A Single Step: My Story Of Healing

A Single Step: My Story Of Healing

Getting run over by a bus during freshman year of college was not part of my plan.

I came to New York City to study sociology at a small liberal arts college in hopes of becoming a social worker. Second semester had gotten off to a good start: I was re-acclimating to my school schedule and had set a few goals. I wasn't going to party as much. I gave myself a curfew and aimed for perfect attendance. Finally, after years of being heavy, I was going to lose weight. I felt an urge to reinvent myself.

One evening, while walking back to the dorm with one of my roommates, I waited for the light at the corner of 39th Street and 3rd Avenue. 

I stepped off the curb, but never made it across the street. 

The bus driver was speeding while making a lefthand turn, so he missed seeing me in the crosswalk. The bus hit my shoulder and threw me to the ground, pinning my left foot underneath one of its wheels. I broke my right ankle and badly damaged my left limb, which eventually had to be amputated six inches below the knee. 

In one moment, my life changed forever. It would never be the same.

Since the accident, people have told me—with looks of disbelief—that I am crazy when I say, "I kind of asked for it to happen." How could I say such a thing?

Three days before it happened, I was working out to an exercise tape with the same roommate who would be at the scene of the accident. Midway through the tape, I needed a hair tie and wanted to take a break. Pressing pause on the VCR, I turned to her and sighed, "You know what? I feel unfulfilled in my life. It's like I want something big to happen to me." Three days later, I was hit.

"Be careful what you wish for," people warn, but for me it's never been a matter of wishing the accident hadn't happened. Even though it's the hardest challenge I've ever faced, I would not change a thing. I am grateful to be alive. 

The accident was also a huge wakeup call. To say the least, it helped me get my life back on track, considering how unfocused I’d been during the first semester of college. I'd come to New York City to study, but it didn't take long for the lure of the city’s nightlife to take hold. Pretty soon, I was pre-gaming shots of liquor with friends in our rooms before heading out for a night on the town. I was eighteen and my parents were hours away. I wanted to live life on my own terms, and I was going to live it fully. So, I did: equating living with drinking.

Looking back now, I don't know if someone would have classified me as an alcoholic. I just wanted to have fun. Some nights I drank more than others. There were days I spent focused solely on recovering. My roommate expressed her concern: "You have to be careful, Margaret," she warned, after I confessed I'd spent the previous night at a strange man’s apartment in Spanish Harlem, losing my virginity, though I didn’t know his name.

For Christmas that first semester, I’d returned home to Maryland and immediately got sick with what turned out to be a lung infection. Doctor’s orders kept me inside and under the covers with ample time to think and have long phone conversations with my roommate, who was visiting family in California. We talked about life and how I wanted to get focused second semester. I vowed I wouldn't go out as much and would concentrate on getting good grades. 

I'd never got a chance to see those grades or have them come to fruition because of the bus accident. It was my roommate who pulled on my jacket just enough, so the bus missed hitting my head. Moments after, in shock, I tried to stand and she ordered me to stay down. Confused, I wanted to know what had happened. 

"Your right ankle looks broken," she said.

"But what about my left leg?"

My roommate paused: "That looks broken too." She only left my side to call 911, after which she quickly returned and let me pull her hair because I told her it helped with the pain. 

When ambulance sirens blared in the distance, we knew help was coming. Just a few moments later, my roommate was gestured aside. I was surrounded by police officers and EMT workers, one of whom knelt by my side, took my hand in hers and said, "Stay with us sweetheart. You have the entire city of New York behind you."

Thankfully, Bellevue, one of the best trauma hospitals, was close by. And it was there, on top of a cold, metal examination table, that the doctors told me my right ankle was broken, but the extent of damage to my left foot was still unknown. X-rays confirmed that my left foot had been severely damaged and the doctors would have to amputate at least half of it. Swallowing the word “amputated,” I decided to work with whatever had to happen. "That's okay," I told the doctors, "I'll just get a new foot."

My optimism carried me through the six week long hospitalization. Life in a hospital is far from easy, but amazing medical care, family and friends supported me through multiple surgeries and challenging rehabilitation therapy. However, optimism would only take me so far. Like with any traumatic event in life, a person needs time to heal.

