Life after limb loss
My name is Sydney Learning. At age 15, I lost my left leg to a flesh-eating disease. Most girls at that age spend time picking out new shoes and accessories to match their outfits. I was the same. I wore heels for an event in an isolated dirt road town that welcomed everyone, including those who had moved away (I had previously left the town I was born and raised in for 13 years to be with my mother after my parents separated). Being back in my hometown, I wanted to impress, but the shoes caused blisters and along with contracting streptococcus bacteria causing a sore throat, and eating uncooked meat, a perfect storm of illness was underway. I spent an excruciating three days in bed unable to keep from vomiting. I went upstairs to shower and after I finished, I ended up falling down the stairs and had to make a trip to the local clinic.
Unfortunately, they believed my injuries to be a broken leg in multiple places, and sent for an air ambulance to take me to the nearest hospital. After my arrival to the hospital, I wasn’t seen that day, due to other emergencies needing the attention of staff. I slept OK that night, only to have no use of my left leg the next morning. I was unable to even put on my pants. I was lying on the floor, trying very hard, and couldn’t put them on without help. I called for my mother and she called for my grandmother to come to bring me to the hospital right away. My nan carried me as best as she could and we waited again into the night at the hospital. At 10pm, I was finally admitted for dehydration. Two hours later, I was in shock.
They had to call for yet another air ambulance to airlift me to the nearest children’s hospital. Time was critical; as soon as I arrived, it was confirmed that I had a case of flesh-eating disease. I was immediately put into surgery, where my leg was amputated just above the knee. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of the dangers I would face. My lungs, liver and kidneys shut down. I flatlined multiple times. My parents were told to make the necessary arrangements for my death. Through the use of dialysis, a hyperbaric chamber and other machines, and the miracle-working doctors and the power of prayer, I made it out of a two-week coma. I wasn’t able to move much in the days I was in the ICU, but I vividly remember my parents at my side and the dedication they and the hospital team had for me and my recovery.
I spent another few months in the care of hospital staff. I left with a harsh reality that most teen girls don’t face: I needed to leave behind all I had known – my small hometown, my mother and younger siblings – to stay closer to the rehabilitation facilities in the city. The decision was made to place me in foster care with a woman who caters to people with disabilities. I was fortunate to receive love and care from this wonderful family. She kept me busy with swimming and all necessary social settings like school and a church youth group, movies, concerts, shopping and, most of all, stability.
At 17, I began my journey to adulthood on a path marked with milestones like graduating from high school and multiple jobs. I learned the most about myself then as a young woman. I also faced questions about myself and who I was now and how the world saw me. I spent a few years in a non-self-loving place and really had to focus my attention on self-love, care and dedication to staying happy even after a significant loss like I had faced. I also decided that an artificial limb wasn’t for me, despite having some of the best care available and it was a choice I’m happy with for now. I’m still followed by all the same prosthetic supports if I ever change my decision.
In 2014, I experienced the wonderful moment of finding out I was pregnant. That joy was doubled when I found out I was expecting twins. Pregnancy and life on crutches and working full-time was challenging but I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt very feminine and strong for being able to do so.
My pregnancy didn’t go as expected; I ended up having an emergency C-section at 31 weeks. During a routine ultrasound it was discovered that my daughter, Baby A, had stopped growing, so my two beautiful mixed twin daughters were delivered the next morning!
On the sixth day of my daughters’ life, I received a call from the NICU downstairs that Baby B was severely sick and I needed to come down right away. The nurse wheeled me down after screaming for someone to take me there, and the doctor turned his monitor toward me, showing the pieces of my daughter’s bowel that had separated. My sweet baby had necrotizing enterocolitis, the most common killer of premature babies. She went in for surgery and I spent the next few hours by her side until the shift changed. I remember going back to the small parent room just outside and the phone rang once again. This time it was the doctor who had just come on shift, telling me to come back immediately. As I walked to the doctor’s office, I passed the window of the room where my littlest twin fought for her life. She was surrounded by a team of residents and nurses. I knew it was bad.
Upon entering the small room where I had originally heard the life-shattering news, my life was about to crumble further. The doctor had no words; she was only able to shake her head and release the tears. I asked how much longer I had – it was minutes. I did what any mother would do – I held my sweet baby girl in my arms along with her sister for the last time until life left her body and she went to be with the creator.
The road to healing and learning to live without all I had planned for two was hard. I struggled with losing friends who thought I would fail with my grief. It took acceptance and taking difficult steps toward grief therapy and PTSD. My surviving twin daughter loves to talk about her sister; she loves to run alongside me and carry in the groceries and help feed our dog or cat. She gives me the strength to carry on and want a better life for both of us.
In the time since losing Baby B, I experienced more grief: the loss of my mother two years ago, and my father due to a sudden massive heart attack just a year ago. I struggle with their loss, but always carry the memories of how proud they were of me for moving forward with my life and having the strength that came from my father, one of the hardest working men I know. He set the pace for me and I’ll carry it on. I know my daughter is watching over us as well and our futures are bright; I’m about to graduate with recommendations with a degree in dental assisting. I’m the first in this province as an amputee to do so. I also recently embarked on starting my own business on the side as a peer supporter and motivational speaker.