Getting a Leg Up

Born without arms, John Foppe gives adversity a swift kick in the pants

Nature may have dealt him a cruel hand, but John has played it out and, with the help of a few good draw cards -- the most beneficial being a large, supportive family -- it's come up aces. Until the age of 10, John was unmotivated to get dressed and go to the bathroom by himself. Twenty years later, he is in demand as a speaker, inspiring others to overcome adversity and achieve personal goals. "Our only real handicaps," he's fond of saying, "are those mental and emotional ones that keep us from living a full life."

John is the fourth of eight boys born to Ron and Carole Foppe. Ron grew up in Breese. Carole hailed from South St. Louis but had a family connection in Breese. Both are devout Catholics -- they met in church -- and it is not so coincidental that a priest prepared Carole for John's condition. Ron had known the late Rev. John Maronic, who had a ministry at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in nearby Belleville. At the time, it was called Victim Missionaries, but later, in the wake of political correctness, it became Victorious Missionaries. Essentially, he hoped to reach out to the disabled.

John recently earned a master's degree in social work from St. Louis University.
Jennifer Silverberg
John recently earned a master's degree in social work from St. Louis University.
John gives a painting lesson at the Kinder Haus daycare center in Germantown, Ill.
Jennifer Silverberg
John gives a painting lesson at the Kinder Haus daycare center in Germantown, Ill.

In the summer of 1970, when Carole was ripe with child, she and Ron got to talking with Father John, who wanted to start a support group in Clinton County. He asked the couple to invite a few disabled people over so he could speak with them. A few weeks later, Carole recalls, "we sat around the table, hearing these people tell about their hardships. I was young and nine months pregnant, and that was my first time ever I was around anybody like that. The only thing I knew about handicapped people was that you weren't supposed to stare at them. When they left, I had all these thoughts that went through my mind, and the biggest one was, 'What if my baby is born with something wrong?'"

Within three weeks, the premonition came true. When Ron came into the recovery room on the labor-and-delivery floor, Carole knew something was wrong. He wasn't wearing the same jubilant expression he had worn when the other three boys were born. He told her their son had no arms. Somehow, it didn't surprise her. The pregnancy had been difficult and stressful. She had had Hong Kong flu in her first trimester and was sick in bed for a week. Although the doctors didn't know with certainty the cause -- Ron and Carole's other children have no congenital defects -- the Hong Kong flu theory always comes up. When the nurse brought the newborn to her and unwrapped him, Carole looked at his bare shoulders and saw what looked like little earlobes hanging under them. "I said, 'Well, thank God he has legs.'" Ron and Carole named their son John Paul: John after Father John Maronic and Paul after St. Paul, thought by some to have had a physical handicap because of his having spoken of his "affliction" in his writings.

For Carole, the troubling ramifications began to sink in. "By that evening I was pretty much in a state of shock," she remarks. "I kept wondering, 'How will he do this, how will he do that?' And I had all these 'how?' questions. What just drove me out of my mind almost was the idea that he wouldn't be able to crawl, and I knew crawling was so important in developing motor skills. And that was the thing that just wore me down. I didn't think about him not being able to eat or go to the bathroom, only that he couldn't crawl."

A normal, healthy baby begins to crawl at about 6 months and takes his or her first step around 10 months. John actually began to toddle at 22 months. But before that, he became dexterous with the only digits he had. Says Carole, "He was sitting in middle of a table with aunts and uncles all around him -- it may've been a birthday party -- but he picked up a toothpick with his toes for the first time. We were absolutely astonished. After that, we made a game out of it, and he picked up pennies and put them in his piggybank. We simply found things he could do and focused on that. We never, ever focused on what he couldn't do."

Before he was 3, Ron and Carole took John to Shriners Hospital in St. Louis, where he was fitted for a set of artificial arms. In her small book about the tribulations over John, Born with Wings, (2000, Easton Publishing Co. Inc.) Carole describes her reaction: "I looked at that cold, steel hook, it felt like an air hammer in my head."

That time was no less difficult for John, who still remembers the hospital stay as one of the most agonizing times in his life. "I had to wear this extremely cumbersome appliance, and all day, every day [I was] being poked and prodded by occupational therapists. And they wouldn't let the parents stay at the hospital, and when they came to visit, they only got to stay for a little while, until they yanked them away from you. It was not at all fun."

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