Raised in a small, supportive community, Jaymie Kraus didn’t learn about the adversities and opportunities of people with limb differences until she became an adult
Comedies are 20-year-old Jaymie Kraus’ favorite kind of movie. She enjoys hanging out with her boyfriend, Josh, and when her family comes to visit, they head out to the ballpark to catch the minorleague Huntsville Stars in action. Jaymie listens to all kinds of music and wears pink “all the time.” She also laughs a lot. Jaymie’s pretty much like any other person her age. She is also a bilateral above-knee amputee, a condition with which she was born.
“Everybody Knew Everyone”
Growing up in Hopkinton, Iowa (1990 population: 695), Jaymie enjoyed all the pleasures of small-town life in the American heartland. Being a bilateral aboveknee amputee did not affect her childhood at all, she says. “I have a great family. They never treated me differently from anybody else.” She had lots of pets, played with her friends, babysat her nephews, went swimming in the local pool – the standard stuff of growing up.
Plus, in a town so small, “everyone knew me since I was born,” Jaymie says. “All my friends, we knew their entire families, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles. Everybody knew everyone. I don’t ever remember any of my friends saying anything about my legs. It was like there was nothing different at all. It was great.”
As ideal as the pastoral Hopkinton of Jaymie’s childhood was, the close-knit community did not often look beyond itself. Because everyone accepted Jaymie as she was, she and her family took her situation for granted. “I never asked questions or thought I had a choice about what type of leg I wore,” she explains. “For probably 10 years, I had the same type of legs.”
Also, Jaymie had never faced the discomfort of dealing with people unfamiliar with amputees and prostheses. And because there were no other amputees in Hopkinton, Jaymie did not have the opportunity to learn from others who had similar experiences. Though happy in her little community, after graduating from high school in 2003, Jaymie was not fully prepared for the sometimes impersonal nature of life in a bigger city.
“It Got to Me”
When she moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to attend college, the city and its 120,000 inhabitants jolted Jaymie with the culture shock that often accompanies such a move. Only for Jaymie, it was even more shocking because of the nurturing environment she’d left and because of unanticipated reactions to her noticeably different way of walking.
She found the difference challenging. “I never had to tell people about my legs at home,” she explains. “Now I had people asking me all the time, ‘Why are you walking like that? What’s wrong with you?’ You don’t want to go into a deep conversation about yourself with complete strangers. It was very frustrating and depressing. It got to me.”
Although her roommates plunged into the new social opportunities of college life, Jaymie did not. “I never felt comfortable at all doing that because I knew people would ask questions or look at me different,” she says.
“She Knew Exactly How I Felt”
Jaymie persevered through her freshman year, then returned home to Hopkinton. She wasn’t happy. For the first time in her life, she felt different. But Jaymie didn’t brood. While home, she decided to look for a new prosthetist.
Seeking alternatives to her current legs, Jaymie went to a prosthetic company that was a one-hour drive from Hopkinton.
“I loved working with the kids,” she says. “They all acted how I acted when I was a kid. They didn’t care how they looked or anything; they did everything they wanted.”
While there, she happened to meet Laura Prien, who had come in for a prosthetic adjustment. The chance meeting turned out to be just what Jaymie needed. “She was the perfect person for me to meet!” Jaymie says.
The same age as Jaymie, Laura had lost her right leg above the knee to cancer when she was 15 or 16. Laura had attended a large high school, however, so she had already experienced how thoughtless some people can be to amputees. She understood what Jaymie was feeling. Laura helped Jaymie realize that she wasn’t alone. “I had never needed to talk about my legs,” Jaymie explains. “I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone else about it. But every time I would tell Laura something, she knew exactly how I felt.” Laura also had a computerized leg, a technology Jaymie had not been aware of earlier. Three months after meeting Laura, Jaymie got computerized legs too. And in the summer of 2004, she and Laura decided to be counselors at the Amputee Coalition Youth Camp.
“I Wasn’t Weird”
Jaymie relished the opportunity to mentor kids with limb differences. When she recounts her memories of the children’s antics, her voice rises with pride, and her conversation is punctuated with frequent laughter.
“I loved working with the kids,” she says. “They all acted how I acted when I was a kid. They didn’t care how they looked or anything; they did everything they wanted. It makes me feel good that they get to meet people like themselves when they are young, because I didn’t. I wish I had gone to a camp like that when I was little.”
Despite this lament, Jaymie gained insight from her camp adventure. “I felt so much better,” she says. “I got to see that I wasn’t weird because I am an amputee.”
With her new friend, new legs, new experiences and renewed confidence, Jaymie’s brief encounter with discouragement was past.
“The Best Thing in the World”
The following autumn, Jaymie returned to college and finished her coursework in medical assisting over the school year. To complete her degree, she moved from Hopkinton to Huntsville, Alabama, in March 2005 to work at an orthotics and prosthetics firm, an opportunity she describes as “a dream job.” Inspired by her work at the Amputee Coalition Youth Camp, she plans to be a prosthetist so part of her job is going on group visits to new amputees at hospitals.
“It’s really rewarding,” she says. “They’re lying there thinking they won’t walk again, and when other amputees and I walk in the room, they see our legs, and they see that maybe they can walk again. They feel so much better seeing someone like them.”
One of her career goals is to help amputees know their options, she says. “I’m sure there are more people who were like me, who never met anyone like themselves, who don’t know anything about their options. I want more information to be readily available.”
In the meantime, though, Jaymie plans a second tour as a counselor for the Amputee Coalition Youth Camp in July 2005. With her boyfriend, Josh, the heartland native is also planning her first-ever visit to the ocean this summer – a trip that would have raised difficulties for her earlier in life.
Before, she says, going new places was stressful because she worried what conditions would be like. She didn’t know how her legs would manage uneven surfaces or slopes. And she didn’t know anyone to ask.
Now, the girl who never talked about her prostheses is eager to discuss them. For the beach trip, Jaymie sought advice on walking in the sand from an amputee at the company where she works. Now, surrounded by her supportive circle of family, co-workers and friends, she says, “Whenever I have a problem, I have someone I can ask. For me, being around other amputees is the best thing in the world.”