Iíve heard it said many times that sometimes you have to lose to win. Over the last year, that has been my greatest lesson as a healthier amputee on wheels. I was born with spina bifida and use a wheelchair full-time. Then, life threw me acurve ball at the end of 2009. My body's battle with invading infection from a non-healing wound on my left foot resulted in some tough decisions.
Once the wound decided it wouldn't heal, I ended up with a bone infection. Amputation was hinted at as it had been many times before, but I rejected that when strong antibiotics fought off the bone infection. By 2008, when it wasn't healing much, if at all, I got yet another wound care specialist's opinion.
My husband and I worked together every evening for months cleaning the wound, redressing it and going to regular wound care clinic appointments. It was my philosophy that, even if my legs didnít work, I came into this work with ten fingers and toes. I was darn well going to leave this world with them intact. I rejected amputation early on when old-fashioned doctors who believed it wasnít worth the trouble on even a small, less invasive wound. I still rejected the possibility when the wound got really bad.
But by 2009, things looked worse than ever. The latest wound care doctor was the best Iíd ever encountered, but even he became less and less hopeful. He never forced the idea of amputation on me, but somehow I knew. After a lot of prayer, support from my husband and family, I knew it was time to consider another course. There was a bigger battle at stake. For all the infections I had exposed myself to in this sensitive hole in my foot, God knows what the next infection, or the next one after that, would do to me. The antibiotics were becoming less and less effective and my immune system was to the point that the slightest cold dragged me down longer than before. I was on bed rest the first part of 2009 with infections before getting off bed rest and going to this latest wound care doctor.
When I finally point blank asked the doctor what he thought of amputation as an option, would the wound ever heal, his look and answer was a sock in my gut. I was getting a few new skin cells in the wound bed, but to its core it wasnít healing. Weíd done all we could to this point. It was me or my foot. I chose me and the rest of my life.
So, Iím going to be an amputee, I thought. I said it aloud a few times just to try it on for size. I was fine at first, then melted into tears. I went through a period of twisted jokes and laughter that surprised me to the point I felt I was crazy. I ran all the possibilities through my head. I wrote a letter goodbye to my foot, talked to my leg and foot when I bathed or rewrapped the wound. Still, amputation wasnít the end of all this turmoil. Iíd have a brand new wound. My doctor assured me it would heal. It may take a while, but not as long as the infected crater in my left foot.
The doctor and I went back and forth about a date. How about around Thanksgiving? No, I want to be grateful with family, not by the light of a hospital room with an IV in my arm, I told him. How about around Christmas, he offered again. No, I donít want to open presents in a hospital bed, I countered. He offered up New Years. No, I am NOT ringing in 2010 with frazzled nurses on the night shift. So, he finally cornered me with the week after New Yearís Day, January 8, 2010. I had no excuses. Someone joked it was Elvisí birthday. I could have a blue suede orthopedic shoe made for my right foot. It was funnyÖand it wasnít.
I asked about the surgery. He drew a rough sketch of the procedure. My legs are atrophied from lack of use, so the blood vessels are thin like a childís. In order to promote the best blood flow and to get away from a bend where circulation would be compromised, he suggested just above my knee where the flesh was more ample and the blood pathways the widest for optimal healing. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me again. I was going to lose most of my lower leg. I wasn't prepared for that.
I contacted all the amputee support groups I could find online and researched organizations for amputees and people facing limb loss. If I was going to be in a room full of veterans and elderly folks, okay, just get me through this. I bonded with some other amputees, discovering they are of all ages. Their stories were varied, not just war stories and diabetes tales. We were as different, yet as alike, as snowflakes. And I was going to be okay, really.
Post-surgical recovery went well and fast! When it was time to go home after eight days in the hospital, my husband and I worked at getting me dressed. I spread my pants out across the bed and we gingerly moved my legs still hooked up to medical tubing into the pants. The empty, flat space of my pants leg spread across the bed on my left side tilted my focus. I shook all over and wept. My leg was gone and that was not okay with me. The nurse left the room quickly so I could compose myself with my husband in private. My husband assured me I was whole no matter what and loved me with or without my leg. I knew that, but hearing it meant the world to me. Once composed, I was ready to go home. I couldnít touch the space where my leg once was or look down, but I could definitely smell the hospital smell on my body through my body lotion. But as off as that was, it was better than the odor of infection that had begun to wash over me before the amputation. The contrast was stunning.
I endured weeks on a wound vac system to keep infection down and the wound healing constant. Home nursing care came three times a week for a couple of monts and physical therapy twice a week. Carefully, I got to know how to move again as my weight shifted with a leg and a half during transfers. I still forget the lack of a long leg on my left side. Itís lighter weight throws me forward a bit in transfer, so Iím learning to be more careful so I don't fall. I'll adapt.
Through all the grief and changes, I have no regrets. Becoming an amputee has made me healthier, initiated me into another disability experience, widened my reach as a disability life coach, and helped me put into perspective what's really important. Beyond the blank space on my left side, Iíve learned to laugh about the loss, appreciate my faith, wondered why I didnít do it sooner to save my health. I'm appreciative of the challenges that brought me here and thankful for more time with my husband and family. I am more aware of my body than ever before, what it means to feel good, and not just assume old age is creeping in.
And my right foot? No, thereís no blue suede shoe to commemorate Elvisí birthday, but thereís a new custom orthopedic ankle boot on my right foot to keep it protected from bumps and scrapes, with a bit of a feminine heel. This bootís made for, not walking (thanks Nancy Sinatra!), but kicking through another one of lifeís obstacles. 2011 is another year of experiencing another layer of my life with disability, but healthier and freer.