“I’ll quit when I get older. That’s when bad things happen.”
Smoking. Everyone was doing it. Seemed harmless at the time.
But Andi’s life would take a different path. One that nobody could have predicted. A rare and unknown detour that would change everything.
Ulcerations first appeared on her fingers. Then on her toes. Electric shocks racked Andi’s body. Pain killers attempted to dull the neuropathic pain. And sleep became the enemy. Legs and arms hanging off the sides of the bed to force the flow of blood. One hour of sleep was considered a good night.
What was happening? Something was very wrong.
Finally a diagnosis – Buerger’s disease.
A rare disease of the arteries and veins in the arms and legs. The blood vessels become inflamed, swell, and can become blocked with blood clots. This eventually damages or destroys skin tissue leading to infection and gangrene. Virtually everyone diagnosed with Buerger’s disease smokes cigarettes and is between the ages of 18 and 40.
Someone like Andi.
The disease quickly took three fingers from her left hand. A necessary amputation to stop the progression.
Now she waited for the doctor to deliver the next plan of action. It had been just five months since the first sore. The foot was worse. A necessary treatment. Words so difficult to hear.
Amputation of the left leg below the knee.
Andi grabbed onto her mother. Together they wept. Surrendering to a violent reality. Facing fear and uncertainty.
Andi pulled herself together. Eyes fixed and determined. “Let’s do this. I’m ready.”
My first exposure to Andi was through a post on social media. Scrolling through my news feed I saw it and stopped. A prosthetic leg. Not just your ordinary prosthetic – a beautifully carved casing in a bright teal color over gold. Nothing I had seen before.
But it was Andi’s words that really caught my attention.
“My leg is cooler than yours.”
I loved the attitude. The direct acknowledgement. And the strength behind those words. I knew they belonged to someone who understood courage, fortitude, and hope.
Andi was living in a small town in Oklahoma. There are four other amputees who reside there. A few days after her surgery an amputee named Jason came to visit her in the hospital. He sat next to her bed. Took his prosthetic leg off and showed her what it looked like. A future which would not be impossible – just different. A new normal.
An older gentleman in his 70’s mentioned that he mows his lawn wearing his new leg. And a friendly mechanic still working hard in his occupation on his new leg gave more encouragement.
Andi searched online to find others like her. She found an article written about her friend Eddie. He lost both forearms in Iraq.
“If you’d have asked me before if I would want to be alive had I lost my hands, I would have said no. But now that I’m in those shoes, it’s not so bad,” he said.
It was a turning point for Andi.
She could do this. She quit smoking. Endured four long months of healing after the amputation. And she dug deep to get through physical therapy. Her positive outlook was contagious to all those who knew her.
It has been four years now since the surgery.
Andi is enrolled in a rigorous Master’s Degree program in Orthotics and Prosthetics. She is a patient advocate for those like her. Has a strong vision of her future. She is looking to make a difference.
“I want to be with the person who walks for the first time. Laugh with them. Cry with them,” she told me.
She remembers those who helped her. Pivotal moments. That fateful detour took her to some dark places. Helping others through theirs is now her life’s mission.
There are other goals. Andi wants to run. Her red, sparkly blade came two days after Christmas. Her neighbors cheer her on as she carefully learns how to use it in the grassy areas surrounding their small neighborhood.
Her first prosthetic leg is in a planter outside. Andi filled it with flowers.
Now she wears the beautiful blue leg. Strangers compliment her when out in public. Its beauty symbolizes a journey fought and won. An expression of hope.
And yeah ... her leg is cooler than mine.
On the five-year anniversary of her surgery, Andi went back and read all the comments and letters that people wrote as encouragement. Tender memories returned. She found the words of a little boy who wore a prosthetic leg to school.
“Everything is going to be okay. You might think it is not okay. But almost everyone in the whole world that you know is going to be there to help you through this.”
She smiled through tears. Knew it to be true.
Gratitude for those before. For family and friends. For brave veterans who don’t come back whole.
Andi will pay it forward.
Forging ahead with a beautiful leg. And a beautiful soul.