With 150 pairs of shoes in her closet — many of them high heels — Sarah Wrigley's outfits were always on point. She loved her heels so much that she wore them everywhere, even to the grocery store.
Now, all the 50-year-old Windermere resident does is cry when she sees the beautiful footwear she will never again slip on her feet. That's the harsh reality when one loses a leg.
In November 2015, Wrigley was on her way to work, stopping to drop off a key to a friend, when an uninsured driver struck her and pinned her between two cars. The trailer hitch went through her left leg, causing irreversible damage and nearly costing her her life.
“I thought I was going to die; I knew it was a main artery,” Wrigley said. “I tied my leg off. I was very calm. I phoned my husband. I phoned my daughter. I was organizing work. By remaining calm, I saved my own life.”
She said it was touch-and-go during the ambulance ride. Because her blood pressure was extremely low, medics couldn't give her any pain medicine. And she was suffering.
“I was trying to negotiate in the ambulance — if they gave me the meds, I would have a heart attack, but we're close enough to the hospital that I would survive the heart attack,” she said.
Doctors put her in an induced coma to save her life and for two weeks tried to save her leg.
“Not at any stage did I think I was going to lose my leg,” she said. “I honestly thought I would have lots of pins and plates and I would lose six months of work. Amputation never crossed my mind.”
LEARNING TO WALK AND LIVE
Wrigley admits she was naïve about the healing process.
“I honestly thought I would get a leg and put it on and my life would go back to normal,” she said. “I thought six months, and I’d be back to normal.”
But she wasn’t back to normal — and she won’t be, she realizes.
One day last week, her thigh was swollen and she was having trouble putting on the prosthesis. It’s normally a process that takes her about six minutes: She cleans the leg with alcohol, rolls on the rubber sleeve and puts the suction ring around it, sprays everything with more alcohol and slides it into the socket. When all the air is out, she puts the valve in and is ready to take a few painful steps.
Some days she can walk with no problem; others, she can’t muster a single step. Her good leg gives her trouble too, sometimes; doctors tried to remove two veins from the right leg to save the left, but the surgery was unsuccessful.
Through a friend of a friend, Wrigley located a prosthetist in Sarasota who has made each of her casts. She is on her fifth version; frequent changes are necessary as her leg continues to heal and the swelling diminishes.
While she’s grateful to have the prosthesis, it is cumbersome and awkward and mobility is limited. Obstacles such as ramps and even small stones throw her off balance and cause her to stumble.
“I've fallen quite a few times, but you have to just pick yourself up,” she said. “You have to give yourself confidence to walk again.”
The leg can’t get wet, so Wrigley has to remove it and hop on her right leg into the shower.
The family had to move out of its two-story home. When you are missing a leg, that means you have to drag yourself up and down the stairs, she said.
The brace goes all the way up to her left hip, and it’s uncomfortable to sit on. No more sitting on barstools for Wrigley, either, because the prosthesis dangles above the floor and it’s heavy.
And she said that while she is learning to adapt to this new way of life, she has developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
The once-social Manchester, England, native now spends quite a bit of her time at home.
“I just found it easier to not go out,” Wrigley said. “You don't want to talk some days.”
When she's behind closed doors, no one stares and no one asks questions.
“Some days I don't get out of bed. … You know, when you're lying in bed, you can kid yourself that you still have your leg,” she said. “I can feel it rubbing against the sheets. I get a lot of what they call phantom pain. I can get up in the middle of the night, and I forget I don't have a leg, and then there I am on the floor.
“The mind is such a powerful tool,” she said. “I just want someone to shut it off. ... It's a battle with yourself.”
She is trying desperately to like this new version of herself, she said, but she still refuses to stand in front of a mirror or shower with the lights on. She once worried about people gawking at her appendectomy scar if she wore a bikini in public. Amputation takes her fears to a whole new level, she said.
Her friends and family are organizing fundraisers to help Wrigley purchase a top-of-the-line prosthetic leg that can get wet and can withstand an active lifestyle. Before the accident, she enjoyed going to the beach and the pool, working out at the gym and walking her dogs three miles every morning before work.
The new leg — which will have a gyroscope in it to make walking easier — costs $100,000, and insurance won’t cover this expense.
“It’s just like the Rolls-Royce of knees,” she said.
KINDNESS AND SUPPORT
Wrigley lives in Belmere with her husband, Steven, and their two children, Cristina, 27, and William, 20. This ordeal has greatly affected everyone in her family, she said, but she couldn’t have gotten through this without them or the many friends in the community.
“I've been very lucky, and I’ve got some amazing friends who have been here for my family,” she said. “The kindness I've been shown and the kindness people have shown, people who don't even know me, it's been an out-of-body experience,” Wrigley said. “It's hard to believe it's me. It’s like I'm an outsider looking in. I'm always the one helping. All the acceptance is hard.”
Wrigley said she is able to accept the support by vowing to pay it forward.
She plans to become a registered peer visitor and spend time with people who have lost a limb. And the company that provides her prosthesis has asked her to participate in two speaking engagements in Kentucky and Nevada. Representatives are pleased with her progress and her eagerness to heal.
“You just strive to be normal; your new normal,” she said. “I still grieve for the old me, so much.”