RALEIGH — For the big day, Eric Gabriel pulled on his prosthetic leg, then strapped on a tie.
He rolled his wheelchair to a computer, took a deep breath and flipped on his webcam broadcasting his face to a screen 18 miles away.
On this Thursday morning, the 55-year-old amputee was Toastmaster emcee for the North Raleigh club that turns introverts into speechmakers, stutterers into storytellers. With a desktop computer and Skype software, he led a roomful of gregarious backslappers a virtual moderator appearing only from the shoulders up.
For 60 straight minutes, Gabriel joked, you dont scratch your face. You dont pick your nose.
Since 1924, Toastmasters International has trained mumblers to speak with polish and enthusiasm, gently prodding them for rambling on too long or saying uh too much.
But they found a new challenge in Gabriel, who was fighting depression and loneliness after a four-month hospital stay, routinely falling down the stairs of his Wake Forest home. With Skype, the space-age software that works like a television phone call, they brought a shut-in out of his shell.
Out of 12,500 Toastmaster chapters worldwide, Gabriel is the first absentee host.
Usually, you shake hands with a Toastmaster, said Steven Rosenberg, one of the North Raleigh club founders. Thats what makes it so unusual.
A life in softball
Nearly 2 million people nationwide are missing a limb, according to the nonprofit Amputee Coalition. Of those, roughly 1 in 5 share Gabriels condition: a leg amputation above the knee.
But unlike Gabriel, more than half of all amputees lose a limb to vascular disease, and many of them die within five years of the operation.
Gabriel asked to have his right leg removed.
For 16 years, he tore up softball fields from New York to Las Vegas, playing 150 games a year at first and third base. He learned to play baseball growing up in Long Island, gravitating from sandlots to bar leagues to traveling softball teams with beer-gut sluggers who swung for the fences and often cleared them.
On those teams, Gabriel was often the only player who bothered to run the bases. He mimicked Pete Roses head-first slide, even while wearing shorts, even on diamonds spread with gravel. Often, his teammates had to pull the motel bed sheets off his knees once the blood had dried. He repaired his wounds with Liquid Band-Aid.
We wore our cuts and bruises like gladiators, he said.
This softball regimen came on top of his full-time jobs, ranging over his life from a bank teller to bicycle salesman to work at an electronics firm. He lost his job after his knee popped out of joint in 2005, leading to a year laid up in a full leg cast. He receives disability checks, but hes looking to work from home.
Today, Gabriel counts 49 knee operations. He had the right one replaced. When it got infected, doctors at Duke University planned to insert a rod in his leg, keeping it permanently extended. Gabriel considered a life without ever driving or playing golf. So in August of 2009, he wrote his doctor an email:
I want my leg taken off.
Relearning to live
No amputation is a cakewalk, the Amputee Coalition warns. But its harder above-the-knee than at the calf or foot. You need more energy. You lose your balance. Prostheses are more complex. Its hard to rise from a seated position. If you manage to drive again, you face new obstacles: seats that wont slide back, cars that park too close, sloping pavement when you step out of the car.
Some amputees manage to run marathons or ski. Some have their prosthetic legs air-brushed with colorful paintings. Gabriels leg features a Yankees insignia and Duke design. But hes fond of quoting Rocky, the underdog movie boxer, who explained that winning isnt how hard you can hit, but how many punches you can take and keep moving forward.
As an amputee, Gabriel trained as a rower and took a silver medal at a championship in Boston. He married his girlfriend, Melissa, whom he met while recovering at Duke. He learned to drive again, playfully turning his prosthesis upside down at traffic lights, frightening fellow drivers with the sight of his shoe at his chin.
But the real change, and a new frustration, came when a friend from church saw him speak about his amputation onstage at the Durham Performing Arts Center an event that honored some of Dukes most successful patients. The friend, also a Toastmaster, saw in Gabriel a new recruit.
I saw Toastmaster as a way of giving him something to hang onto, said Lee Tyler, the friend. I just saw him not being out and about like hed like to be. You spend some time around him, hes a gregarious guy from Long Island, pretty rough cut. I just saw something in him.
For his first speech, Gabriel told his life story. For his second, he talked about shark fishing, his old hobby. For his third, he talked about Looney Tunes characters, and how strange yet endearing it is that they all have verbal handicaps.
Thursday-morning meetings became a welcome distraction from his life as an amputee, a chance to be part of a crowd, to hear somebody applaud when he spoke. Hed spend all week preparing, writing and revising his speeches, asking to make one every meeting.
But his body couldnt take the meetings. He leaned heavily on the lectern, propped on his bad left leg. Worse, he imagined everyone focusing on his prosthesis rather than his words. His amputated leg, he thought, became too big a distraction for a Toastmaster. So he stopped going.
It took a few weeks before one of the clubs more tech-savvy members knocked on his door with the Skype idea. And it took some tweaking before Gabriels virtual face stopped looking blue on screen.
But after seven virtual speeches, he took his turn running the show from his upstairs study.
From the meeting room on Wake Forest Road, you could see his framed baseball hero pictures in the background: Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, Derek Jeter.
And you can see him speaking in crisp sentences, tie knotted at his chin, joking about the legs that are off camera.
As an amputee with one leg, he tells his fellow Toastmasters, if you accuse me of running on too long, thats the biggest compliment of all.
Shaffer: 919 829-4818