By Margaret Westley
During my freshman year of college, I almost died. While walking back to our dorm room with one of my roommates, I innocently stepped off a curb and got run over by a bus. Thankfully, the driver stopped. If he hadn’t, I would have been killed. The bus struck my right shoulder and threw me to the ground, pinning my left foot underneath one of its front wheels. Within a moment, my life changed forever, and it would never be the same again.
Getting run over by a bus during freshman year of college had not been part of my plan.
I came to New York City to attend a small liberal arts school to study Sociology, with hopes of becoming a social worker. Second semester had gotten off to a good start. I was re-acclimating myself to a full-time school schedule and had set some goals. I wasn’t going to party as much as I had during first semester. I gave myself a curfew and aimed for perfect attendance. I felt the need to reinvent myself, and finally, after years of being heavy, I was going to lose weight.
Over the course of the ten years since the accident, people say I am crazy when I tell them, “I kind of asked for it.”
A look of disbelief is quickly followed by, “how could you say such a thing, Margaret?” Because it’s true.
Three days before the accident, I was working out to an exercise tape with the same roommate who would be there at the scene of the accident. Out of my other four roommates, she was the closest one to me. We shared a room. Both of us loved to laugh. We were bi-racial, and our hair was a mix of straight and curly—hers more wavy then mine, but we still commiserated over how humidity was never our best friend. It turned our hair into what my roommate and I referred to as “puffs.”
During our workout, sweat had caused my hair to turn into one of these puffs. I needed a hair tie. I wanted to take a break. Pressing pause on the VCR, I turned to my roommate and sighed, “You know what? I feel unfulfilled with my life. It’s like I want something big to happen to me.”
Three days later, I got hit.
The bus driver was speeding, turning left (I had the right of way), and not looking. Thankfully, my roommate grabbed enough of my coat just in time for me to miss being hit in the face. Later, she confessed she felt guilty for not being able to pull me all the way back, but I told her that was silly; there was nothing she or I could have done.
“Don’t!” my roommate ordered me when I, in shock, tried to get up after being hit. She gently pressed my shoulder to encourage me to stay down. I wanted to know why I couldn’t get up and why I was in so much pain.
“Your right ankle looks broken.”
“But what about my left leg?”
My roommate paused, “That looks broken too. I’ve got to call 911.” Soon after, she was back at my side, letting me squeeze her hand and pull her hair because I told her it helped with the pain. In seeing her gesture, the bus driver, who’d been screaming and running frantically up and down the length of the asphalt above my head, stopped. He, too, knelt down by my side, dipped his head toward my face and offered up what little hair he had on top of his head.
Sirens called from a distance.
“Can you hear them, Margaret? They are coming.” An ambulance arrived shortly. My roommate and the bus driver were taken away. Strangers now surrounded me and reassured me everything was going to be fine.
One of the EMT workers knelt by my side, “Stay with us, sweetheart, you have the entire city of New York behind you.”
My clothes were cut off, and I shivered, feeling the cold February air on my skin. Members of the EMT team draped a sheet over me before lifting my body onto a stretcher and then into the back of an ambulance. When I started to black out, they covered my mouth with an oxygen machine. “Stay with us, Margaret. You gotta stay with us.”
Thankfully, Bellevue Hospital, one of the best medical centers to treat trauma, was not that far away. Once in the emergency room, I was placed on a metal table to be examined. People were everywhere. I overheard someone say, “We need to get emergency contact information.” This is when I yelled my mother’s name and home telephone number. After the examination, the lead doctor told me my right ankle was indeed broken and my left foot was severely damaged.
“We will have to take x-rays.” I knew this was going to hurt, and I bit my lip when my body was transferred upstairs and then back downstairs where the doctors examined the x-ray slides.
“A portion of your foot has been damaged, Margaret, and we will have to amputate. We just don’t know how much yet.”
No medicine had been administered. I was tired and in pain, and all I wanted to do was sleep. “That’s OK. I’ll just get a new foot.” I turned to Sarah, the ER nurse who’d been by my side since arriving into the ER, “Sarah, I just want to sleep. Can I have some medicine now, please?”
“Of course you can.” Sarah squeezed my hand gently while I was given medicine and put under. In the darkness, sleep came.
My parents’ faces were the first images I saw after waking up from the initial surgery. Their hands covered mine as if, in that moment, we made a silent pact to get through this together.
I spent six weeks in Bellevue and had multiple surgeries. Two screws were inserted into my right ankle to stabilize the bone. The doctors attempted to salvage the damaged part of my left leg, but after three weeks, its condition had not gotten any better. Signs of infection were showing. They were worried it would spread. The idea of having my leg amputated didn’t frighten me. I was ready. Earlier in the week, during an examination, I caught a glimpse of my limb, which was covered in wounds. I knew the amputation would help me return to the life I’d left behind sooner than later. And that’s all I wanted to do.
