Happy 56th birthday to my stuffed froggy’s handsome namesake! Today also would’ve been my paternal grandma’s 87th birthday.
As regular readers might remember, one of the leading characters of my WIP, my third Russian historical, is a below-elbow arm amputee. Ipatiy Zakharovich Siyanchuk (Patya) loses his right arm by the Battle of Saipan in mid-June 1944, while protecting his best friend, Rodion Petrovich Duranichev (Rodya). I based the loss of Patya’s arm on the loss of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s right arm. Both were hit by a rifle grenade, though Patya, unlike Sen. Inouye, lost consciousness instead of continuing to lead a charge and take some more woundings.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re writing an arm amputee character:
1. How much of the arm came off? A below-elbow amputee like Patya is better-off than an above-elbow amputee, since there’s more of a residual arm to, e.g., balance an object he’s carrying or steady a package he’s opening.
2. Does your character wear a prosthesis, and if so, what type? Patya may be getting a hook hand in future (the preferred prosthesis of many WWII vets), though at the moment, he’s chosen to just go natural and get around as best he can. Think about how many hours a day your amputee might choose to wear a prosthesis, and what the options were in various historical eras.
3. Try getting around with only one arm as close-enough first-hand research. See how hard or easy it is to perform basic tasks using only one arm, and keep in mind how much of the missing arm is left. You can use the upper arm for balance and such if your character’s a below-elbow amputee, but you can’t do that if the character’s an above-elbow amputee. See what kinds of tricks you can find for a complex task like tying shoes or peeling an egg.
4. It takes time to develop strength and dexterity in your non-dominant hand. There are many iterations of handedness, and I’m blessed enough to have ambidexterity for writing, eating, sewing, and a few other things, in spite of being predominantly left-handed. But if you don’t have such a gift, it takes a lot of practice to develop the fine motor skills used in a task like writing and sewing. Brushing your teeth with your opposite hand is said to help with developing better fine motor coordination for writing with that hand.
5. What kinds of things would your character normally do, and how would the loss of an arm impact that? For example, what kind of work does s/he do, does s/he care for a pet, is the character male or female, what religion is s/he, is s/he a student? Typically, men and women wear different types of clothes, and so your male amputee wouldn’t have to learn how to put on a bra one-handed. If your character is Jewish, there’s the issue of putting on tefillin (phylacteries). A certain job might have to have physical modifications made, or the character might have to search for a more appropriate job.
6. How did the arm come to be lost? Someone who loses a limb to a long-festering wound or illness will have more time to come to terms with the limb loss than someone who suddenly, violently loses a limb in battle or in an accident.
7. Try to be consistent with how you refer to the limb. Like other terminologies, preferred terms can vary from person to person. Some people will be offended by the word “stump,” while others don’t mind it, or use it in certain settings. I frequently hear “vestigial arm” and “residual arm.”
8. How old was your character when the arm was lost? Someone who’s a childhood amputee will have had a lot of time to get used to it and learn how to function with only one arm, whereas Patya loses his arm at 28 and needs some time to stop being so angry, bitter, and depressed. For a congenital amputee, having only one arm is his or her normal.
9. How does the character wear sleeves? They can hang loose, be doubled or tripled over, or be twisted around and then doubled over in cold weather. Many amputees also wear a sock over the stump, to protect against chafing.
10. Intimacy after amputation does exist! The Feronia Project has a really good article on this topic, with links to a few other resources. It’s a shame more respectful, tasteful resources like this are hard to find when Googling, instead of mostly links to porn and amputee fetishism. Patya definitely feels like more of a man when he realizes his wife Vladlena still finds him sexually desirable and isn’t at all off-put at the thought of being with an amputee.
11. Every amputee will be different. There’s no one size fits all model when it comes to topics such as emotional reactions, new ways of doing things, coming to terms with it, and developing a dark sense of humor about it. You know your character better than anyone, so incorporate that into his or her amputation.