The life of amputees changes drastically overnight. Sarah Carabott spoke to four strong-willed people who stand by the bedside of those who, like them, will go through the challenging process of amputation.
Laughter fills the room as Pauline Cassar teases her grandson, sitting smugly on her lap. “I pass on the ‘tricks of the trade’ to Amy and Kristy for when they themselves are bringing up their own offspring,” she winks, as the two young women, sitting on each of Ms Cassar’s side, giggle.
They will tell you ‘you will walk again’ but you won’t believe it until you see an amputee actually walk
“Being an amputee is no easy task and sometimes you have to work three times as much... but you soon learn how to overcome little difficulties and we share these ‘tricks’ between us,” Ms Cassar adds, as she lifts the toddler up and hands him to his father.
Ms Cassar, Amy Zahra, Kristy Seychell and Paul Mallia are committee members of Amputees4Amputees, an association founded in 2008 to support amputees living in Malta. All four believe that, although their physical independence has been affected, they emerged stronger. Their secret for recovery? Willpower, they reply in unison.
The association’s concept was brewed when Ms Cassar and Ms Seychell visited 21-year old Ms Zahra who was recovering from Meningitis. Ms Zahra recalls a time when amputees had no one and nowhere to turn to.
In 1998, Ms Seychell was the first Meningitis victim. At the age of 13, the young woman lost part of her feet and fingers. She felt lost in a hostile world: “I thought I was the only one in my situation.
“Five years later, I saw Ms Cassar on a TV programme and, with tears streaming down my face, I suddenly realised I was not alone... I really wished I could meet her and get to know her,” Ms Seychell said.
When Ms Cassar, then 41, first saw Ms Seychell frantically texting on her mobile phone in spite of her having lost several fingers, she sighed with relief.
“They would tell you ‘you’ll walk again’ but you won’t believe it until you see an amputee actually doing it,” Ms Cassar says.
“You feel spaced out and you have to see it with your own eyes to believe you yourself can do it,” Ms Seychell adds.
The two women bonded immediately and, three years later, they turned up beside Ms Zahra, who, as they had done before her, was battling death.
Ms Cassar speaks of her encounter with Ms Zahra’s parents in hospital. She immediately fell in love with the young woman’s family and challenged her father to races along the hospital corridors, lifting the concerned man’s spirits. Ms Zahra’s parents found comfort in Ms Cassar, who, they say, was Ms Zahra’s reference point for comfort.
“When they amputate your legs, you feel as if it’s the end of the world. But when I saw Ms Cassar dressed smartly and saw Ms Seychell’s beautiful handwriting I said to myself: ‘Hey, there’s still hope,” Ms Zahra says.
“We’ve all received infinite support from our relatives. However, I feel that no one can ever give you what fellow amputees can,” Ms Zahra adds.
With the support of Mariella Mizzi (an amputee), physiotherapist Marcette Cassar and University lecturer Victoria Sultana, they held the association’s first meeting in 2008, for which Mr Mallia was present.
“After I met them, I never looked back,” Mr Mallia, who lost his leg three years ago, says. He spent just five days in hospital, following his amputation, and went back to driving his car within a week.
“I was determined on becoming independent once again and drive myself to St Luke’s Hospital for rehabilitation rather than depending on the hospital’s transport service,” he adds.
Following a course by the Voluntary Services for Mater Dei Hospital (Volserv training), Mr Mallia and Ms Cassar started visiting amputation patients before and after the operation.
Mr Mallia, unlike the other three, “did not lose his legs overnight”, as Ms Zahra put it. “Knowing that I was about to lose part of my freedom, all sorts of frightening thoughts passed through my mind. I had no one to support me, to soothe my fears. You feel at a loss,” Mr Mallia says, adding that, together with Ms Cassar, he helps amputees accept their fate.
Ms Cassar laughs as she recounts how she has had to even undress in front of a patient that would not believe her when she told her she had lost both legs.
“You cannot promise an amputee that they would walk again after the amputation. But accepting your fate is half the recovery. It’s easier to accept your situation when you find support from a group of people who battle life with your same tools,” Mr Mallia adds.
Ms Zahra describes her fellow amputees as “soulmates”. “Just knowing that you don’t have to utter a single word for them to understand you is comforting in itself,” she smiles.
Ms Seychell, who had even suffered from bulimia for four years following her amputation, insists the rest of society needs to do its bit. “I had long ago accepted my situation. However, the majority of men I meet turned tail when I tell them what I went through. Quite understandably, this is a huge blow to one’s self esteem,” she says.
The work of Amputees4Amputees is not just psychological. The association has, for the past three years, also been discussing with the authorities the dire conditions of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Unit at St Luke’s Hospital.
Although promised that the unit will be transferred to a more accessible place, to date, amputee patients are still being treated in an “unpleasant place”.
The association can be contacted on amputees4amputees@ gmail.com, on 9946 7226/2141 5377 or on Facebook.