Rehabilitation was no joke. I had to learn how to do everything all over again at the age of nineteen. Hard and painful are understatements. And, I was exhausted. Naps were a must after an afternoon’s worth of physical and occupational therapy, but with time, I got stronger. March was coming to a close, and my physical therapist put a test before me. She wanted me to crutch from my hospital room on the sixth floor all the way to the entrance of the hospital. Even though it was early spring and it was still cool out, by the time I reached the main entrance, I was sweating and wiped. But, I made it, and that’s all that mattered.
I was discharged in April. As planned, I hopped through the sliding glass doors of the hospital, and once I was on the other side, I looked through the glass at my parents and some of the medical team that had come to say goodbye and smiled.
Rehabilitation alone taught me re-adapting to life with limb loss was not going to be easy, and I knew it was going to be even harder in the real world. My doctors, nurses, and members of the medical staff whom I relied on so heavily during my hospitalization were not going to be coming home with me. Naturally, my parents worried and wanted to be around me as much as they possibly could, but they and I knew that would not be healthy. I had to learn how to stand once again on my own.
That summer, I returned home to DC to work and save up money for the fall when I would be returning to New York to complete my freshman year. I was excited about starting outpatient rehabilitation at a local hospital and finally meeting a prosthetist who would fit me for my very first temporary artificial limb.
However, that never happened. One morning while getting ready for work, I noticed a wound on my residual limb and immediately called for a taxi to take me to the closest hospital. The ER doctor referred me to an orthopedic doctor who wanted to keep an eye on my limb and administered antibiotics. After a few weeks, the medicine failed to work, and the surgeon said what I was frightened to hear, “We will have to operate.” The doctor needed to see what was happening underneath my skin.
“Promise me you won’t cut off anymore bone until I know you have to.” She promised. Unfortunately, the wound turned out to be an infection, and it had traveled to my bone. In keeping her promise, the doctor waited until the day after the surgery to tell me the news and also to get my consent to perform another surgery. A couple more inches would have to be cut off.
I have this image of myself after this particular surgery. I am standing in the hallway outside of my hospital room. I wanted to get out of bed and move. I had made so much progress, and I refused to let another amputation set me back. I tightened my grip around one of the banisters that lined the hospital walls. Once standing, I paused to catch my breath and balance. I was still drugged and knew I had to be careful. Blood rushed to the end of my residual limb and the pain overwhelmed my body as it had when I first stood a few months before at Bellevue. My mother, who was standing in the doorway of my hospital room, reminded me to take my time. All I wanted to do was crutch down the length of the hallway, but after a few hops, I felt the ace bandage which was covering my residual limb begin to unravel, and when I looked down, the bottom half of the bandage was covered in blood.
The limb healed, but it was after the last surgery my optimism waned.
On the outside, I put on a happy face and smiled because I didn’t want anyone to worry. Inside, however, a shift occurred. I started to believe I wasn’t trying enough, wasn’t good enough, and I sought out a way I could stay in control of the situation. I started with my weight.
I ate little. Counted calories too closely. I’d been heavy my entire life, but after dropping sixty pounds in the hospital, I was finally thin—skinny even—and loving it. In the mornings before work, I counted my ribs and measured the space in between my thighs. Delighted over the fact I was getting thinner everyday, I went on the Slim Fast plan and gobbled down their weight loss bars as meal replacements
For the first time in my life, I fit into the skinny jeans that were sold in the popular sections at the store and wore tank tops without shame. I had yet been fit for a prosthetic leg and relied on crutches to get around. My arms had never been so defined.
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.
That fall, I stuck to my original plan and returned to New York. Everyone was glad to see me. Many people noted my weight loss and said, at first glance, they hadn’t even recognized me. I hugged those who said I looked great more closely than those who gave me a worried look, which was all I needed to see before telling myself I had not lost enough weight. One of the first things I did after moving into the dorms was join a gym.
The gym became one of my hideouts when I realized I couldn’t juggle a full-time school schedule with the several medical appointments I attended over the course of the week. When I did attend class, I fell asleep during the lectures and only woke up when another student shook me awake. “The teacher just asked you a question.” I didn’t know the answer because I hadn’t heard the question. So I mumbled a quick “sorry” and looked down at the small pool of drool that had collected while I was sleeping.
If I dared to go to school but wanted to skip class, I’d hide out in the bathroom, where the stalls were my cocoons of safety. Eventually, I started skipping class altogether and spent more time at the gym, going three or four times a day. If I wasn’t at the gym, I was crutching around town so I could burn calories, and when I wasn’t burning calories, I was trying not to consume them by sticking to a low fat and coffee diet. The coffee was what kept me awake so I could concentrate on the class assignments I rarely completed. Coffee didn’t help my trembling, and, at times, the cup I was drinking out of never touched my lips.
