It was a time when the country’s best competitive swimmers were also big Hollywood stars. Esther Williams always seemed to end up in a pool or tropical lagoon in the 1940s and ’50s movies she was written into, and she always showed off her elegant, athletic swimming style. Likewise, five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller played the title role in Tarzan movies, evading jungle enemies with his powerful strokes.
It was these films, which Vernita Jefferson, 70, watched intently as a young girl that fueled her lifelong love of swimming. "I had a secret desire to be like Williams,” she says. “That was it for me; I just loved the way she’d glide in the water."
Living an Active Lifestyle
By high school, Vernita was a strong swimmer and won trophies in water ballet. She was chosen by innovative African-American swim coach Jack Hall to work as a life-guard for a new program at a Chicago YMCA. It was called Water Babies, and it introduced infants to the water. Meanwhile, she tried to pick up a few of Hall’s signature moves, like the one in which he slowly rose from the bottom of the pool in a dead man’s float only to splash away in a backstroke. "It put a lot of people in a panic,” says Vernita. “But I thought it was beautiful the way he’d do that."
Vernita has been active in the pool all her life, even while she worked a 36-year job as a supervisor for the Chicago postal service and raised six children. As a side job, she taught handicapped children to swim, drawing on her college degree in special education. So it was a surprise when she developed a vascular disease in her left leg after her retirement. Her condition, called peripheral arterial disease, is characterized by a lack of blood flow and often affects patients with diabetes. Twelve to 25 percent of Americans over age 65 have peripheral arterial disease, but it affects more than a third of diabetics over 50, with an especially high prevalence among African-American and Hispanic diabetics.
A Wrong Diagnosis
Vernita does not have diabetes, so her doctor first diagnosed the problem as simple arthritis. When the pain became too much for her to walk comfortably, Vernita finally arrived at her true diagnosis and underwent two surgeries to relocate veins to bring blood flow to her foot. Then, after a three-month stint in the hospital because of continued pain, she needed to have her leg removed below-the-knee when it ceased to get blood flow.
Vernita says she left the hospital less than two weeks after the amputation and was fitted for a prosthesis four months later. She took to the new limb right away—that is, as soon as her clinician assured her that it would cosmetically match her natural leg.
"I didn’t want to have metal showing," she says. "I’ve always liked to wear short skirts. More than one time, men have given me the nick-name ‘Legs’ and I guess it went to my head." Her clinician finished her prosthesis with a covering that fools even the most observant strangers, says Vernita.
Living an Active Life with her Prosthesis
Learning to walk with the prosthesis was like learning to walk all over again. "It was hard; everything about it was baby steps," notes Vernita. But she knew that increased mobility and independence was crucial to her recovery, particularly after learning of the death of a close friend. The friend, a fellow member at church, lost a leg around the same time, but stuck to her wheelchair instead, and wasn’t as active as she could have been. Over a relatively short time, Vernita says, the friend lost another leg and then passed away. "The one thing I saw in my girlfriend," she says, "is that her family did too much. She was a good cook, but they stopped her from cooking. They didn’t give her any challenges. She just didn’t have anything to shoot for."
Today, Vernita has learned to cook at the stove in her prosthesis, baking cakes and cookies to serve at family events and church sales. (Her peanut butter cookies go fast at $6 per dozen.) She practices the tango with one of her grandsons. And she is back at the Y, taking water aerobics classes. Vernita loves water aerobics, but she has a harder time with swimming. If she tries to swim for any distance, she says she finds it difficult to travel in a straight line. Her next step is to get a specially designed swim foot and work with a local coach to help her reach her goal of swimming the length of the pool by herself. Given Vernita’s confidence in the water, it is clear that she will soon be doing so with the grace of a Hollywood starlet.