Renaldo Taylor and his mother walk through the door, like any day after school. The 16-year-old crosses the room, pulls out a chair and wonders what he’s going to say about his left leg.
He does not have one, not below the knee, but anyone watching would never guess as much. He has adjusted smoothly – almost effortlessly – to a prosthetic, walking with no more than a hint of a limp. An observer would have to know about the artificial limb to spot any irregularities in Renaldo’s gait.
And while the circumstances of his loss are gruesome to contemplate, the larger story is the compassion that enabled Renaldo and his mother Remona Wellington, 38, to gain an expensive medical mechanism – and, more importantly, a chance for a life largely unhindered by medical complications.
Compassion, in this case, has a name: Laura Ryder, 63, from Fort Myers, Florida, who has built, she estimates, “thousands of prosthetics; between home and Cayman, about 200 per year.”
Certified at Seattle’s Northwestern University in 1985, Ms. Ryder worked in Florida with an orthotist she calls only “Ron,” whom she met at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“Ron” did a series of clinics, including the Cayman Islands Hospital, and in 2005, invited Ms. Ryder to join him.
“He did bracing,” she says, supplying upper and lower body supports to help manage movement and aid rehabilitation, “and he wanted a prosthetist.”
He quit the Cayman Islands Hospital in 2007; Ms. Ryder remained, visiting every six or eight weeks. She met Renaldo in August 2017, just after his accident.
On Friday, July 21, Renaldo helped himself to a dirt bike, roaring off on a joyride. According to police reports, “officers responded to a two-vehicle collision in Breakers,” saying “a motorbike traveling east had collided with a Suzuki vehicle heading west.”
The Suzuki occupants were largely unharmed, but, the report said, “the juvenile male who was riding a bike was transported to the Cayman Islands Hospital with injuries to his left foot and shoulder.”
“I was scared to death,” said Ms. Wellington. She was on her way home to Frank Sound from her West Bay Road office, after 8 p.m.: “I got a call from a neighbor. She said there had been an accident and it looked like Renaldo. She said ‘it seems his foot is hurt, but he’s all right.’”
She went “straight to the scene,” finding her son in a ditch “holding his injured foot.”
“I tried to stay calm,” she said, as police and fire services attended the accident; the ambulance arrived minutes later. She rode in front as technicians bandaged his foot. “It was all ripped up, the foot, his toes, everything. There was blood dripping from it.”
Renaldo speaks with little emotion in retrospect, but calmly adds a final awful detail; “I could see my bones.” His memory is not of fear or shock, but of the air-conditioning: “I was freezing. They cut off my clothes.”
The pair spent two hours in the emergency room as doctors cleaned the grime and gravel, the blood and shattered bone, then sent him to the surgical ward as they prepared the operating theater, where surgeons tried to save the foot – in vain. They tried again on the next day, Saturday, – again in vain – and telephoned Ms. Wellington on Sunday.
“They said they might have to amputate,” performing a “BKA,” below the knee amputation.
“We said no,” Ms. Wellington said, “I asked about Miami. I called Health City. I sent pictures. They all said they would probably amputate too.
“When the doctors explained what would happen if they did not amputate,” – infection, sepsis, pain, permanent disfigurement – she and her son agreed. “Even the church came in and helped,” she said.
Renaldo returned home after 10 days, immediately hopping around the house, boxing on one foot, but enduring the discomfort of crutches: “I was getting so depressed,” he said, unable to sleep, coping with “phantom pain” – aching and stinging in a missing limb.
Ms. Ryder and Renaldo met in late August, she said, on a routine visit. “He was a good kid. He was only 15, which is a tough age anyway. He was respectful and quiet, and no one was helping him.
“When I meet someone, sometimes it just hits me. I liked him, and I said I’d do anything to make him a leg.”
Building a prosthetic is part technical skill – requiring careful measurements and, like bespoke clothing, a fitting – and part art, accounting for height, weight, age and lifestyle habits. Building a limb for a BKA does not require a knee joint, but ankles are themselves complicated.
A prosthetic for a BKA costs between $10,000 and $15,000 in the U.S., between $20,000 and $25,000 in Cayman. Ms. Wellington’s insurance company declined to pay anything, citing the circumstances of the accident, leaving her to face $80,000 in overall medical fees.
Renaldo’s voice changes when he discusses Ms. Ryder, who recognized the family had little money and no insurance. “She took me seriously and talked to the insurance company,” he said.
Ms. Wellington said Ms. Ryder “liked Renaldo and said she was not going to have him suffer.”
Six weeks later, Ms. Ryder called the family, saying she was not coming to Cayman without the prosthetic. When she arrived, Ms. Wellington said, “I was so excited.”
Renaldo quickly “figured it out by himself,” Ms. Ryder said, discarding crutches, finding his balance, walking naturally and, just as school resumed in September, returning to Cornerstones, a division of the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre.
“It’s fine,” he said, indicating he probably has more friends now than before the accident. His only complaint is that he cannot play basketball as readily as he swims, boxes, dives, and plays squash, rugby and football.
“I used to do track and field, but this thing is not made for running,” he says, musing “maybe I’ll do blades.”
Ms. Ryder is a step ahead of him: “He’s not ready for sports construction, but I’ll fit him for a sports leg, a running prosthetic,” called a “J leg” after the curved blades made famous by South African Olympic sprinter Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, who had dual BKAs at 11 years old.
An invoice never arrived from Ms. Ryder, and while the family still faces formidable obstacles, Ms. Wellington’s relief is plain: “I’m so proud of him.”