Prosthetist Laura Freeman fits Paul Venner’s new prosthesis at Hanger Clinic in Ames on  Dec. 22.
Prosthetist Laura Freeman fits Paul Venner’s new prosthesis at Hanger Clinic in Ames on Dec. 22.

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 activities.

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.

New steps

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 stood.

“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 prosthetic.

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 prosthetic.

“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 watched.

“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 up.

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 Day.

Venner plans to be there on his own two feet.