The summer after I was discharged from the hospital, more surgeries followed. The ninth and tenth surgeries were a wakeup call to what I would have to work with for the rest of my life. A wound had appeared on my residual limb that turned out to be infected. The infection had already made its way to my bone and more had to be amputated. Though I knew the operations were necessary, I was tired. Tired of setbacks, of not being able to schedule an appointment to start outpatient therapy and of not being able to have my first prosthetic leg made.

Then, a shift occurred. Instead of letting myself feel disappointed, I looked for ways to control the situation and prevent myself from feeling sad. I started with eating as little as possible. The fact that my wrists were getting thinner and my stomach more flat were pluses in my eyes, so I started to tell everyone I was too tired to eat. After I was discharged from the hospital, I started checking labels in the grocery store and began to cut calories. Low-fat, fat-free, low-carb and carb-free were my favorite categories. Though I was a size 4 to 6, the Slim Fast Plan became my new best friend.

When I returned to New York to resume school in the fall, I was still on crutches and looking forward to finally going to outpatient therapy and meeting the person who would make my first prosthetic limb. Externally, I was upbeat, but inside I wondered why I had started to be afraid to cross busy streets and why I trembled during class. Why, when I looked at a line in one of my schoolbooks, did all of the words look the same? Most people had made positive comments about my weight loss, but I'd already decided I was not thin enough. I joined a gym and survived off of coffee, bananas and diet cereal. The gym became my refuge, where I worked out two or three times a day. When I got lightheaded, I sat on the toilet in the bathroom until I stopped feeling like I was going to black out. I rarely went to my college classes, but, when I did, the bathrooms in school called to me and I found comfort in the quiet there. 

I didn't yet know eating disorders were a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn't even know what PTSD was. Nor did I know why I'd started shaking while trying to cross certain street intersections or why I was anxious and uncomfortable around people—even the ones I loved.

The emotional crash came. My bed was a close second to the gym as my favorite place to be. Everyone thought I'd gotten too thin. I couldn't handle school, appointments or the touch of people encircling my emaciated wrists to prove I was not eating enough. Too many questions were asked and I had few answers. Withdrawing from school was the only option I saw, since I could no longer live in the dorms. I sought guidance from my mentor, whose friend owned a bar with a boarding house above it. The next chapter of my life started in a room the size of a closet. The quiet comforted and frightened me at the same time.

I knew it was time to listen to what my body needed.

At times, it felt like my world was crumbling, but I knew I would not have made it this far had I not had hope. I found a therapist who specialized in PTSD and eating disorders. She told me I could be sad, mad even, and that I wasn't crazy. I just needed to take the time to heal. Yoga became a lifesaver. I stumbled across the first class I ever took in the East Village and, interestingly enough, I was not nervous. It was as if my body knew that a yoga mat was where it belonged. At the end of the class, after the deep relaxation, the teacher said, "Namaste," and I burst into tears. I knew then that yoga and other mindfulness-based modalities would be a part of my life.

People often want to know about my healing process. That’s a phrase I prefer to “overcoming adversity” because I don't want to overcome anything. I want to be. My amputated leg isn't going to grow back anytime soon and, to be honest, I wouldn't want it to. I focus not on what I lack, but on what still remains. 

Life continues to be challenging: My residual limb swells when it's hot outside and shrinks on a cooler day, making it difficult to walk a lot of the time. Phantom limb sensations and spasms are constant. At 29, I am still considered young, but a lot of the time I feel much older. Living with an amputation means I burn 60% more energy than I did before. Sadness hits from time to time, but it's nothing like the depression I experienced before. I'm still a human being, so I worry about the future, about being able to be a capable mother if I choose to have kids.

A little over a decade has passed since the day of the accident. Sometimes it feels like it was twenty years ago; sometimes I am shocked it wasn't just yesterday. I have few regrets and being hit isn't one of them. No matter what day it is, I take the time to connect with myself. Before getting out of bed, I lie on my back and breathe into my body. Sometimes I cry. A lot of the time, I smile. Laughter is always involved.

There is no shame—just one incredible journey.

-- Margaret Westley. Margaret Westley is a writer, fundraiser, certified integrative nutritionist and yoga teacher. Her professions were inspired by a near-death accident she had when she was 18 years old. Though the recovery was tough, Westley saw the accident has a huge gift. Every day, something or someone reminds her how amazing life is and, for that, she is eternally grateful. She lives the process by remembering to cut herself and others slack, practicing being in the moment and making healthy decisions for the now and future.

photo credits: michael larker, greg pths, mary robinson

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