Life has a way of throwing you curveballs when you least expect it. At 27 years old, I was completely comfortable. I had assured a favorable position after eight years of college and was working as a Physician Assistant in acute care medicine in New Hampshire. I had a brand-new vehicle for the first time, met the man of my dreams, was in the best shape of my life doing CrossFit competitively, and had very little unmanageable stress. My family and friends were healthy; my bills were paid. I had a good groove. The universe was playing an easy tune; I carelessly danced to its rhythm. After years of sacrifice, I felt reassured that my projection for the future was on track after careful planning for so long. Enter: the curveball.
Calve discomfort and foot numbness increasingly occurred over the years, which I chalked up to needing new shoes, needing to eat more bananas, or to stretch more. I sought medical attention and, after a blood clot was ruled out, was diagnosed with a calf strain. Two years, thousands of dollars in medical bills and countless hours in testing later I was given a diagnosis by orthopedics of Exertional Compartment Syndrome: my calves were too big for the tissue they were contained in, and the treatment was surgery for both legs. Conservatively, I modified my activities to limit symptoms, hoping to avoid the knife. I stopped running and stopped exercising my calves, but the symptoms worsened. After the symptoms interfered with my ability to walk both my dog and the hospital halls at work, I went back to orthopedics. Serendipitously my mother had just had stents put in her leg arteries for similar symptoms, and upon reporting this to my doctor I was sent to a vascular surgeon who astutely diagnosed me with a very rare vascular disorder called Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome. I had genetic anatomy trapping the arteries and veins at the knee whenever my calves were engaged which, over time, had debilitatingly limited the flow of blood to my lower legs.
The diagnosis came a mere six months after meeting the man of my dreams in a CrossFit gym. As our love grew, my physical condition worsened. Soon, I had undergone eight surgeries to improve the blood flow to my left leg, but to no avail. They removed structures from my lower leg, fileted the connective tissue open to make room, and tried repeatedly to replace the arteries using vein from other places in my body. Nothing worked. I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without losing circulation to my foot. Everyday tasks like walking my dogs, working, or grocery shopping were impossible. I was on narcotics round-the-clock that left me in a haze. I had anxiety and depression and fear. My pill box was full, but my bandwidth was depleted. I had lost my identity altogether.
Just three weeks before my wedding, while getting ready for my bridal shower, my latest artery bypass popped open, causing me to internally hemorrhage. I was rushed to the hospital to undergo yet another bypass and missed my bridal shower. My disease had stolen wonderful memories and replaced them with nightmares. I remember lying in the hospital with my spouse-to-be considering putting off the wedding but, determined to have our day, we persevered. On October 10, 2015 I was able to hobble down the aisle and celebrated love with my closest friends and family. The honeymoon period was promptly interrupted by a failing graft and need for more urgent interventions to save my foot. A mere six months later, we were directed to a surgeon to consider amputation to regain quality of life. The reality of circumstances was crushing. I struggled to find any hope, knowing that we hadn’t even started interventions on my right leg. The prognosis was beyond devastating. I had been pulled so far from my center, I couldn’t remember who I was. I felt alone, misunderstood, and empty.
I became an amputee July 28, 2016 and immediately suffered complications that hindered healing. I had to have a full thickness wound debrided in the operating room. I was discharged home with a wound vacuum and crutches, only to find my husband had removed all of his things from our house. It was one day after our one-year anniversary and the last bit of carpet I was unsteadily standing on had been ripped away. I gave up. I laid in bed for three weeks avoiding phone calls, text messages and visitors. I lost twenty-one pounds of muscle because I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t get around my house because I didn’t have enough energy. I may have stayed that way if it weren’t for my best friend breaking into my home, finding me, and reminding me that only I could give away my own power.
A switch had been flipped. I began rewriting my story. I learned there was strength in vulnerability and I finally allowed myself to be helped. A local CrossFit gym opened their arms to me charitably and, just like that, I got a community and my physicality back. I started learning how to adapt things in the gym. I knew my mindset was starting to change when I had to undergo two subsequent revision surgeries on my amputated leg, thirteen total surgeries, and was less rattled with each operation. I learned the power of community and was so blessed to have wonderful people in my life willing to help pull me out of a very dark place. Most importantly, I learned that I could lend myself to others to help them suffer less than I had. I learned that life isn’t about having ten fingers and ten toes; it’s about developing inner constancy, building virtue in yourself, and being of service to the world.
2018 was a transformative year. I chose to simplify the year’s decisions using two questions to govern my choices: 1) Will I regret not doing this? 2) Will this help me help others? In following those two simple guidelines, the world opened up. Opportunities I never could have predicted presented themselves to me. I trained with Paralympic teams, won the CrossFit Adaptive Championship, got sponsors, and even moved to Texas to participate in a redefining program. The emotional weight had fallen off my chest and had allowed my wings to spread.
The space formerly occupying my grief was replaced with a sense of purpose. I created a 501(c)3 nonprofit, called Less Leg More Heart, to help the disabled population in critical ways. Using my medical training and patient experience, I constructed four pillars of operation: peer mentorship, medical advocacy, funding for holistic approaches to care, and funding for services in the home when someone is recovering from the hospital. The next amputee won’t lose further weight from lack of protein; we will provide supplements. The next trauma victim won’t wither when they leave rehab; we will provide continuity of care with a gym membership. The next patient won’t feel so alone, so lost for resources, so confused about medial jargon, so depressed and so unsure of their medical decision making; we will advise, consult, advocate and encourage. The next rock bottom will have a softer landing because we commit to be their cushion. Less Leg More Heart is committed to helping others realize sooner that you don’t need feet to leave your mark in this world.