Jamie Diaferia – Putting His Best Foot Forward

Circa 2003

My mom claims that during my pregnancy she was concentrating so hard on giving me intelligence and good looks that she neglected some of the finer points, like two feet and a full set of fingers. Unlike the game of football, however, where coming up a foot short often means the difference between winning and losing, my disability never kept me from reaching my goals. It wasn’t because of the superhuman intelligence that my mom hoped for, and it had nothing to do with the raw athleticism that my dad wished for. It was something more valuable that we all could use-great parents.

I was born 31 years ago missing my right foot and at couple of fingers due to Amniotic Band Syndrome. My doctors immediately removed me from my mother’s arms and ran a battery of tests to determine if the obvious physical deformities were my only problems. It turned out I was also missing part of the big toe on my left foot-I rarely stub it, and for that I am grateful. It would be eight hours before she was allowed a super vised visit with me, and a full day before my dad held me for the first time.

During those initial hours doctors asked my mom a series of highly intrusive questions designed to deter mine what went wrong. Were you taking illegal drugs? No. Did you drink alcohol during the pregnancy? No. They weren’t able to pinpoint a cause and, frankly, my parents had bigger issues to worry about than why it happened. They were far more concerned with how to best raise a child whose balance would be forever com promised by a missing big toe.

I tend to make jokes about my birth defects because the alternative, brooding and whining, would have dramatically reduced my chances of finding a wife. One thing I never joke about, however, is the way in which my parents took charge and shaped the type of person I would become. My mom and dad were 24 and 26 years-old, respectively, when I was born, and already the parents of a three year-old girl. I think about myself when I was their age and I try to imagine handling a similar scenario with the poise and common sense that they summoned during an impossibly trying time. I don’t believe anyone could have done a better job under those same circumstances.

Despite being of relatively modest means, they sought out the best doctors in the country, including a surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City who invent ed the Z-plasty surgery used to relieve the pressure of amniotic bands (fibrous strands of membrane stretching from the outer membrane surface into the amniotic cavity). It was determined that I had bands on my leg and several of my fingers, both of which required fairly immediate surgery. Just a few months after entering the world at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, I was driven ninety miles down the Hudson River for the first of more than a dozen operations.

My doctors, for all their evident qualifications, painted a fairly bleak portrait of my future. The birth defects were significant enough that it was not likely I would ever walk. My fingers, three of which were fused together, could be separated, but it was apparent that they would not be all that useful. And then they sent me home.

One of the benefits of being a few months old is that you don’t remember much. As far as I was concerned the surgery was uneventful, but my parents have a different recollection. It has to be agonizing to see your newborn child bandaged and in pain, and the tendency is to do anything to make their life easier. This is where my parents were different, and it made me who I am. From an early age they let it be known that I was no different from any other child. I was not to be pitied or assisted more than the average kid. This sounds cold and unfeeling, but I’m grateful every day for their intelligent handling of the situation.

My mom was one of six kids, all somewhat rowdy and adventurous in their own way. My dad was one of four kids and he grew up largely independent of his entire family. Together, they knew that no one gets ahead in life without a little adversity, and as discouraging as my medical prognosis was, they never truly believed I wouldn’t walk. I trust them when they say that my first steps, tentative as they were, must have been one of the happiest moments of their life.

check this out

I actually had two first steps. The initial burst came when I was a year and a half old, and it was without the aid of a prosthesis. The second set of steps came after additional surgeries, when I was finally fitted for my first artificial leg at the age of two. It was a bulky contraption rigged with multiple straps around my knee. I stood for a few seconds, looked at my parents for confirmation that I was doing it right, and then took off. I haven’t stopped moving since then out of fear it could all go away if I didn’t take full advantage of my exciting new skill.

A lot of things happened in those initial years that speak volumes about my parents. Despite what was clearly an abnormal start to life, they were determined to make sure I was as normal a child as possible. If I fell down I was told to pick myself up. Relatives who instinctively reached to help me off the floor were roundly scolded and informed that they would not be permitted to visit me if they did it again. No one was allowed to feel sorry for me, and I mean it when I say that I never once felt sorry for myself. You can only learn that by example.

It was around this time that my dad introduced me to baseball, which proved to be a pivotal factor in my development-not because I was good at it, but because of what the game taught me. I was forced to be creative and persistent if I wanted to play organized baseball, and those two attributes formed the foundation for many other future endeavors. My fingers were relatively unsuited for gripping a bat and throwing a ball, so I learned to adapt. Likewise, my artificial leg gave me a fairly pronounced limp, but I was never the slowest guy on the team at any of the five levels at which I played. I can only imagine the demoralizing thoughts that went through the minds of the kids I outran.

Baseball allowed me to prove to myself that I was not just like everyone else I was determined to be better than everyone else. I needed to work twice as hard as my peers to play at the same level, with my dad spending countless hours pitching batting practice, oftentimes in the freezing cold of early spring, until my brittle fingers bled. If I chickened out on an inside pitch then the next one was even further inside until I stood my ground. He’d throw into the evening, and even then we wouldn’t leave until I hit a solid line drive. I always had to finish on a positive note. we decided. I was fortunate enough to do just that when I ended my baseball career by playing on my high school’s varsity team as a pitcher and third baseman.

