This Story Was Originally Broadcast June 4, 2004.
Doug Forbis is accustomed to questions about his appearance. He handles them with aplomb, especially if they come from children.
"The adults … give me weird glances but they don't say anything, so I don't bother," Doug said. "But with the kids … I was at the mall one day, and this kid walks by me and says, 'Hey, Mommy, he cut his own legs off.' I almost fell out of my chair laughing … It's probably something I would have said when I was little."
Doug, 17, was born with sacral agenesis, which experts believe affects between one and five children out of 100,000 in varying degrees of severity. "Sacral refers to the spine and agenesis is the absence of," said Jean Brown, a registered nurse practitioner at the Shriner's Children's Hospital in Greenville, S.C. She's known Doug since his infancy. Simply put, it means that all or part of the lower section of the spinal column has failed to form.
Because Doug's condition was among the most severe, his legs were useless, and a doctor recommended they be amputated so Doug could learn to move without being hindered by them. The amputation was made high on his torso. His pelvis tilts beneath him, and sometimes gives the appearance that his body ends at his rib cage.
His arms extend beyond his torso, and he uses them to move acrobatically from place to place.
That is why his appearance is considered remarkable by people who see or meet him for the first time. He can be blunt about the questions he inevitably gets. Sometimes, he directs his pointed sense of humor at himself.
"I can get anywhere anybody can. And a lot of times I can get there quicker because I've got [a wheelchair]. I get good parking. I don't have to worry about shoes and socks. It's great. Everybody's like, 'I feel so sorry for you.' And I'm like, 'Why?' There's no reason to."
"What he doesn't have in a physical body, he makes up for with his intelligence and the heart of a lion," said his coach, Doug Kiley, an internationally known wheelchair athlete.
In fact, the intelligence and heart that won the respect of Kiley adds up to a rare kind of charisma that quickly becomes the focus of Doug's story, whether you find him on a basketball court, at a track meet, with his friends or with kids who fall under his influence within minutes of meeting him.
One of the ways in which he looks at life is through the catalog of song lyrics that he keeps in his head.
"My parents always hear my music and say, 'How can you listen to that crap? All they do is yell.' But I don't hear the yelling. I hear what they're yelling." Quoting a song by Linkin Park, he added, "I hear: 'In the end it doesn't even matter. The journey's more important than the end or the start.' And they may be yelling it, but that's a very valid point."
What Forbis has become — including the goals he will take with him to college next fall — wasn't what doctors had predicted on the day he was born in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1986. Instead, his parents were blindsided by the response of one physician.
"The first thing I remember [the doctor] saying to me … is, he just shook his head and said 'Bad, very bad,' said his mother, Alisa. "And that kind of sticks in my head, you know."