What is a hero? The definition is subjective, unique to each individual. Many regard their local firefighters and police officers as heroes, while others define their courageous father who fought in the Vietnam War, or even their dog, as a hero.
Then there’s Carmen Faris, a 50-year-old New York resident whose limb loss has furnished her with hope, courage and humility and prompts her to inspire others every day. Faris is a full-time litigator, a volunteer worker, a part-time teacher and a full-time optimist. More importantly, she is a devoted mother of three, a 10-year-old son and 18-year-old twin daughters. Although she and her family have endured many hardships, Faris has raised her three children singlehandedly while maintaining an upbeat outlook and reaching out to help and motivate others.
On June 23, 2001, Faris’ left leg was amputated as a result of trauma from a car accident and subsequent cancer diagnosis. The adjustment wasn’t easy, she admits. But her chaotic lifestyle distracted her from worrying.
“When you have children, there is very little time or opportunity to be selfish during times of crisis. I had very little time to worry about myself or second-guess my future because I was a mother of three very young kids, and they needed me,” Faris says.
Her husband and children, as well as other family, friends and doctors, supported and cared for her immensely, making her road to recovery easier and more enjoyable. Only 3 months later, however, her husband died in the attacks on September 11, 2001. Although his death, along with her amputation, was difficult for her and her children to cope with, she recognized the importance of a speedy recovery, not only for her sake but also for her children.
“[Losing my husband] on 9/11 … accelerated my healing because my kids really needed me then, and I needed to be wholly functional to keep going. Caring for children actually makes recovery and adjustment that much more critical … because you have to care for them above all else,” Faris says.
Fortunately, she received endless support and care from her family, particularly her children, friends, neighbors, colleagues and doctors. Her then-10-year-old daughters became the heads of the household, taking impeccable care of their mother every day. Her neighbors began checking up on her routinely, and her colleagues installed a PA system in the restroom at her work and a wheelchair ramp to her office, even though she didn’t need it.
Faris’ amputation, as well as her network of support, boosted her optimistic outlook.
“I came as close to losing my life as you can, so I have a profound appreciation for my life, and I am determined not to waste it, and to help as many others as I can,” Faris exclaims.
Faris has inspired and helped other individuals greatly. Although she is mainly a litigator in intellectual property law, she also runs a minor practice in advocacy work for people with disabilities, especially for returning disabled soldiers, as a tribute to her father who died in the Vietnam War and because few individuals advocate for or assert their rights, Faris says. She also aims to “just be a friend or someone they can talk to.” Likewise, Faris is a volunteer worker and goes to hospitals to visit other patients at least once a week, as she believes “No doctor can cure a patient better than another patient.”
In fact, about 18 months ago, Faris met a 23-year-old amputee soldier who was on suicide watch at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A survivor of a bombing outside of Baghdad, Iraq, the soldier (name undisclosed) lost one of his legs and sank into a deep depression after receiving a “Dear John” letter. Determined to motivate him, Faris emphasized that he “was very smart, handsome, and had a lot to offer.” One week later, Faris received a certificate of appreciation from his colonel. His newfound confidence enabled him to find a job, enroll at New York University, and meet his fiancée. The couple are due to marry in the upcoming summer, and Faris will be the maid of honor.
“Being 23 years old and going through that can’t be easy,” Faris explains. “It makes me feel good to help others. It’s what keeps me going. And, when I’m helping others, I don’t have time to worry about my own troubles.”
Part of her motivation to help others stems from her children, which she hopes, in turn, inspires each of them to be a better person.
“I never forget that I’m still a role model for my children, so I try to practice what I preach (when I do preach), and I try to lead by example,” Faris says.
Faris also strives to be the best mother she can be for her children.
“The biggest privilege in life is to be a mother,” Faris says. “It’s of utmost importance to me.”
Following her amputation, however, Faris began to see parenting in a new light and was forced to reexamine her role as the mother. Although it took about a year for her family to adjust, Faris’ experience has enabled her to provide other amputee parents with words of wisdom.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially from your children.”
Initially, Faris was apprehensive about asking her children for help because she “never wanted to be a burden” to her family. She only overcame her fear after falling down one day, forcing her to ask for assistance.
Making a game plan is also helpful, Faris insists. For instance, although she’s not allowed to lock any doors, she is allowed her privacy. If she were in trouble, she wouldn’t want to be unreachable. Likewise, her prosthetics and other medical supplies are stored in a cupboard, and only she has access to it.
“Respect for my privacy is important to me,” Faris explains. “They cut off my leg, not my dignity.”
“Have a sense of humor.”
Faris tries not to take herself too seriously. In fact, her current husband refers to her as his “OLD lady” (an acronym for One-Legged Diva). Her son named her prosthetic leg “Harry Potter” because her leg is “so magical.” Even her doctors appreciate her humor. “There aren’t too many people whose necks we can stick needles into, and they’re still telling us jokes,” Faris’ medical technician remarks.
“Always, always be honest with your children, and include them in the process.”
Although Faris’ children were fascinated and terrified about her amputation, they were also curious. Others advised her not to tell the truth to her children, but she’s glad she did.
“Knowing I would tell them the truth actually eased their anxiety,” Faris says. She never lied about her illness, amputation or prognosis. Her children have been to the recovery room, to chemotherapy and to radiation to support her.
“When there’s a problem, we all have to decide it together,” Faris explains. “I didn’t have an amputation; we had an amputation.”
“When reclaiming your role as the mother, you must be cautious.”
Immediately after her husband’s death, Faris’ daughters became the “parents” and were “very overprotective” of their mother.
“It was getting to the point where they were no longer being teenagers,” Faris says. “They were turning down social engagements to care for me instead.” But after she recovered, retrieving her authority from her children was the hardest adjustment, Faris admits, because she had to be “very careful not to downplay their roles and make them feel unappreciated.”
“It was tough for my kids to revert to being my children and dependents after having spent so much time caring for me, protecting me and parenting me as best as they could,” Faris says.
But her solution is simple.
“Life isn’t defined by the number of limbs you have,” she reminds her children, soothing their anxiety.
“I am just thankful to be alive and helping people,” Faris explains. “I’m convinced that there is a higher purpose for my life, and I’m just trying to fulfill it – whatever that is.”