee after the bump.
Five surgeries followed, in Ames, Des
Moines and Iowa City, as teams of doctors tried to stave the
infection and save Venner’s leg.
It didn’t work.
Hearing that Venner’s only remaining
choice was to lose the leg was a blow. He still doesn’t talk about
it much, describing it only as terrible.
“If he wouldn’t have done it, he
would have lost his life,” Rita said. “It was life or death.”
They knew the resultant adjustments
would be mental and emotional as much as physical.
Venner’s right leg was amputated
above the knee Oct. 13.
Now, after weeks of recovery,
rehabilitation and therapy, they were headed once again to Hanger
Clinic in Ames, which specializes in orthotics and prosthetics. He’d
been going there for about a month.
Kurt, who is married to the Venners’
daughter Liz, had wheeled Venner out of his Carroll home early that
morning. Rita urged him to wheel Venner backward down the ramp
outside their home.
Kurt, who only heard part of her
admonishment as he headed outdoors with Venner, wondered why.
“So I don’t fall out of this
thing,” Venner responded.
He hadn’t known for sure if he was
going to get the prosthesis that day, Dec. 22.
It had been his Christmas wish.
With the first steps out of the way,
Venner and Freeman continued to work through the appointment that
Thursday, with Freeman adjusting the prosthesis and Venner growing
more accustomed to putting it on, taking it off, adjusting it and
walking with it.
“It’s real great to stand on two
legs again,” he said later.
There’ll be adjustments — something
Venner has grown to expect during the past months. The tension broke
during the appointment when the family laughed about the inevitable
chafing from the prosthesis, which extends all the way up his thigh.
It wasn’t always comfortable, but
Venner had no complaints that day.
How does it feel? they asked, as he
“Great,” Venner said. “Great.”
Venner had a lot to learn that day in
Ames, starting with the multi-step task of simply putting on the
He was determined.
“Can you reach it?” he was asked at
one point as he bent forward to fit a strap through an opening in the
“Hell yes, I can,” he responded.
Using two parallel bars to support him
as he tried taking his first few steps, Venner had to re-learn to
stand up straight and look forward.
“Don’t look down,” Freeman
reminded him. “The foot isn’t going anywhere.”
In a corner of the room, Rita silently
“I knew how much that meant to him to
just stand, just to be able to stand on two feet,” she said later.
It’s going to take a lot of practice,
Freeman said, but just remember:
“Every step you take is one you
couldn’t take before.”
And she knows.
At the age of 15, Freeman lost her
right leg — the same one as Venner — after having cancer and
several unsuccessful surgeries. Her own prosthesis, and her use of
it, serves as a guide and a goal for patients.
“I’m able to say, ‘I’ve been
there, we’re all there, we still have days like that, it’s not
perfect,’ ” she said.
She never tells patients how they
should be feeling, but her own experience helps.
“It’s a little easier for them to
have that ‘Aha!’ moment,” she said.
Venner will have this prosthesis for
about six months before switching to a more advanced one.
At one point, Liz joked about having
tried to convince her dad to get photos of his kids’ faces printed
on the prosthesis. He hasn’t agreed, yet, but they’re not giving
On the ride home to Carroll, Paul, a
soft-spoken man who never says much, broke the silence.
“I got my Christmas wish.”
The Venners and their kids, grandkids
and great-grandkids are having their family Christmas on New Years
Venner plans to be
there on his own two feet.