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Why Leg Amputation Changed My Life for the Better

September 2015

At the age of 23 I was in almost perfect health and finishing my senior year at UCSD and preparing to graduate and go to medical school in Houston in the fall. But I had a nagging pain in my calf, like a Charley horse that hurt whenever I walked between the Muir and Revelle Campuses at school. I finally went into the student health center. I thought it was stress. They were immediately alarmed and I was swooped away to angiography because they could not find a pulse below my groin and my foot was cold to the touch.

Just before shooting the dye into my groin artery, the radiologist told me there were only six women in his class, and only two finished because the rest had nervous breakdowns. Seconds later I stopped breathing due to the fire filling my body. “Oh, sorry,” he said, “I forgot to tell you it might burn.” It was the beginning of careless medical care that would leave my leg with such severe nerve, muscle and bone damage, 25 surgeries would not repair it. To this day I wonder if those old ex-Navy docs wanted to keep one more woman out of medicine.

Now my left leg is one inch shorter than the right, severely pronated or rotated to the left. Both my ankle joint and my subtalar joint are fused and can no longer bend, causing pain in the rest of my body as I attempt to walk with no capacity to bend at the ankle. But none of this mattered to the doctors. They consented to do the amputation because the bypass graft I had in 1986 finally failed. I defied the odds by keeping the graft this long, but those surgeries were horrible to recover from.

After each bypass, which took almost eight hours due to the amount of scar tissue from the first surgery, complicated by compartment syndrome, it was not correctly diagnosed when I arrived in Houston three months later and required precise and long dissection. The surgeon said he had never seen such damage from this type of post-op injury. I spent a couple of days amid noise and light in the ICU because of the prolonged anesthesia, and it took almost three months for my surgical wounds to heal. I went through this twice. I am not doing it again.

Sometimes things are broken beyond repair and the most loving thing is to let it go. Fortunately, prosthetic limbs have come a long way since I was 23. I am basically healthy, so while there is a risk my surgery will not heal, I stand a good chance of making a rapid recovery and moving on to be able to walk again without the continued stress on the rest of my body my current leg is causing.

I personally do not know who ever thought fusing an ankle would ever help anyone. My health has only gone downhill since the first of three fusions in the late 80s. I could no long drive a stick shift or walk up and down San Francisco hills. I would strongly discourage anyone considering an ankle or subtalar fusion from proceeding. The disruption to walking is profoundly harmful and the whole body is impacted.

As I count down to these last days with my leg, I take each step with gratitude for how hard we have fought together. I am aware each time I step on grass it will be the one of the last times it squishes under my left foot. I will do one more pedicure before I have to remove my nail polish for surgery. Perhaps I’ll shave my leg on last time. Some form of ritual purification and release.

I would like to be able to take my leg and burn it in a ceremonial fire, but I know the hospital will not allow it. I guess I will burn photos or left shoes as I release my dreams for this leg that never materialized and move on.

April 2018

I am two-and-a-half years post op now. I am back to work at a job I love. I am reconnected with life. I can walk with a prosthetic and without a cane better than before my surgery. I do yoga, Pilates and dance. If I can improve my balance, there is an Aikido dojo that will work with me. The pain is not completely gone, but I can manage it and the strongest thing I take is aspirin. I encourage anyone with a traumatic ankle injury to consider this a potential option. Sometimes the only answer is to let go.

This story originally appeared on Catheryn’s blog.