Patience Beard was born to compete. She was also born with proximal femoral disorder, a disease that can leave one leg significantly shorter than the other. Extreme cases—like Beard’s—require amputation. Before she was a year old, Patience lost her left leg, but her parents made sure that never stopped her. Faced with her daughter’s physical challenges, Michelle Kelley chose optimism. She decided to focus on everything her daughter could do, rather than what she could not. “We wrapped our arms around reality and have enjoyed every minute of it,” says Michelle.
Michelle has always been acutely aware that her daughter’s situation could have been much worse. She remembers meeting a man at the hospital one of those early days after the amputation. He had a little girl about the same age as Patience, who had also lost a leg. “He told me that she had cancer,” Michelle says. “I knew then that we had much more to be thankful for than to be sorry for.”
That attitude has nurtured a happy, charming, and accomplished young woman, who in the spring of 2012 snagged one of only two-dozen spots on the University of Arkansas cheerleading squad. Patience made the team without any special treatment, by showing off her winning personality, and by performing all the cheer stunts flawlessly. And unless you’ve got the good seats in the Razorback football stadium, you barely notice the zebra-print leg.
Confidence built on play and competition
Patience has been competing in cheer since the seventh grade. She credits her parents for never treating her any differently than if she’d been born without a crippling bone disorder. When Patience was just an infant, her mother Michelle says she vowed that she would not treat her any differently than the two boys she already had.
From an early age Patience played like other kids played, including joining teams for t-ball, gymnastics, and cheer. But before Patience ever shook a pom-pom, her parents were her cheerleaders at home. “We were not going to make her handicapped,” she says.
Michelle knew how tough it would be to watch her daughter fall, literally, but the resolve paid off. Patience grew to accept herself just as she was. “Patience has never come to me and complained about having one leg,”Michelle says. “She comes to me with… ‘I hate my hair. Do I look fat? How’s my makeup look?’ All the typical girlie things.”
The Importance of Peers
Patience encourages parents to help their children meet peers who understand their unique challenges. She treasures the time spent on Scottish Rite Hospital ski trips in high school. One of her fondest memories was when all the kids would go swimming together, leaving their legs by the side of the pool. “It’s just normal,” she says. “You connect so fast because you all have that in common. It’s really nice to be around people who have the same struggles as you,” she says. Even among that group, Patience says you could always spot the kids whose parents didn’t encourage them the way hers did. “You’d have to push them to be more confident and not be down on themselves for the way they looked.”
Let your freak flag fly
Anyone can have a plain prosthetic. The first prosthetic Patience had was pink and polka-dot. Her mom picked that one. When she got older, Patience spent hours choosing just the right design, one she’d live with for a couple of years until she grew and needed a new leg. After 9/11, she had a new leg made with an American flag design. The next summer when the family went to the beach, strangers stared. Her mother remembers trying to help Patience cope.
“I pulled her to the side and told her all the motherly things I could say about accepting yourself and not letting other people affect you,” Michelle says. Then Michelle had one of those ‘Aha’ moments. “Patience,” she said, “you have an American flag on your leg. Of course people are going to stare!” Patience learned to embrace everything about herself, as well as others’ curiosity. “A doctor once told me, ‘If you can’t change it, be crazy,’”she says. And she puts a lot of thought into expressing herself. “That’s always my hardest life decision—what leg I’m going to get!”
Attitude: It’s Everything
When Patience had to have hip surgery and spend eight weeks in a full body cast, her parents joked that they would get her a skateboard she could lay on and roll around the house. “Those were the kind of things they always did,” she said. More evidence of the family’s sense of humor: Patience’s big brothers used to routinely hide her leg from her. “We always had fun with it,” she says. “They never let me feel down about it.”
Patience is studying communications to become a professional motivational speaker. Michelle believes her daughter’s gift of inspiration—and her grit. “I have always tried to encourage her to just do her best, and to know when to quit,” she said. “But she only heard do your best, because she never quits!”