Stuart was a fit, healthy twenty-year-old when he ran his car off the road and wrapped it around a gum tree. After waking from sixteen days in a coma, followed by almost three months of post-traumatic amnesia, he was faced with having to have his right leg amputated.
I met him several years later when he came into my office severely depressed, wheelchair bound and unable to work. He looked old and withered despite his six-foot-two, eighty- kilogram frame. Activities he used to take for granted now carved out a huge chunk of time from his day. Since the accident, and his lengthy stay in hospital, the sheer struggle of daily living was what pre-occupied his thoughts—transferring from his bed to the shower, shopping for food, preparing meals, or simply pulling on his pants. He came to see me about a stump ulcer that had been giving him no end of trouble, making it impossible for him to wear his new prosthetic leg.
‘I’ve had it,’ he pronounced in his broad Australian drawl, his brown eyes looking dull, his skin pasty and sallow.
The gum tree that nearly killed him ironically ended up hurling him into a life he had never dreamed of prior to the accident.
For Stuart, the hardest thing about losing a leg was being forced to give up work. He felt isolated and lonely at times. He had grown up as a country boy and we chatted about his love of the outdoors. It suddenly struck me that helping his ulcer heal would not be the only thing—and not even the best thing—I could do for him. He needed to find a passion again, something he could focus on outside of his disability; a way indeed of contributing to others.
We spoke about a handcycle. It was a simple idea. A three-wheel cycle, specifically designed to enable Stuart to propel it using his upper body. I badgered the Traffic Accident Commission for months to get him one and they finally caved in. Little did we know then that this hand cycle would soon change his entire life. Stuart started training on it every day – ten minutes at first, eventually building up to several hours every day over the next few months. I watched from the wings as he gradually developed pecs and six-pack abs that any gym junkie would be proud of. The following year he completed the New York marathon on his handcycle.
Stuart has since become an elite athlete, travelling widely to participate in international competitions, and currently ranking fourth in the world in his cycling class. He won a scholarship to the Victorian Institute for Sport and participated in the 2012 London Paralympics, placing eighth. Then he started training for Rio de Janeiro.
Too often we confuse living with merely surviving.
The gum tree that nearly killed him ironically ended up hurling him into a life he had never dreamed of prior to the accident. Stuart refers to the tree his car wrapped around as his Tree of Life. He has managed to live well with his disability, not only by striving to achieve his personal best, but also by sharing his experiences with others, writing his memoir, and touring schools as a motivational speaker, to bring home the message of the impact of road accidents to teens. He is now happily married, and has two feisty young sons.
As his physician, I could have focused purely on the physical impact of Stuart’s accident—the stump ulcers, the phantom limb pains. Without undermining the importance of everyday practicalities of a patient’s medical care, dwelling purely on the physical can cause us to overlook the bigger picture of a patient’s total wellbeing. Too often we confuse living with merely surviving. Helping people find a passion, a focus, and an ongoing way to contribute to others is a vital part of the healing process at every stage of life. Stuart turned an horrific experience into one that motivated him to grow in a fulfilling way, staying true to himself and helping him pursue a noble, creative, and enriching life.
This is an excerpt from 'We are all going to Die by Dr Leah Kaminsky'. Leah will be appearing on a panel called ‘We need to Talk about Dying’ at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival.