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World-class care, ‘brilliant women’ and family help Bushra Saeed-Khan adjust to new normal with prosthetic leg

‘I'm fully indebted to The Ottawa Hospital,’

says Canadian injured in blast

Bushra Saeed-Khan plays with her daughter. HANDOUT

By Marlene Habib

World-class care, ‘brilliant women’ and family help Bushra Saeed-Khan adjust to new normal with prosthetic leg

Over the past 12 years, Bushra Saeed-Khan has tackled challenge after challenge after suffering traumatic injuries in an explosion in Afghanistan while on a Canadian diplomatic mission in 2009, undergoing a leg amputation, and then giving birth to her “miracle baby” two years ago.

Through it all, Saeed-Khan had the unwavering support of The Ottawa Hospital, where the foreign affairs official underwent life-saving surgery and vital rehabilitation before realizing her dream of motherhood.

“The Ottawa Hospital has been such a big part of my life for years, and a great resource for me in so many different ways when it comes to my physical and mental health,” Saeed-Khan, 36, says from the Ottawa home she shares with her husband, Adil Khan, and their daughter.

“The first couple of years [after the explosion], I did not like talking about it at all,” says Saeed-Khan. “It’s now much easier talking about it when you’re outside the hospital and can focus on the more positive aspects … the recovery and how far I’ve come.

“I’m fully indebted to The Ottawa Hospital.”

Saeed-Khan doing rehabilitation at The Ottawa Hospital after her leg was amputated.HANDOUT

Saeed-Khan, born in Ottawa, and her two Montreal-born sisters were raised by their Pakistani immigrant parents to strive for higher education and a career. Saeed-Khan earned a degree in International Development and Globalization in 2007. She’s since served various roles with Global Affairs Canada.

After two years of inpatient and outpatient care at The Ottawa Hospital, Saeed-Khan returned to work in late 2012. Since her maternity leave ended in June 2020, she’s been back on the job as a senior advisor in the Intelligence Policy and Programs Division.

The explosion that changed Saeed-Khan’s world occurred Dec. 30, 2009 in Kandahar. She was only 25 years old and just two months into her year-long diplomatic mission working on policy-related issues, including border management, reporting on local populations, and a program to counter the opioid trade.

Along with Canadian journalist Michelle Lang and eight soldiers, Saeed-Khan was in one of two light-armoured vehicles returning to the military base from a routine patrol when their LAV ran over an improvised explosive device (IED).

Saeed-Khan recalls hearing a loud boom as the explosion sent the LAV into the air. It landed upside-down. The petite foreign affairs official and four soldiers survived. Still inside the vehicle, she blacked out briefly, then awoke to find herself pinned down by a heavy metal object. Despite the shock and terror, and her mind racing — including worrying about her family — she put into action the hostile-environment training diplomats receive before missions.

“There was a bunch of metal mesh or debris on my face, so I cleaned it out,” she recalls. “I checked to see whether my limbs and eyesight were functioning. I quickly realized I couldn’t feel my legs ... I kind of accepted it and moved on.”

Fearing she was a “sitting duck” for the insurgents who planted the IED, she started crawling toward the LAV’s open door. That’s when she discovered part of her right leg had been detached and her abdomen had been badly injured.

I started yelling for help. … Eventually soldiers from the other LAV came and yanked me out.”

Saeed-Khan was airlifted by helicopter to a nearby field hospital. On Jan. 4, 2010, she was transported to a hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and her family travelled to be by her side. At one point, Saeed-Khan was put in a medically induced coma. Doctors also worked at stabilizing her for the long flight on a military medical plane to The Ottawa Hospital’s Trauma Centre.

Emerging from the hospital in Germany on her way to be transported to Canada by plane, hooked up to an IV and breathing tubes, she embraced the familiarity of her surroundings that reminded her of home: “I was wheeled out on a gurney and felt that crisp feeling I always get with the cold winter air on my cheeks in Ottawa in January. To this day when I get that feeling, it’s like I’m going home and getting back to that safe place I know so well.”

Soon after arriving at The Ottawa Hospital, she met Dr. Nancy Dudek, Medical Director of the Amputee Program, who became her primary caregiver as part of a multidisciplinary team.

“Dr. Dudek seemed to have a deep understanding, a confidence, a control of the situation,” says Saeed-Khan. “She was so engaged and would shine through all the challenges we were confronted with … many of the key people in my recovery were brilliant women.”

