In 1983, I fell asleep while driving and slammed into a concrete abutment. The only memory I have of the wreck was seeing both of my legs pushed over my right shoulder. The damage was catastrophic: My ankles were pulverized, every bone from the waist down was broken (one surgeon counted nearly 200 fractures), and several of my organs were damaged.
After lying in a coma for three weeks, I awoke to a new life of constant pain, loss, and brutal challenges. I was only 17 years old. I felt terrified, heartbroken, and overwhelmed.
Following dozens of surgeries, as well as physical therapy, I learned to walk again. After getting married, I defied the odds and brought two wonderful sons into the world. I used a cane for a while, but as time went on, it became too painful to bear weight on my legs, and I started using a scooter.
Deciding to Amputate
But some things just can't be fixed, and the damage to my feet and ankles led me to a horrifying but inevitable decision: I had my right leg amputated in 1991 and the left amputated in 1995. Although it was the correct decision medically, when I pulled the sheets back and saw what was left of my legs, I wondered, "How can I live like this?"
I took that despair and rammed it into a passion to live large. Stepping into the world of high-tech prosthetic limbs, I not only learned to walk, but learned to snow ski -- on advanced slopes. More important, letting go of my legs allowed me to step into an amazing life journey.
Pushing for Better Prosthetics
In 2003, I began speaking and performing at events at military bases around the country. In 2005, my husband, Peter, and I established the nonprofit Standing With Hope to help amputees in developing countries. We launched the program in Ghana, West Africa, where many people are amputees. There, amputation is the first resort in a medical crisis, not the last, yet few can afford the price of good prosthetics. Today anyone in Ghana, from members of parliament to people who live in the streets, can get a state-of-the-art prosthetic device. (My policy is to not put a limb on anyone that I'm not willing to wear myself.) We also train local technicians to make prosthetics for their own people. We trained a team in Togo this fall.
I have endured 71 operations and still live with extreme pain, but I now know there is life on the other side of amputation. Some things in our lives can become so badly damaged that it literally cripples us to keep them. In my case, letting go of my legs allowed me to get where I am today, living an active life full of meaning and purpose. Just because you're missing some parts doesn't change who you are. In fact, it may bring out who you truly are.