Ten years ago, I was travelling overseas with Steve (my husband) attending academic conferences. We had just arrived in the UK from Portugal on our way, via London, to Ireland where I was presenting the findings of my PhD. I research and teach in Inclusive/special education, and my PhD thesis was on the lived experiences of adults with dyslexia. We were heading into London and trying to decide whether to take the bus or train. We decided to take the bus. As we travelled along the M25 (commonly known as the ‘highway to hell’) the driver behind us lost control of her vehicle, came across the lanes behind us, and wedged underneath the back of our bus, which caused it to flip. My seatbelt became disconnected and all I can remember was being tossed around and feeling like I was in a concrete mixer. Finally, the bus came to a stop on its side. I was hanging out the window and apparently my left foot was scattered all over the M25. I had also lost part of my right hand, in addition to a range of other injuries.
At the time our kids were back home in NSW and we were in a hospital a long way away from home. I was told I would be there (in London) for a minimum of 3 months, but I set myself a big goal early on to get back home for my son’s ninth birthday – I wasn’t going to miss that. I think our brains do a lot more than we give them credit for and my whole philosophy while I was there was ‘laugh lots because laughing heals’ and ‘our brain can help us to heal’ – as a result I was told I was healing ‘too fast’, but I still made it home, 5 weeks later, for his birthday. Over the past 10 years I think my amputation has impacted my life in many positive ways that I never have imagined – the most important being re-evaluating the priorities in my life and appreciating how fragile life can be.
I was angry that the accident happened and that I couldn’t get to where I was going. I was angry with the driver of the car because I was the one that got the most injuries including my hands and my leg. But at the same time, I knew that there are some things that are in our control and some things that are out of our control; it’s a basic philosophy of life. The accident was out of my control, but I made the choice early on not to sit there in the doldrums thinking ‘why me?’ Negative thoughts lead to a negative life – who wants a mum/partner/friend like that? I remember the doctors bringing in some consent forms for additional operations and asking my husband to sign them on my behalf. I responded (in my drugged-out stupor), ‘no, I’ll sign the forms, give me a pen and put it in my mouth.’ So, I signed the papers to take control and be part of the process. I had the cognitive capacity to do so, and I wanted to make decisions for myself. I knew the importance of self-advocacy and its impact on mental health. I also wanted to protect Steve from any guilt or repercussions if surgeries etc did not go to plan. I think from the outset I accepted what had happened and simply needed to get on with it – this was just another chapter in my life.
Emotionally – humour and laughter. I never take myself too seriously and I always try to see the positive in everything. I’m always a glass half full kind of person. So, if something comes along that isn’t great, I’ll always try to turn it around. There are a lot of studies about the benefits of laughter. Surround yourself with people who also enjoy life and have positive influences on you. I hope this attitude, in some way, helped my family and friends to work through the trauma they experienced as a result of the accident.
I am really conscious of my physical state and I know I have to keep strong and healthy because if I don’t, I know I will lose my independence and mobility. Pain also becomes an issue if I don’t keep physically fit. I installed a heated swim spa, which helps me with my fitness and pain management. With the assistance of the NDIS I also have an exercise physiologist who I see twice a week – this has dramatically improved my prosthetic movement capacity. I play golf weekly and I’ve also taken up wheelchair basketball, which is hard work, and just recently joined a contemporary adult dance class! Before the accident, sport was a big part of my life. I loved sport and at an earlier age played at an elite level. When I lost my leg, all I thought was that I wouldn’t be able to run or play sport at the same level. I did, however, get back onto the hockey field 4 months after getting my first prosthetic leg – I became the ‘standing’ intimidatory backline. The first time I played wheelchair basketball, it was so incredibly exhilarating. It was really the first time, after the accident, I had physically pushed myself to the point that my heart was literally bursting out of my chest and that adrenaline rush came back. It encouraged me to get that upper body strength, which in turn has further assisted the stability of my legs.
My husband, Steve and my two kids, Hamish and Emilija. The accident really affected my kids, in particular my daughter who felt that she had to step in as a mother figure to her little brother, given initially we were on the other side of the world. Also, my amazing sister, Sue who was looking after my kids at the time. I have a couple of fabulous friends who were, and still are, fabulous for my emotional and physical health. They were always there when I needed them and they never wanted to do things for me, they wanted to do things with me. Yes, I’d lost a leg and other stuff, but I didn’t want special attention, I just wanted to get back quickly to enjoying life.
Find a community or outlet that you enjoy, or want to try, whether it’s a physical activity, cooking, book club or workplace activities. No one will worry whether you have one leg, two heads or whatever. That’s not the point, the point is to find something that you enjoy, people to engage with, and opportunities to be in an environment other than your own four walls. There are lots of communities of people with similar interests, for example golf. The amputee golf community is amazing. Sometimes you choose your friends, sometimes they just come along. With the amputee golf community, we have this amazing eclectic group of people at different stages in their amputee journey, with varying golfing skill levels and with a range of life experiences, which makes for a really vibrant and loving community because everyone cares for each other and respects each other’s quirkiness.
All sorts of things! I know a lot more about the medical system and how it works. I know how it works in the UK – that’s very interesting and I was pleasantly surprised. I knew a bit (about the medical system) prior to the accident, but as a patient, you discover all sorts of fascinating things. I learnt that I can bounce back from something so significant/life changing pretty quickly. I’ve known for a long time that I am fairly resilient. From personal experience, I just know that no one else is going to pick you up except for yourself. Shit happens in life. I’ve had a lot of shit happen in my life, but you can either let it compound and fester in a negative way and you can get into a real hole about it, or you can take responsibility and find strategies to increase your positivity and get on with life. No matter who’s around you, you are going to get support but in the end it’s up to you as to how you respond to that support and use it to your advantage.
Three things: 1. Become aware of your body and tune in to how it moves. Over the years, as a leg amputee, I have become more in tune with the impact of my prosthesis on my body. So, I realise when something is wrong, for example: if I have lower back pain, I know my leg needs adjusting – so I visit the prosthetist before the pain becomes worse or another body part starts to hurt. Having clear communication and a good working relationship with your prosthetist is really important. 2. If you’ve got a good support network, make sure you appreciate them. They put up with so much and you don’t know what’s going on underneath and how your trauma is affecting them, especially if you’ve got kids as they can’t often find the words to tell you how they are feeling. If you’ve got a supportive partner, they may internalise their pain in order to make you feel better. Remember that they need support too. 3. Someone said to me early on during my recovery phase: ‘You’re not at work so you may feel a loss of your sense of self-identity’. Their advice was: ‘Your rehab and your recovery are now your job, it’s not an added extra – you’ve got to look at rehab as your job now. And once you’ve completed that job then you can go to the next job whether it’s going back to work or doing something else. But during that period of time, that is your job.’ Ten years later my advice is, if you’re working full-time, part-time, retired, or just enjoying life, you still have an on-going job that is about maintaining your physical self - so eat well, make sure you’re exercising, and keep healthy.
My leg doesn’t define who I am, it’s just a part of who I am. If you don’t already … Go Commando (naked prothesis – no trousers/sleeves). I go commando all the time – not only can you show off your wonderful designs on your prosthetic, it is also a great conversation starter and increases awareness and inclusion of amputees in our communities I hear parents all the time telling their kids to be quiet when they say something about my leg, and I turn around and say it’s fine. I invite them over to have a look, have a feel and answer their inciteful questions. Educating people is one of the things that I think is really important – by being visible helps reduce people’s fear and general misunderstanding regarding disability.