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Illustration by Paddy Molloy (Paddy Molloy/Paddy Molloy)
Illustration by Paddy Molloy (Paddy Molloy/Paddy Molloy)

Facts & Arguments Essay

After my leg was amputated, I wasn't hoping for a miracle Add to ...

Ward 3 East B is the end of the line for those of us who are sent there. We have reached it by means of a long, painful journey that has, for many of us, lasted years. For others it means their ordinary lives have ended abruptly, often horribly, in an accident.

Ward 3 East B is the amputee ward of Toronto's West Park rehabilitation hospital. It is the last stop on a descent into medical, emotional and personal hell.

Amputation is the medical procedure of last resort. Doctors abhor it because it's a sign they have failed to cure whatever ails the patient, that they have been defeated in the art they have studied and practised for years. Since doctors try so hard to avoid it, amputation is now relatively rare. All of us in amputee rehab wish it were rarer still.

West Park is one of Canada's older hospitals. At one time it was a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. It was far out in the country, both for the healthful influence of fresh air and to keep the sick and highly contagious patients isolated from urban Toronto. It's still on the original grounds, but the city has grown up around it and it is now almost centrally located. West Park houses the last dedicated TB ward in the city as well as a research facility for lung diseases and respiratory rehabilitation.

Many types of rehab go on there. Car crash victims, stroke survivors and others make for a mixed bag of patients, almost all of whom are in wheelchairs or use other mobility devices. Patients come from all over the province, each one hoping that this place of last resort will work a miracle for them. Pretty high hopes considering few people had ever heard of the place before finding themselves there.

When I arrived by patient transfer ambulance, I was not hoping for a miracle. I wasn't even sure I wanted to live. My right leg had been amputated, just below the knee, less than a week earlier. I had been dealing with pain and disability for four years since falling and breaking my ankle, which never healed properly and led to an infection in the bone. I was just worn out, physically and mentally.

The first day at West Park was overwhelming. Hordes of people kept popping in and out of my room, each one smiling and introducing themselves, describing what their function would be in my treatment.

The ultimate goal for all of them is to get patients back to their old lives. It is confusing and intimidating. Why would all these people be interested in me? After all, I was now a helpless cripple who would never lead a normal life again.

The full-on approach never let up. The very next day I was down in the gym, learning to use a wheelchair and standing between the parallel bars. Then the exercises started. Most of the patients had not moved much prior to the amputation. The pain had been too great. Some of us had been confined to our beds at home for months and, as a result, were as weak as newborn kittens. The physiotherapists and their assistants aimed to fix that and they didn't waste any time doing it.

Physio happened at least once a day, usually twice. We stretched, bended, lifted small weights, worked out with exercise balls and grumbled. But we became fit; some of us were more fit after amputation than we had been for most of our adult lives.

I began to refer to West Park as "the spa." We worked out, we ate three well-balanced and usually delicious meals a day and many of us lost weight, inches or both. Even better, we were in a community of amputees. No one stared, no one thought we were freaks and no one felt sorry for us.

It was nearly impossible to feel sorry for yourself - the days were too busy. If you weren't busy in the gym, you had an occupational therapist giving you lessons on how to get in and out of a car, dress yourself, shower, get on and off a toilet (it's harder than you might suppose) and cook a meal without setting yourself on fire. The days were full.

Eventually, I was fitted for a prosthetic leg and could stand on two feet, a momentous day for every patient. It meant the end of petty annoyances. You can pull up your pants while standing up rather than wiggling into them while lying down; you can stand at the sink to brush your teeth; and, best of all, you can get out of the wheelchair.

Learning to walk again is a painful and tedious process. People approach it with remarkable courage. I saw one woman about to take her first step and it was obvious she was scared to death. With bravery like I have never seen, she not only took one step, she took two.

Each patient on Ward 3 East B has a goal. It is one of the first things the staff asks you when you arrive. The goals are all basically the same. One woman wants to dance at her granddaughter's wedding, another wishes to walk her dog for the first time in more than a year

I, too, had a goal at West Park. I arrived there at the beginning of November. I was both depressed and angry about losing my leg. My family had been through hell and beyond, the chances of me surviving the surgery had not been good and by the time I was discharged I had been in hospital nearly three months.

My goal was to walk into my parents' house and wish them a Merry Christmas last December. Thanks to the staff on Ward 3 East B, I did.

Jennifer Wilding lives in Toronto.

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