How My Amputation Saved My Life- Q&A With Judith Abrahams
‘Having to amputate my leg was the most difficult decision I ever had to make, but thankfully it turned out to be the best.’
Judith Abrahams always lived a very active lifestyle, competing in multiple iron-man and long-distance triathlons across the world.
While riding her bike in 2006, Judith was hit at high speed by a car. She woke to blaring sirens and a crowd of people, with no feeling in her right leg. She was rushed directly to hospital.
The results came in. Judith had broken the tibia and fibula in her right leg, along with both ankle joints. She undertook an emergency surgery that night in an attempt to repair her fibula and save her leg.
While the surgery was a success, complications began to arise, leading to chronic pain for three years and another five surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage.
After years of pain, Judith chose to amputate her right leg.
Remarkably, a year on from her amputation, Judith was representing America at the Triathlon world championships in 2012.
She ended up winning.
From there she went on to win another Xterra World Triathlon Championship title in 2014 and was recognised as one of the top ten-triathlon para-athletes in the world.
This earned her a place on the Paralympic team for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, a reality she never thought she would achieve.
A few months before the Paralympics, however, she had suffered a complication with her stump, which meant that she had to miss out on competing at the games.
I spoke with Judith to gain an understanding of the challenges and triumphs she has faced in her life, post-amputation.
Q. How did you lose your leg?
A. It was a cycling accident in 2006, I fractured my tibia and fibula, and both my ankle joints as well. I was coming down a hill when a car pulled out in front of me. I was rushed into emergency surgery to save my foot and they fixed the fibula and then 2 weeks later went in to fix my tibia.
From there I went through 3 years of surgeries and chronic pain, I couldn’t be weight bearing on my foot. I had 3 cartilage regeneration procedures, none of which worked. Since I couldn’t be weight bearing the bones in my foot started to deteriorate. For me it was the easiest decision to amputate my leg, I looked at it like- by doing the amputation, I get my life back.
Q. How did it feel to be selected to represent your country on an international stage?
A. For me to be selected to represent America and represent para-athletes all around the world was an incredible honor. I was honestly so shocked that I was capable of getting back to this point. If you told me a few years ago just after the accident when I was battling with all my surgeries that I would be selected for the Paralympic team in 10 years’ time, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.
Q. How much did it hurt to have to pull out from the Paralympics?
A. It certainly affected me, having that once in a lifetime opportunity ripped away from me especially after all of the hard work, I had put into my training was devastating. But I tried not to focus on it too much on it and after everything that has happened to me in the big picture it was not that big of a deal, that’s one positive after losing your leg nothing seems as big of a deal anymore!
Q. How are you perceived by both the general public and in the sporting world, as a disabled athlete?
A. It is certainly a hard one because on one side I’ve been told that I am an inspiration, and majority of athletes I train with are so kind to me and have nothing bad to say, but it is the general public that make me feel uneasy at times. In the summer when it’s warmer, I will go running in shorts and everyone can see that I only have one leg and they treat me differently, even though they don’t know me.
I go swimming and get stopped and told that I cannot swim in the same lanes as everyone else as I will be slowing them down, even though I am probably faster than anyone else in the lane. People automatically assume that since I am missing my leg, I therefore can’t do anything or contribute anything. But I can, in fact I probably can contribute more than some able body people can.
Q. Are there any stereotypes or stigmas around para-athletes that you wish you could get rid of?
A. The main one that I wish I could get rid of would be the stigma that people with disabilities can’t do anything, that we constantly need help and can’t contribute to society as much as able bodied people. People I pass in the street automatically assume I can’t do things, but I can. We just want to contribute and not be seen as outcasts.
Q. Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone who has a disability and is still trying to stay fit or compete?
A. The best advice I can give sounds a little cliché, but you just have to keep going no matter how hard it gets. Also find the right doctors who will support you and your decisions, find someone who will benefit you.
My first few doctors didn’t believe in me getting back to full fitness, I was told I wouldn’t be able to compete again and was made to think that my life was over. 15 years later here I am, and I can comfortably say that getting my amputation was the best decision I have made in my life, as it gave me a chance to be me again.
Judith’s strong mentality helped her to navigate all of the gruelling surgeries and continuous pain that had come around after the accident.
This doesn’t mean that she didn’t have her struggles as she got used to having a disability, but through it all, she never stopped having a positive outlook on life.
Judith was committed to making the best of her amputation, rather than it getting the best of her.
She kept going through all of the hardships, and managed to turn her life around for the better after her amputation.
So, what was Judith’s key message to disabled and able-bodied athletes facing adversity?
‘No matter how dark of a place you find yourself in, make sure that you never give up, everything will get better as long as you just keep going.’