I was eleven-years-old and the ‘sporty’ child in a family of four children when I fell from a train at Sutherland Station, just past the end of the platform. My left foot was mangled in a turning wheel. The accident didn’t make me who I am today - but I wouldn’t be ‘me’ without it.
In the days following the accident I was told that, unless I got gangrene, the foot was saved; but I’d never walk again. From that moment, I was determined to prove them wrong. It took six months of gruelling physiotherapy to walk again, but walking was forever restricted.
I grew up in a Sydney suburb adjacent to the Royal National Park and loved bushwalking and sport. Those days were over. My foot would never again meet my demands upon it. My foot couldn’t physically cope with attending school and I completed the majority of high school by correspondence.
Around me I felt there was little understanding of the complex impacts of trauma. I felt isolated and battled for years with feelings of denial, anger, grief and loss; not understanding (as I do now) that one can never truly understand situations unless one has had the same experience oneself.
After three years of rehabilitation and repeated hospitalisation for infections and plastic surgery my Orthopaedic Surgeon recommended amputation, saying I would live a more normal life. It was impossible to imagine being separated from my foot. I was terrified, feared the unknown, and refused.
The years that followed saw me frequently hospitalised with infections or surgery; pain was a constant companion. The legacy of the accident changed the course of my life. My foot was like an active volcano, always rumbling away and sometimes erupting. Months and months accumulated into years and years of hospital stays for unrelenting infections which were suspected to be osteomyelitis. Chronic ulcers stubbornly refused to heal - the foot was covered in skin grafts. I had surgery for decades to come.
On the October, long-weekend in 2011, almost forty-three years after the accident, I decided to investigate amputation. All that year, and most of the previous, I’d battled severe infection. My husband was doing all the shopping, cooking, everything. All I could physically manage was to go to work and sit. My foot had whittled my life and health away.
Medical investigations queried chronic osteomyelitis and I had seven weeks of IV antibiotics at home. During that time, I consulted a Rehabilitation Specialist, an Orthopaedic Surgeon, a Vascular Surgeon and a Prosthetist. The Prosthetist reignited my hopes when he said I’ll be able to hike further. I had never lost my desire to be able to hike again.
I searched for information and found the Limbs 4 Life website. I called and had a long conversation with Melissa Noonan, who sent me information and gave me references on elective amputation. My Rehabilitation Specialist gave the name of a Peer Support Volunteer and encouraged me to meet her.
I weighed up so many things. It was a hard time. Once I’d gathered and considered as much information as I could I felt there was only one thing to do; I booked a date for surgery in January 2012.
Without peer support, my two months wait for surgery would have been hard; I didn’t know what to expect or how hard it was to have a prosthetic leg.
As I listened to my Peer Support Volunteer share her experience of day to day life as an amputee, I began to count the days down to surgery as if it marked the start of a positive new beginning. I could see how well she coped and I became confident. Before surgery, my Rehabilitation Physician advised me to have counselling throughout the decision-making and surgical process. As a Clinical Social Worker, I had regular Clinical Supervision and I worked through the issues in those sessions. I think my supervisor was concerned how happy and excited I felt because I’d finally given myself permission to let my foot go.
After surgery, I was prepared for a backlash to strike, for depression to kick in. It didn’t. One day, in the rehab hospital, I realised that I’d done my grieving a long time ago – it cast a pall on my teenage years.
Even so, I was not prepared for the emotional change when my new leg arrived and I started to walk again.
I became happy, energised. I had my goals firmly in sight: to be able to walk around our farm, walk in Sydney when I visited our children, to travel, and to start hiking again. My goals motivated me to work hard.
In just under five weeks post-surgery, my new leg arrived. It took time to build tolerance to wearing my prosthesis, it was hard work, but from the first day I wouldn’t let it out of my sight. By the time I arrived home I was walking with only the aid of a stick, and quickly gave that away within a few weeks. I was like a kid with a new toy; I didn’t want to take the leg off at night, and I no longer had pain. It was time to start walking, and I worked on a program developed with a physiotherapist who supported me over several months. On day one I walked 200m and that proved to be a lot of hard work. I gradually increased week by week until I could walk further and further and started hiking again.
Setbacks struck hard a few months after I reached a goal of hiking eight kilometers. The skin broke down on the stump and it took over a month to be able to use my leg again. There are always frustrations and setbacks in all rehabilitation; the path onward and upward is never in a straight line. In the early days progress seemed slow. I was still working, and noticed my energy levels were easily depleted.
With the setback, doubts arose. I began to question myself and my dreams. Will I achieve my goals? Will I be able to travel? Do I have the stamina to go flat out all day, every day as travelling demands? What if it is always as hard as it is now? Will I be worse off than I was before?
Those fears settled once I was wearing my prosthesis again. Without the support, I received from the amputee community my adjustment to amputation could have been a lot harder. Whatever comes our way, the traumas or illnesses or challenges, I have always believed it helps to have a sense of belonging - to know we are not alone, to be informed and to advocate for systemic changes to meet our needs.