Monday September 10, 2012
Getting on with life despite losing limb
By S.S. YOGA
Losing a limb altered one woman’s life, but it sure hasn’t kept her down.
IF you’re meeting this 41-year-old woman for the first time, you would probably have no clue that she was somebody extraordinary.
Yes, she might come across as a determined and strong individual. And seems cheery to boot. But Sheila N * (pseudonym) is no ordinary woman.
She has been through a lot. You see, Sheila uses a prosthesis below her left knee. And she’s been wearing one since she was nine!
On the fateful day of March 7, 1980, a Friday, at 11.59am, Sheila and her classmates got off the bus at school for the afternoon session. The bus had stopped in front of the zebra crossing and the children were instructed by the conductor to cross the road to get to school.
“I was ahead of the others and closer to the other side of the road. Suddenly my friends at that end frantically yelled at me to turn back, while my friends on the other side kept saying to keep on going. I was confused and turned back. And when I did, a 10-wheeler truck hit me and I somersaulted into the air and landed on the road. The truck then ran over me... and then reversed,” recalls Sheila calmly at her home in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
The accident happened in her hometown in Perak. Sheila recalls how a passer-by stopped and rushed her to the hospital. Her lower left leg was crushed so badly that it was hanging below her knee. Fortunately, the other leg and parts of her body were just bruised.
“At the hospital, they had to keep the leg, and so they tied it up and supported it with a piece of wood. My dad collapsed when he saw me. I was the youngest of five. He had no heartbeat, and the doctor had to leave me and attend to him instead.
“I knew this because the doctor told me later, and he was a student of my dad’s,” says Sheila, whose father was a chemistry teacher in the secondary school located across the road from her primary school.
She remembers some of the things that transpired that day but the rest was related to her by various people. She was taken by ambulance to the general hospital in Ipoh. There, the decision was made to amputate her leg, and the doctors decided to cut below the knee. The operation took about four hours.
“When I came to, the entire neighbourhood was there to greet me, from the postman to the newspaperman. I was the town vayadi (chatterbox),” says Sheila with a loud laugh.
As there was a big age gap between her and her siblings – her three sisters and a brother were away, either married or studying – none of them were at the hospital. She only saw them in stages months later.
But the students came in busloads to visit her, so much so that the nurses got quite irritated. Sheila only realised two days after the operation that her leg had been amputated.
“I had lost a tooth at the same time and was more preoccupied by that. But after two days, I tried to get off the bed and that was when they told me about it. I can’t remember my reaction but they told me I took it well,” says Sheila nonchalantly.
She remembers being tied-up because she had the tendency to forget about the stump and kept trying to get off the bed at night. After a month in hospital, Sheila returned home and spent time doing simple exercises under her dad’s watchful eye. She also had to go for physiotherapy at the hospital in the neighbouring town on alternate days.
“I missed the whole of Primary Three. I went back to school in Primary Four, and I think I coped. It must have been OK because I obtained one A and four B’s in the Primary Five exam.”
Sheila exercised diligently. It helped that her dad was a disciplinarian.
The family put in an application for a prosthesis for Sheila at the government hospital. In the interim, she was either carried around or used crutches.
But the family didn’t want to wait too long and headed down to Singapore where they got Sheila fitted with a fibreglass prosthesis.
This was a full six months after the accident. The prosthesis was paid for, thanks to a donation drive by her school, as well as contributions from the school her dad taught at.
Sheila had to have an operation done every two years after the accident, with the last one in 1989. The operations were for two reasons: either to remove the lump at the stump caused by fat and skin moving to one side, or to shave off the bone growth because she was still growing and “my bones followed the growth curve, as with any other child”.
After each operation, Sheila would have to spend some time recuperating. She also had to deal with rashes and blisters from using the prosthesis. The operations ceased as soon as the growth stopped and the stump hardened.
School was tough for her, initially. The friends who were with her on that fateful day stuck by her. They even had to go to court to testify against the truck driver.
“They revoked his licence, I think. Also that of the bus driver and the bus conductor. The bus driver tried to say that it was our fault for crossing the road.”
Initially, except among her circle of friends, Sheila was excluded from many activities.
“The kids would say things like ‘she can’t do it, she walks with a limp’. And I was afraid to ask to be included because I was worried about rejection,” Sheila says.
There was no name-calling, though. Sheila thinks this was because her dad was a teacher. And her dad and the primary school principal were good friends. In Primary Four, Sheila was given permission to wear pants. But the next year, she wore a pinafore like all the other girls but with a long sock. The long sock was part of her attire until Form One.
“In secondary school, all those students who had ignored me had accepted me by then.”
Sheila immersed herself not only in studies but also extra-curricular activities. She became a school prefect, a librarian and joined the Girl Guides. She even went on hikes – as long as the terrain was flat. She couldn’t cope with slopes or uneven grounds.
She played badminton and was even the goalkeeper in hockey, “though I can’t remember if I stopped any goals”.
The independent young woman decided after Form Five to go to Kuala Lumpur on her own for further studies. She stayed in a women’s hostel.
“I moved to Connecticut (in the United States) to continue the degree programme. My brother was about a couple of hours’ drive away in Massachusetts. I was there for three years plus. Eventually I came back to Malaysia.”
In KL, Sheila tried to find a stable job, taking on temporary jobs in the meantime. She was “headhunted” by an institute in 1997 and has been with them since. If you think she settled for a desk job, think again. It was marketing job that Sheila took on, and it entailed travelling a fair bit.
“At work, no one would know I had a prosthesis unless I told them. But I tell everyone, and they are so used to me now. I even remove my prosthesis when I’m at my desk, which is right in the middle of the office in full view of everyone. And when they want to rag someone new, they always use me as the prank,” says Sheila with a laugh.
Sheila modestly says there are other people with more severe disabilities who are more inspiring. “Sometimes I may think I am not capable of doing something, and then I see these people with no arms or legs who are much more capable than I am and they leave me awestruck.”
She says she has a problem accepting sympathy or even empathy from others, including her own family.
“I refuse to use this as an excuse for special treatment. So I hate it when someone treats me differently. I used to tell people off. Now I’m trying to be more diplomatic because I know they mean well.”
Last December, Sheila was fitted with a special prosthesis called the Jaipur foot. With this prosthesis, she can jump, walk tippy-toe, sit in a lotus position; use a slipper and walk with more stability – everything she couldn’t do before.
Sheila’s advice to others who might be coping with a loss of a limb or more?
“Life is full of challenges. Always think positive and be determined, and you can accomplish a lot of things in life. Never give up, have faith and always believe in yourself.”
Acceptance is the key