Having control over what I ate wasn’t enough. I had to control other things too. Like doing my laundry over and over again, and when they were clean enough, I folded the clothes only to unfold them and fold them again. When the fold was deemed perfect, I put them away, only to re-open the drawer to count every article of clothing and obey whatever it was that existed inside of me that told me to do it again.
And then, I crashed. My bed was a close second to the gym as my favorite place to be. No one told me how good I looked anymore. Mostly, people commented on how I was too thin. Looking back now, I can see how everyone was just concerned and didn’t know how to help me because I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t take school. I couldn’t take the worry. I couldn’t take the touch of somebody else encircling my emaciated wrists with their fingers to prove I wasn’t eating enough. There were too many questions, and I didn’t have the answers.
I felt like a failure in my attempt to be in control over everything.
I decided to drop out. During a meeting with my college advisor, I sat on my hands because they were trembling. He encouraged me to stay, but I told him it was in my best interest to leave. Immediately, I went downtown to see my mentor who consoled me while I cried. When I told him what I’d done, he called a friend who owned a bar near Union Square that had a boarding house on top it, and this is where I could live after leaving the dorms.
My room in the boarding house was the size of a walk in closet. Having the space all to myself was both comforting and frightening. I liked the quiet, but I was also forced to sit with myself. I was provided with an opportunity to listen to what it was 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 decided to find a therapist, and after a Google search, came across a woman who specialized in PTSD and eating disorders. I loved her right away because she listened to me without asking too many questions, but then I hated her when she told me flat out I was not consuming enough calories. I stayed, because deep down inside I knew she had my best interest in mind. Eventually, I trusted her enough for us to go deeper into the effects being hit by a bus had had on my mind, body, and spirit.
She was the first person I remember telling me, “It’s OK not to be OK.” I wasn’t crazy. I just needed to take the time to heal.
Yoga became a lifesaver. I stumbled across a studio’s schedule one day when I was working late and feeling miserable. Instinctively, my fingers went to my computer’s keyboard and typed “yoga.” There was a class in thirty minutes. I immediately shut down my computer and hurried to the closest subway. I was a few minutes away from being late to class, and there was little time to discuss details with the instructor about how I had a prosthetic leg and had never practiced yoga with it on before.
Interesting how I wasn’t nervous during class. It was as if my body knew that being on the yoga mat was exactly where I should be. Using my prosthetic leg throughout the entire class, I did the best I could and smiled at the teacher when he asked if I was OK. I was. After the deep relaxation, when we were all sitting cross-legged, I hummed along as the other students and teacher chanted. When he ended the class with “namaste,” I burst into tears. I didn’t understand why I was crying, but I reminded myself of what my therapist had been telling me since the beginning: “It’s OK not to be OK.” And, I let myself cry.
People are often curious about my healing process. I prefer the word process to overcoming because I don’t believe I have overcome anything.
My amputated leg isn’t going to grow back, and to be quite honest, I wouldn’t want it to.
The accident and recovery is teaching me invaluable lessons about myself, life, and how important it is to take the time to be. I call it showing up.
Life still has its challenges. My residual limb swells on a hot day and shrinks when it’s cold outside, which makes walking difficult a lot of the time. Phantom limb sensation feels like there are hundreds of little ants crawling all over my residual limb, and spasms suck. Although I am still considered young, my disability has aged me in the sense that I burn 60% more energy now than I did before losing my leg. Bedtime is rarely past 9:30 p.m. I do worry about the future. Though I’ve been in relationships since the accident, I wonder if the person I eventually settle down with will be able to handle the challenges I face living with limb loss. I question having children and about being a capable mom.
Sadness hits from time to time, but it’s not the type of depression I experienced directly following the accident. Eating can still be a struggle, but I am no longer starving myself or working out for hours on end. I enjoy quiet time but have traded in the bathroom stalls with a meditation practice or by taking walks. Laundry is a nuisance. I no longer see the need to fold anything perfectly. I no longer feel perfect exists. When I made the decision I no longer wanted to be sick anymore, shifts occurred. I opened up to the importance of being vulnerable and sought out people who became my support system
At times, I can’t believe the accident was ten years ago—as if it happened just yesterday. Other times, ten years feels like twenty. I’m OK with both. No matter what day it is, I take the time to connect with myself. I pause. I breathe. I cry. A lot of the time, I smile. Always, I am grateful to be alive.
Margaret Westley is a writer, fundraiser, certified integrative nutritionist, and yoga teacher. Each of these professions were inspired by a near death accident she had when she was eighteen years old and got run over by a bus, which resulted in a broken right ankle and losing her left leg below the knee. Though the recovery was tough, Margaret has always seen the accident has a huge gift! Over the years, she’s been a face-to-face fundraiser, worked in a café, been an office assistant, a healthcare attendant, meditation/yoga teacher, and is currently building a fundraising business and writing a memoir. Everyday, something or someone reminds her about how amazing life is and, for that, she is eternally grateful.
July 29, 2013