pilgrim classic: I, robot

Originally posted on 3/1/2007:

Sometimes I make jokes about being a “bionic woman” or a “cyborg.” Having a prosthetic leg with a computer-controlled knee joint lends itself to such comparisons. Truth be told, the first thing I’d reach for if there was a house fire in the middle of the night and we needed to exit quickly, wouldn’t be the family photo albums. I’d reach for my robotic leg. It would make sense, given that the leg cost as much as a luxury car. And, of course, because it’s essential for my mobility.

I’ve been robotic for about three years. When I first heard that my insurance would pay for a computerized knee joint, I was thrilled to adopt the technology. I knew that it meant more stability, fewer falls, and a more natural gait. My prosthetist duly warned me not to get it wet, to charge the battery every night for at least three hours, and to notify him at the first sign of any malfunction.

My kids were thrilled with my leg and its robotic possibilities. We wondered what might happen if an evil genius reprogrammed my leg and forced me to rob banks or steal diamonds? We giggled long and hard about that scenario. The first time my battery started running low, I was standing in a grocery checkout line with my son and daughter. We heard the telltale beeps and I felt the vibrating sensation like a cellphone ringer, notifying me that I had 10 minutes to get my leg plugged in or I’d lose power altogether. We raced home and made it just in time. The adventure was more thrilling than a car chase scene in a spy movie.

Some days, however, I feel guilty about owning a leg that cost more than fifty thousand dollars. I think of my limbless sisters and brothers in other circumstances and I realize that dozens—if not hundreds—of low-tech limbs could be purchased for the price of my computerized leg. And I contemplate the thousands of new amputees returning home from Iraq, and those people throughout the world who live in daily fear of loss of life and limb.

Last year my leg malfunctioned while I was traveling in Asia, perhaps a result of using a faulty power adapter for charging my leg. Though there was no way to get the computer repaired during my trip, I was able to continue my travels with my knee stiff–walking as if wearing a cast. Despite the impairment, I carried on with typical tourist activities: scaling the Great Wall, strolling through the markets, touring gardens, and do forth. Nearly every place we visited there were beggars, many of them amputees. I knew I needed to avoid giving handouts or I would be besieged by dozens of people asking for the same. So I kept my hands in my pockets and looked into their eyes and felt heartsick and smug. Contemplating the price that bought my mobility. Feeling my own betrayal.