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Kevin Reilly: Losing a Limb Doesn’t Have to Mean Losing a Positive Outlook

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Preparing for surgery on Oct. 29, 1979, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Kevin Reilly knew that doctors would do try to save his left arm. As he waited on a gurney, a priest stopped by and said, “I’m administering the Sacrament of the Sick.” 

This is really serious, he thought. “I was an altar boy once, back when [the sacrament] was known as Last Rites.”

Then a doctor arrived with a sheaf of papers. “Sign this, sign that,” Reilly says. “It was all standard stuff, until I got to the line where it says there is a 33 percent chance you will not survive the operation.”

As the anesthesia wore off, Reilly looked up, saw the hands of a clock move, and realized he had survived—though his left arm and shoulder, and four ribs had been amputated.

He began the difficult process of recalibrating his life. There were no rehabilitation programs then, and within six months, he was being treated for depression.

Reilly, now 62, works as a college and pro football analyst on radio and television. He’s also a successful motivational speaker who counsels servicemen and women who’ve lost their limbs. 

He recalls meeting his first triple amputee at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington. “As I was coming back home, I thought: If you lose a limb, you want to lose an arm, not a leg,” Reilly says. “If you lose an arm, you want it to be your non-dominant arm. And then I realized, I’m as lucky as can be.”

If you knew you had only one year left, what would you do?

“I’d stop worrying about any money issues. I would build more in-depth relationships with the people I know. I would try to live a more peaceful life.”

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