This same approach carried over to my school work, and I typically put in long hours at an age when I should have been goofing off. Whether it was my mom quizzing me for my spelling tests, or my dad taking me to the library to do research for reports, they gave me as much support as I needed. I sometimes wonder if I would have worked as hard in school if 1 didn’t have a disability, and I honestly don’t know the answer. Everyone has a force in them that serves as motivation. For some it’s a fear of failure; for others it’s a need to avoid embarrassment. I never had to look far to find my motivation: if I didn’t work hard I knew that I would fall behind my classmates and teammates. I was never going to let that happen.

I’m old enough now that I can grudgingly admit I’m not perfect. I’m stubborn, rarely wrong and I spend too much money on compact discs. There are a few parts of my life and my personality, however, that make me proud, and they can also be traced directly back to my parents. Just as I never felt sorry for myself. I also avoided lamenting my problems. Complaining wasn’t going to make me grow a new foot, so what would be the point? My father was even blunter when he said, “Don’t complain to anyone but us-no one cares.” He wasn’t actually speaking about my disability in that con text, but his point was nevertheless well taken, and I often wish more people heeded his advice.

check this out

Of all my coping skills, keeping my sense of humor seems to be the most reliable, and my friends are a big part of that process. During a picnic, a friend once asked to borrow my leg, and for some reason I actually handed it to him. A short time later he appeared for the three-legged race with my leg tied to his. Another group of friends in college thought it was funny to scare the new freshmen at parties by stabbing my leg through my pants with a knife. It seemed funny until the knives got bigger and the wounds got progressively closer to my thigh as the night wore on. I put an end to the game after one guy whacked me with a golf club and I had to explain that my leg was made of fiberglass, not kryptonite.

I went away to boarding school when I was 15 years old. followed by college and law school in rapid succession. I wrote for various newspapers, academic and otherwise, and during my third year of law school I decided against a career in law in favor of starting a national magazine for law students. My goal was to provide students with a foundation to make informed decisions about their careers, including which law firm was best for them, how loans might impact their decisions and what area of practice best suited their personalities. It was during this two-year period that I learned an invaluable business lesson about being undercapitalized.

I immediately took a job for a start-up public relations firm that catered to the legal industry. It proved to be a perfect marriage of my background in journalism and the law A year after joining the company I passed the bar exam to prove that I could, which also ensured that I would probably always work with attorneys. Fortunately I really like my clients.

check this out

Shortly after the tragedy of September 11th I started my own firm, Infinite Public Relations. It was a goal of mine to be self-employed, and with the support of my wife I launched my new company during one of the worst economies in recent memory. That choice and the decision to get married are two of the best ideas I’ve ever had Infinite Public Relations helps law firms pro mote their cases and practices in the media, and I often Find myself speaking with contacts at the New York Times and CNN about stories that eventually reach mil lions of people. It suits me to be behind the scenes, and I am proud to represent some of the best litigation firms in the country. There’s a cynicism I encounter when I tell people that I represent lawyers, but my clients are the ones I would want on my side if I needed help.

Many people are shocked to learn that law firms hire companies to handle their public relations. In fact, the average reader would be surprised at just how many stories each week are placed by a PR firm. It’s almost impossible for the average purchaser of legal services to tell the difference between a 15th-ranked firm and a 30th-ranked firm, and so nearly every top law firm works with outside agencies to attach their lawyers’ names to hot legal issues in the hope that it will influence a buyer to hire them. In addition, litigation firms and smaller practitioners want to reach as many potential plaintiffs as possible when they file a class action case, and the most efficient way to go about that process is through a well-placed article. There’s a greater need for law firms to think about PR now than there was even five years ago due to increased competition among firms based on things like branding and the advent of advertising in the industry. Law firms have a need to differentiate themselves, and one of the best ways to do that is to demonstrate a particular knowledge or expertise through media commentary on targeted legal issues. It’s exciting for me to see the process take shape from behind the curtain. My clients often appear on primetime news programs or are quoted in the most widely read news articles, primarily because legal issues are fascinating. One lawyer I represented was suing Enron on behalf of hundreds of individuals who lost their life savings through the company’s 401(k) plan and it was thrilling to be part of that media feeding frenzy. It’s not in my personality to be the guy in front of the camera, but I do enjoy putting together an effective media strategy, prepping lawyers and their clients for interviews, and then watching it all come together. The next day I have the pleasure of opening up the Wall Street Journal and seeing the results-each project has a beginning, middle and an end. More professionals would like their jobs if they could say the same.

There are so many invaluable character traits that I tie directly to my disability, and in that sense I believe I am lucky. I have had the experience of being stared at and pitied by strangers for as long as I remember, and I have a much greater sense of empathy for others as a result. I’m convinced that people would be far more decent to one another if they could simply share common experiences. Many individuals have never faced real adversity, humility or the indignity of being in a hospital with tubes in their veins. While I envy their good fortune, I worry they are missing out on some of life’s greatest lessons. All of us experience hardship during the course of our lifetime; I was just fortunate enough to have some of mine at a young age. I would hate to be one of those people who, later in life, look back with regret at the manner in which they treated others because they couldn’t understand what they were going through at the time.

Everyone has disabilities of some kind, be it shyness, obesity or something more overt like a missing limb. My parents taught me to use my disabilities as a challenge, not as the defining boundary of what I could achieve. I wouldn’t trade a single part of my life for anything.

I would, however, like my big toe back.

Jamie Diaferia is the President of Infinite Public Relations, Inc., a PR firm for lawyers and other professional service providers. He can be reached at idiaferio@infinitepr.com

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: