Local man refuses to be stumped by small arm, shares all
Nicholas May is a father, works in manufacturing, plays pool and has a strong history of engaging in sports, from swimming to football. What makes him unique, however, is that he was born with a fully-formed left arm, and on the right, a smaller, differently-shaped appendage he refers to as "stumpy."
May, who grew up on Milwaukee's North Side, chatted for over an hour with OnMilwaukee and gave a detailed, honest account of what it's like to live life with a deformed arm. At times he was so open and honest about his stump – and its many uses – that parts of the interview had to be edited out.
We still got plenty of fascinating, informative and heartfelt stories and information from May, including what's the best way for people to respond to his arm, how his arm has affected romantic relationships and how his daughter has responded to it.
OnMilwaukee: What happened to your arm in utero for it to grow differently from your other arm?
Nicholas May: The arm is classified as a congenital birth defect, and there could have been any number things that happened, but the doctor's best guess is that the umbilical cord wrapped around the arm, right about where the elbow should be, during the end of the first trimester or beginning of the second and cut off circulation to my arm.
Because of limited technology in the '70s, was it a surprise to your parents when you were born?
I believe it was.
Do you remember the first time you realized there was something different about your arm?
When I was 3 or 4 we were living in Elkorn and one of my neighbors and best friends at the time, Jerry, who was about a year older than me, said something like "you don't need two gloves because you only have one hand" and I started thinking, "yeah that's true. Gloves always come in pairs, because most people have two hands."
Did your parents talk to you about your arm? Do you think they treated you differently?
Not at all. They let me live my life. A great example is when I was 6 and I wanted a bike. I saw all my friends riding around the neighborhood and I asked my parents for a bike. They never once said "this might be hard for you" or "you might have to learn differently with one hand." Instead, they just bought me a bike, and did what parents do when you get your kid their first bike: hold the back of the seat and run behind them and eventually let go.
Did kids tease you about your arm?
Sure. With my name being Nick and my arm being phallic looking, I was called "Nick the Dick." I thought it was odd. I was like, "Huh." But I didn't find it as hurtful or offensive as other people did when I told them about it.
One of the few times I felt embarrassed or out of place was when I was in grade school and I asked a friend to tie my shoes on the playground and it blew up into a huge ordeal. His mom saw him helping me tie my shoes and she thought I was bullying him and making him do it. Basically he had to tell her – and other people who got involved – that no, he was not being bullied by me. He was helping me because I only have one hand.
Have you had surgeries on your arm?
Yes, I've had three. In puberty, like all kids, I had growth spurts and bones grew faster than the skin. Bones were also growing to a point, they were sharp and could have stabbed through my skin, so they had to shave down the bones and put some cartilage at the end of the stump to serve as a cushion to lessen the chance of it stabbing through.
I had another surgery to remove the hand that was once at the end of the stump. There was a tiny hand with five tiny bumps for fingers, and when I was 12 or 13, the doctors recommended I have it removed and my parents let me decide. The doctors explained to me why they wanted to take it off and I had one question. It's kind of outrageous, but it made sense to me then. I asked if there was any chance at any point of time in my life – even when I'm an old man – that I might be able to grow this into a normal arm and the doctors said, no I would never be able to grow a full arm. So I said OK, take off the hand.
Do you wish you had two hands?
No, because if I did I would be a much different person. I would have had very different experiences and see the world in a very different way. By having this arm, I find out which people are uncomfortable and which people don't care and just want to get to know me. It weeds out people that I probably don't want to know anyway. Having this difference has been very valuable to me.
Does the stump have a name?
It's Stumpy and has his own personality. It's more abrasive then mine. And he doesn't give a sh*t.
Do people stare at it often and if so how does that make you feel?
I've experienced the whole gamut in terms of people's reactions from being totally freaked out to not being too fazed by it. Once I was talking to somebody for a good five minutes and was wearing a jacket and when I took off the jacket the person said, "Oh my god, I didn't know" and completely changed the way they acted towards me. Other people are cool and might even crack a joke like, "hope you're left-handed?"
Do you think if you had two hands you would still be left-handed?
No. There were tests done and there is a 90 percent chance I would have been right-handed. And my handwriting is brutal. But this is how I see it: in life, especially when you're growing up, everyone has to learn so many things. I didn't know any differently, so I learned these things with one hand, but that doesn't mean it was more challenging than for someone with two hands. It was different.
People who lose limbs later in life, now that's a challenge, because they have to re-learn everything. I once had a really young guy, a war vet who lost a leg, stop in at a bar I was working at and he said he was so impressed with how confident and capable I was with the stump, and I said that I was impressed with him because one day his "normal" got thrown out the window and here he was, living life and meeting people and moving forward anyway.
Did you learn how to tie shoes?
Yes, eventually, but it takes a lot of dexterity. I have to lift the foot up high enough to reach my stump. I might not be able to do that when I'm much older, in which case it's either Velcro or slip-ons for me.
What are some of the most challenging things you encounter that most people don't think about?
Can openers. Especially since I'm a lefty. It's enough of a pain for lefties to use a right handed opener, but 10 times harder for me. Typing. Not having a right hand makes hitting the return key tough. Shuffling a deck of cards. Putting together a kid's toy can be tough.
Has it been an asset to you?
Well, I have definitely won my share of pool games. People often assume I'm not a very good pool player but actually, I like to consider myself an above average pool player. I win more games than I lose.
Having the stump makes me want to prove people wrong and do things that you might think a person without a full arm wouldn't be able to do. Like rock climbing. I never got seriously into it but it became a side hobby for me a number of years ago. I pretty much played every sport in high school: baseball, football, I was on the swim team, managed the girls volleyball team, played on the boys' volleyball team. Name a sport other than cricket, polo and jai alai and I've done it.
Were you a good swimmer?
I was good enough to earn a couple of medals and ribbons. I have a long running joke with a swim team friend that just because I have one arm doesn't mean I needed a round pool to swim in circles.
How is the best way for someone to respond?
I'm a very open person about talking about it. I will go out of my way to crack jokes and make light of it to make people feel more comfortable with it. But here are some easy pieces of advice: look but don't stare. If you want to ask, ask, but be respectful. Don't start with, "I don't mean any offense by this, but" … My arm is not offensive so don't say that.
Do you usually wear a shirt rolled up like you are right now (exposing the stump)? Do you do that on purpose?
Most of the time, but in part because sleeves get in the way. I hate sleeves on that arm. But I also do it purposefully. It's better and more comfortable if people see it right off the bat. If they are going to change their way about how they see me, I want it to happen right away.
It's not people's fault for treating me differently because they see me differently. They see me differently because they've never been taught differently. But people can change.
For example, this has happened multiple times in different situations: I was grocery shopping and a little boy pointed at my stump and his mom says, "Shh, don't say anything." Two aisles later I notice the boy pointing again and so I walked up and knelt down, looked him in the eye and said, "What do you want to ask?" And he said, "why do you have one arm?"And so I said, "I have two arms, one is really small." And then he asked me why and I said, "I have green eyes and you have brown eyes. Why is that?" "That's the way I was born," he said. And then I said, "Exactly. This is the way I was born."
Do you have a prosthetic and if so do you ever wear it?
I usually don't wear one, but I've had one since I was 2. The husband of the couple living next door to us at the time was a member of the Shriners and they sponsored me at the Shriners Hospital and paid for my prosthetic. It was a really kind and generous thing for them to do, but it was weird and awkward and uncomfortable. As I got older, I realized the prosthetic, in my case, was to make me feel normal and other people be OK with me not being normal. I know a lot of people who wouldn't be able to get by without a prosthetic, and I am not knocking prosthetics, and it's cool that the Shriners gave me the chance to experience what it was like to have two hands. But it's not the same. It's never going to be the same as a living piece of flesh to high five someone or clap with or hug my daughter with. I don't need to look more like everyone else. Why do I need to have two arms and two hands? Why do I need to fit in? Sometimes fitting in sucks and is boring as sh*t and it's fun to do things differently.
Has it affected work?
Yeah, that said, I have worn a prosthetic to work. I was a bouncer at the Landmark and I wore a hook. That fit the part. I have occasionally worn one in my current field, machinery and manufacturing. And sure, in my line of work, I could be seen as a liability, but I assured my employers that I'm the last person they have to worry about safety with. I'm already short one hand, I don't want to lose any more.
What are some of your lifelong goals?
I'd like to be able to afford to retire and buy my own bar and then spend retirement talking to people, meeting people, hearing crazy stories and sharing stories.
Has the stump hindered your romantic relationships?
Yes and no. It's a drawback for some women, who are uncomfortable with it. Sometimes I wonder if a woman might have talked to me or given me her number if I had two hands. But there are some women who I actually had a better chance with because they were curious and interested. And there are others who just want to get to know me and it's one more thing that makes me more interesting to them. It's worked out. Never had too many issues in that department. I was married for five years. I have a daughter who is 11 and attends sixth grade at the Milwaukee School of Languages.
How much have you talked to your daughter about your arm?
My daughter has asked me only about a half-dozen questions. You know how kids have a special "blankie" or suck on their thumb? When my daughter was little she would hold onto the end of the stump for security. Occasionally she will still do this.
What is your overall advice for how you would like people to act around you about your arm?
Don't treat me differently, even though I am. Don't assume I can't do something or need help. If you aren't sure about something, ask, but not in a weird, awkward way. Just ask like you would ask any other question: matter of factly.
You mentioned you know a lot of one-armed jokes. Care to share a couple?
The best jokes are more responses – a la Rodney Dangerfield – responses to what other people say. Like, I'm already holding something and a person says, "hold this" I get to say, "with what?" Or whenever I hold a cigarette and a beer at the same time with the stump it can trigger a lot of commentary and jokes. Sometimes people have just said, "Well, you only have one arm" as a joke / cut down and I've said, "Yeah, but I have one more penis than you and it won't go soft from whiskey."
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