When something is wrong, you might imagine the worst possible outcome. You think these terrifying thoughts but on some level know that it will never happen. But then, suddenly, it happens, and your world spins into a fog of fear. That’s what it was like when I woke up in the hospital with most of my right leg gone.
I had been having problems with my leg for a long time. In fifth grade neighbors noticed I was limping. It turned out that I had a bone collision in my right ankle that required surgery. In total I spent nine months in hard or soft casts, and almost three months on crutches after surgery. It was supposed to heal without any problems, but I got tendinitis and had to do physical therapy for months to learn to walk properly again.
A month after I graduated from physical therapy, my family and I went on an amazing trip to Wyoming. The trip was filled with hiking, new food and cultural activities, shopping, and touring Yellowstone National Park. On the last day, I got a massive migraine. It was so bad that I couldn’t see straight and walking and moving made me cry. The first few hours of the drive home I tried to sleep away the pain, only to find that my migraine was the least of my problems. I started to notice pain in my foot. My foot was pale and cold, with purple and red spots dotting my skin. The pain was awful – raw and constant. When we finally stopped at a hotel for the night, I took more pain killers than was probably recommended, and still couldn’t sleep because of the endless pain.
After a visit to the emergency room and multiple appointments at a nearby hospital in Kansas City, I was diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome, which basically means the nerves in my brain and my foot weren’t connecting right. My foot was trying to find my brain by sending out pain signals as it looked for a response.
I started freshman year of high school eager to get back to a schedule and see friends, but the year didn’t go as I (or anyone) had planned. The pain got worse no matter what I did. Acupuncture, pain killers, light shock therapy, spinal cord implants of steroids, and even mental tricks to help my mind reconnect all failed to help.
By March I was ready to cut my foot off to make the pain go away. I was bullied at school by those who thought I was faking the pain to get attention. When I finally resorted to crutches because I couldn’t put weight on my foot, kids tried to trip me and hit my foot. They couldn’t understand my ailment because they couldn’t see anything wrong with my foot.
Almost a year after the family trip, I was hospitalized and given an epidural to pump painkillers into me so I could continue physical therapy. But the doctors found something unexpected: I didn’t have chronic pain syndrome after all; I had two large blood clots, one clogging an artery in my upper leg, and one in my foot. They had built up during the year, slowly cutting off blood circulation and causing the pain. The doctors decided to do surgery immediately to remove the largest clot, hoping that once that blood flow was restored, the other clot would shrink, fixing the problem.
My first surgery was on a Tuesday but I don’t remember anything until Friday when they woke me a bit, but not enough so I could really feel the pain. They told me that something unexpected had happened. Removing the arterial clot hadn’t fixed the one in my foot; it had made it worse. By that point my foot was black, dead.
In order to save my life, they had to amputate my leg above the knee, or the blood might travel through my blood stream and clog other parts of my body, including my heart, which would be fatal. I won’t lie and say I took it like a fighter. I sobbed and screamed with the little energy I had and finally was put back under.
I didn’t fully wake up until Sunday, finally able to eat again. I was overwhelmed in the best possible way by family and friends all of whom arrived with smiles and encouraging words. I couldn’t look at my stump at first. I refused to cry at first, telling myself that I had to accomplish a few things before I would sink into my pit of sorrow.
On the second day I stood and used a walker to hop to a chair. On the third I went up and down the hall. Only then did I cry, realizing that I would never be my old self, but rather that a lot of things would be either really hard or impossible for me. I cried for the long months of pain when I thought it was my fault that I couldn’t reconnect my nerves. I cried because of the way people treated me when they thought I was faking. I cried for my horrible freshman year.
But I refused to give up. Two months after my leg was amputated, I got fitted for a prosthetic. On average, it takes three months to learn to walk, slide, turn, navigate stairs and ramps, and balance with one. But I didn’t have three months; I had three weeks until school started, so the first day I got my new leg, I walked with it on crutches, and the next day I walked into physical therapy with just a single crutch. I climbed stairs that second day too. By the time school started, I could walk and climb stairs without crutches. I wanted to blend in as much as possible, and all the effort paid off until I realized how much walking was necessary at school. The first few months were awful because my stump hurt constantly and at school there wasn’t time to rest or anyplace I could pop off my prosthetic.
Nevertheless, I adjusted and lived as normal a life as possible. In November I got a part in the school musical. In May I got my running blade and started dancing and running again. Over the summer, when I wasn’t working at a grocery store I was working out in Zumba and yoga classes and managed to lose 25 pounds that I had gained when I wasn’t able to do much. I learned how to drive with my other leg and got my license.
I live my life now loving the feeling of accomplishment I get from learning how to do something. Giving up isn’t an option for me; I might have to learn how to do everything again, but at least I am able to. I could have died on the operating table, but I didn’t.
Yes, I am missing a part of myself that I can never get back, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the same person who wants the same things. I can be that person who steps up and faces challenges, inspiring others to do the same.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.