In May 2015, I underwent surgery to amputate my left leg below the knee. This was because of poor circulation and extreme diabetic neuropathy pain in the foot: after the third leg artery bypass in three years had stopped working I was out of options. Pain management was the only other alternative, but merely existing from one pain pill to the next is no way to live. I chose amputation because at least there is the possibility of walking again and leading a reasonably normal life.
After a week of post-op recovery, I was transferred to the rehabilitation (rehab) centre. What a difference! It was almost like being in a hotel – the room was spacious, the view fantastic, and compared with hospital the food was cordon bleu! The physio and occupational therapists (OT) got me working right away. First I had to learn how to hop and balance on one leg, without falling over. My main initial goal was to get from the bed to the bathroom in the middle of the night, using the wheelchair and a walker, without having to call a nurse. It’s incredible how much that little bit of independence mattered to me. All the other challenges seemed insignificant after that – and there were several.
Unfortunately, while I was making good progress with the exercises and manipulating the wheelchair, the wound was not closing over. It became infected, with the result that I had to go back to hospital at the end of June for more surgery. This time they amputated above the knee, as there was too much necrosis in the lower leg. After two more weeks of post-op recovery in the hospital, they transferred me back to Providence again.
If ever there was a low point in my recovery, it was when I came to after the operation and realized that an above-knee amputation is a very different kettle of fish from a below-knee. For one thing, I had to learn all over again how to balance; for another, it would be much harder to use a prosthetic device. Apparently it is ten times harder to adapt to an above-knee prosthesis than a below-knee one. On the plus side, I no longer needed a special wheelchair with a pull-out tray to support what was left of the leg, I could manage with a regular wheelchair.
I christened the stump ‘Jaws’ at first, because the stitches looked just like a shark’s teeth. But after a while the stitches faded, so now it looks more like a baby beluga. It has healed over beautifully, so the danger of another infection has passed. Whenever the ‘phantom’ pain strikes – and it’s nothing like as bad as the pain I used to have before surgery – I massage the stump and tell it over and over “You are now the end of my leg, you are now my foot”. This will hopefully reprogram my brain to stop sending signals like pins and needles to the foot that no longer exists.
Coming home in August was bliss. Despite unforeseen pitfalls, like not being able to get the wheelchair through any of the bathroom doors and falling over furniture, it was a delight to be in my own space and able to do things at my own pace. It was only possible thanks to my long-suffering husband (who well deserves a “Caregiver of the Year” award). It took a while to adjust to the fact that everything – dressing, getting into the car, loading the wheelchair – takes twice as long as it used to take, so we were often late for appointments, but we always got there in the end.