In pain, weak and trying to absorb everything, Saeed-Khan asked her family to help her make decisions about her care.

Saeed-Khan and her husband Adil Khan celebrate their daughter's birthday.HANDOUT

“What struck me very much about Bushra was she was clearly a smart person, she listened and asked good questions, and was relying heavily on the truly excellent support she had from her family,” says Dr. Dudek.

In The Ottawa Hospital’s Trauma Centre, Saeed-Khan underwent a number of procedures. With a thigh fracture in her grievously damaged right leg, doctors determined they would repair the fracture and perform an amputation through the knee. Doctors saved her left leg, with the help of skin grafts and metal rods. Surgeons also lined the wall of her abdomen with mesh to help rebuild it after the explosion left her organs exposed.

Experiencing flashbacks and survivor’s guilt, dealing with pain and multiple surgeries, as well as worrying about what her future life would be like, Saeed-Khan began working with The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Josie Marino, a now-retired psychologist.

“In the end, she helped me deal with the acceptance of my physical injuries and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], but also situations that happened prior that came up once I had the injuries,” says Saeed-Khan. “To this day I have integrated her lessons into my way of living.”

Dr. Dudek also introduced Saeed-Khan to a former patient, something she’s done for others to give them hope they can thrive after an amputation.

“I remember her walking into my room on a prosthetic leg, which I hadn’t really seen anyone use up close and personal, and explaining how it functioned and what it was like,” says Saeed-Khan. “She told me how she would walk up the stairs and hold her daughter in her arms. For me, I was just so far away from fully understanding what that meant but knowing that was possible was shocking.”

While it was still a long road to recovery for Saeed-Khan, she continued to gain strength and was moved from the Trauma Centre to the Rehabilitation Centre, where she spent about a year as an inpatient and six months as an outpatient.

At first, physiotherapist Marie Andrée Paquin helped Saeed-Khan relearn basic movements like raising her arms and sitting upright. Once outfitted with an artificial limb by prosthetist Laura Scholtes, Saeed-Khan’s gym workouts included walking while holding onto metal bars and using a walker.

Key to her rehab was The Ottawa Hospital’s CAREN System, or Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment, one of only two such rehab systems in Canada used for both patient care and research. The virtual reality system was brought to Ottawa through the generosity of the Canadian Armed Forces and donations from the community. It is used by patients from the community as well as military members with a range of conditions to improve mobility and balance.

The system features room-sized 3D graphics, a special treadmill and motion analysis technology, and a safety harness worn by the user to avoid falls while in the simulated environments, like walking on busy streets and various types of terrain, and skiing and snowboarding.

Saeed-Khan used the system twice weekly for several weeks. It helped her conquer her fears of navigating the outside world with her prosthetic leg.

“I was able to visualize walking in the park, standing in a boat, and walking down a hill confidently without a cane and walker. I was able to fully grasp the capacity of my prosthetic leg. … and push the limits.”

Dr. Dudek also helped her cope with the fear that she might never have children due to the severe damage her abdomen suffered in the blast.

Saeed-Khan uses The Ottawa Hospital's virtual reality CAREN system to learn how to use her prosthetic leg in various real-life situations.HANDOUT

Saeed-Khan persevered, and after two pregnancies that didn’t go full term “it was my third attempt that proved to be the miracle baby,” she says.

Her obstetrician, Dr. Laura Gaudet, as well as Dr. Dudek and prosthetist Scholtes kept on top of Saeed-Khan’s pregnancy needs, including ensuring her prosthetic fit properly as her body changed. For two months before her Caesarean section, she used a wheelchair as a safety precaution.

Saeed-Khan and Adil Khan welcomed their first child Dec. 18, 2018. Their adorable toddler keeps them busy, and Saeed-Khan can’t say enough about her husband. In May, they’ll celebrate their ninth anniversary.

“Nothing really captures, or I do not have the words to capture, how he’s helped not only me, but my family.”

Saeed-Khan still sees Dr. Dudek a couple of times a year for checkups and continues to meet with her prosthetist for regular maintenance of her artificial leg.

Dr. Dudek says every aspect of the care Saeed-Khan received was crucial in her recovery and rehab allowed her to settle comfortably into her new normal. “And that’s why I’m proud of where I work and why I find it so gratifying.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.