I Am Very Sorry, Segway Stroller Lady

You might remember this post three years ago in which I laughed at a woman on a Segway pushing a baby stroller for being lazy. Well, I'm a giant arsehole and I want to apologise to Melissa Hofstetter. I'm sorry Melissa.

It'd be easy to extrapolate the cause of the events to lay blame on it being standard internet behaviour, general anonymous jerkitude and looking for a cheap laugh instead of actually looking into a subject and finding out what really happened. But no - this one's all on me. Apologies Melissa.

Here's the story: Melissa is a 15-year cancer survivor who lost her left leg to the illness. She started using the Segway as an assistive device because it's both manoeuvrable and because she has difficulty walking, especially on hilly areas. It also allows her to be in the standing position and look people in the eyes during conversations and be mobile in ways that wheelchairs are not.

The photo came to be when she was visiting her family in Seattle a few years back, helping take care of her grandniece while her grandnieces parents were busy. Someone - no idea who - took a photo of this and put it on the internet. It spread quickly, as unique images are apt to do. Here's a better photo of her taken at about the same time, with the same cute little girl.

Again, apologies Melissa. If it wasn't for your kind nephew Joshua, I wouldn't have known that there was an actual, legitimate reason behind the photograph and would have kept on happily being a dick, thinking that it was a lazy woman on a Segway.

And thanks to Josh, an actual cancer specialist, here's a more detailed background of what happened to Melissa. By all accounts, she's an awesome lady.

Melissa was diagnosed with mesenchymal chondrosarcoma (a cancer in the sarcoma family) in 1995. At the time she had 3, 5 and 9 year-old kids and was given a 50%, 5-year survival probability. She endured several months of chemotherapy aimed at shrinking the tumor which was unsuccessful so she ultimately underwent an above the knee amputation. After a slow learning curve, she now ambulates efficiently with a prosthetic leg. Her husband saw how much she struggled to keep up and travel longer distances, frequently developing sores on her stump when travelling longer distances. In 2001 he purchased a Segway for her as a personal mobility device. With the help of good doctors and a little luck, she has remained cancer free and traveled the world with her Segway, never letting her disability get in the way. The Segway has been around the world with her and allowed her to be an active part of her kids (and extended family's) lives, never making her the rate limiting factor.

I have a particular interest in this topic as my aunt's experience led me to the field of orthopaedic oncology and allows me to now care for young people like her with cancer. I was actually in training at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer centre and SCCA while we were living in Seattle. These young people who have undergone major tumor resections with or without limb salvage are certainly a minority when it comes to people with disabilities. i have experienced this first hand with my aunt when someone yells at her for taking a handicapped parking space or teases her for using her Segway to navigate a mall. 80 year-olds in wheelchairs are not the only people with disabilities, as our young veterans returning form Iraq and Afghanistan without their limbs would attest to. Increased awareness and acceptance is always needed.

If you search the ADA and Segways, you will see that people like my aunt have actually been pioneers in the use of this novel device for improving their quality of life. The original ADA language was created in 1992 and only included 3 and 4-wheeled devices as the concept of a 2-wheeled device was still years away from reality. The reason she was pushing my daughter across the street in the given picture was that she was going to the grocery store to get food for dinner. This person who 12 years prior had been given a 50/50 chance of survival, had traveled to seattle by herself, was babysitting her grand-niece while my wife and I, who are both physicians, were working and then had dinner ready for us when we got home. To me this is a pretty remarkable story and a more remarkable person.

Here is a more recent photo of Melissa with her family at Thanksgiving 2009.

Again, sincere apologies to Melissa and Melissa's children and Josh, plus anyone else I've offended with the original post. If you're one of the millions of people who forwarded on the original image in its various incarnations on the internet to your friends for a chuckle, it might be good to show them this explanation. Who knows, it might make the internet a better place to remember that the people in photos are actually people. [Thanks Joshua!]

Illustration by Sam Spratt. Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.



    I too laughed without knowing the story. I'm Sorry! Glad to see a Segway is being used for great purpose!

    Nice one Jason... great to see you admit you were an ass... Well done.

    I smell litigation - was this the result of any defamation lawsuits?

      lol, there's always one conspiracy theorist.

      Kudos Jason, for the apology. Now let's all remember that famous line from Under Siege 2; "Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups".

      I remember the original post, and admit to having a laugh. There weren't any comments on it at that stage, as I would have remembered those first few. They called her fat??? She doesn't even remotely look large! I bet we won't see an apology from any of them.

    A journo admitting they were wrong...the internets is about to explooode

      Whatever you do, don't cross the streams!

    Thanks for having the guts to make the apology.
    As a 50 year old who, because of a nasty back injury can only get about by using a "mobility scooter" I can only begin to imagine what this brave young woman has been through. I feel embarrassed enough, let alone someone of her age having to use the scooter.
    I've always thought that the Segway would be a perfect vehicle for some disabled people and this goes to show that it is.
    Melissa, you are an inspiration!

    I've often found Giz journos to be a cut above the rest in terms of humanity, nice to see this article and to learn a bit more about the use of that kind of tech for the disabled in the process of you admitting you were a dick :)

    I know it's tedious and slow, but journos can avert this kind of thing before it happens by checking their facts. Thankfully an old fashioned apology.

      And, sadly, an all-too-rare apology...

      It seems now that many media outlets have changed the motto from "It's better to ask forgiveness than seek permission" to "It's better to pretend mistakes never happened than admit fault".

      So Kudos to Giz & Jason for owning up on this one, and providing a valuable public service by raising awareness. From memory, this sort of use is one that was envisioned for the Segway right from the start. I guess cost is what's stopping more disabled people from using it.

    10 points for having the nuts to man up an apologise. I'm impressed.

    Well done Jason for apologising publicly and helping to spread the word that people in those weird images we all see online are real live humans and not necessarily happy to be laughed at.

    Media sites need to be particulary careful in spreading these sorts of images without checking facts since they have such a large audience.

    On a side note but somewhat related, I watched a foreign language film a few nights ago called Ben X. A story about a teenage guy (an online gamer) with Aspergers syndrome and how the internet and camera phones (posting of bullying videos online) can have a devastating effect on a person's life. Check it out if you havent already, quite an interesting movie. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0953318/

    but did you actually call her to apologise or just post a lame apology through the web?

    As a former Segway employee who developed distributors in all of Asia and Latin America I am not surprised that this mobility device has had many usages borderline with medical devices (although it was not supposed to be due to costly certification) but I have had several customers with various forms of debilitating mobility issues that found freedom while gliding on an HT. Their faces changed, it was incredible! No other device in the world still today can do this.
    Apologies are good within the context of the nature of this issue. I still see a larger popolous adding strollers and trailers for other purposes which defeat the two non-tandem self balancing technology. What's wrong with a side bag?
    Anyway I am happy Melissa has found a way to be mobile and keep up with her loved ones. 3 cheers to her!

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