Leslie Pitt Schneider admits she sometimes sounds “too Pollyanna,” but she isn’t about to change. The Twin Cities lawyer, who lost her left leg when she was hit by a truck as a 6-year-old, refuses to see the accident as something negative.
“For me, life with limb loss has been a gift,” she said. “I’ve learned that life is about using that which could limit you to make your life limitless.”
Schneider has become the public face of a Twin Cities-based organization that has been heavily involved with helping the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Members of the Wiggle Your Toes Foundation, which provides support to people who have lost limbs, are making trips to Boston to offer both moral support and practical assistance.
Their mission is to provide the victims with whatever they need, be it a shoulder to cry on, or experience to call upon.
Pitt Schneider has spent most of the 39 years since her accident preparing for the task. She’s been a world-class athlete — proof that limb loss doesn’t equate to inactivity. She’s been a nurse — with the bedside manner needed to relate to hospital patients. Now she’s a lawyer — versed in the tactics of advocacy for a cause.
“My life has come full circle,” she said. “Everything has been a progression to what I do now.”
The Boston victims are at a crucial stage for support, said Aaron Holm, the founder of Wiggle Your Toes.
“Many of them are healing to the point that they’re getting prosthetics, and that’s where our organization can really help,” he said. “They have a lot of questions that are simple for us because we’ve been dealing with it but are just being discovered by them.”
Pitt Schneider and other volunteers can address big-picture issues — “What is life going to be like?’ — to practical matters, such as which types of shoes work best with a prosthetic.
But it isn’t just the victims who are looking for help, said James Scesa, who oversees the foundation’s East Coast branch. On the group’s recent visit to Boston, he was surprised by the feedback it got at Boston Medical Center, where most of the victims were treated.
“I had no idea that we had such an impact on the medical staff,” he said. “A large number of staff members showed up at our meeting, and we ended up talking to them for a couple of hours. They were very interested in knowing what the victims of such incidents need.”
The group isn’t sure when its next trip to Boston will be, although it’s working with the Boston Red Sox to set up an outing at Fenway Park for the victims, the medical personnel and the first responders who were at the blast scene. Members also keep in contact with the victims between trips.
“We reach out a lot through Skype and phone calls,” Pitt Schneider said.
Having lost her leg in an accident was one of the reasons she felt the need to reach out to the Boston victims.
“To lose a limb because of the progression of a disease like diabetes is difficult enough, but to lose it from an accident is different,” she said. “You walk out the door one day and — boom! — something happens and everything changes.”
Finding common ground with the amputee is crucial, said Sandra Meredyk of Minneapolis, who had her right foot amputated in 1994 following a workplace accident. The hospital put her in touch with two other amputees, one a diabetic and the other a cancer patient, but she couldn’t relate to either one of them very well.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk with,” said Meredyk, who went on to launch Northstar Amputee Support Group, with which she’s still involved but no longer runs. “I felt like I was the only person in the world facing this. I knew better than that — I’m an intelligent person — but that’s how I felt.”
After Pitt Schneider’s accident, her parents stressed that her life would go on as normal. It’s the same message she delivered on her first trip to Boston.
“I’d walk into the hospital room [of one of the victims] and start talking with them,” she said. “After a while, I’d say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m wearing a prosthetic leg.’ It was amazing to see their faces change. They’d say, ‘I didn’t even notice.’ That was very important, especially for the women.”
It was in her hometown of New Ulm a week before her seventh birthday. Young Leslie was pulling out of a friend’s driveway on her bike when she was hit by truck coming around a corner. Her right leg was broken in two places, and her left leg was crushed. Doctors realized that amputation was needed, but they didn’t have the facilities to do it.
“They told my mother that I’d probably survive if I could make it to Rochester,” she said. “My mother rode with me in the ambulance, making me sing songs all the way to keep me conscious.”
Pitt Schneider graduated from St. Olaf College intending to go to medical school. Instead, she ended up in Colorado as a member of the national ski team, becoming the No. 3-ranked women’s paralympic skier in the world.
“It was a great experience, but eventually I decided that I had better move on with my life,” she said.
She returned to Minnesota, but her ardor for medical school had cooled. Instead, she got a degree in nursing and went to work at Hennepin County Medical Center, where she met her husband, Greg. When he got a job in St. Louis, she got her first taste of outreach. She launched a nonprofit group there — which still exists — called Amputees Getting Into Life Energetically (AGILE).
“We’d get together and go golfing or swimming or bowling,” she said. “Doing things together was a much more comfortable way to talk about limb loss than sitting at a table talking over a Styrofoam cup of coffee.”
The experience whetted her appetite for advocacy, and she decided to get a law degree.
“I wanted to learn how to negotiate through laws and regulations and be able to use those skills to be an advocate,” she said. And she’s done just that. In addition to her work with Wiggle Your Toes, she serves on the board of directors for the Amputee Coalition of America.
When Pitt Schneider and her husband moved back to the Twin Cities, she went to work in the legal department of Ottobock Healthcare in Plymouth, a company that makes prosthetics.
“It’s just a coincidence” that her employer is involved with prosthetics, she said. “I needed a job, and they had an opening. I don’t have anything to do with the prosthetics. I spend a lot of my time dealing with government health regulations.”
The Wiggle Your Toes Foundation has distributed money that was contributed for the bombing victims and helped arrange for donated prosthetics (including some from Pitt Schneider’s employer). Asked what keeps motivating them, she shrugged her shoulders.
“This is what we do,” she said. “This is who we are.”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392