Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Through bravery and hardship: losing a leg, gaining a new home in Tucson

Talya Simha Fanger-Vexler is learning to walk with her new prosthesis. (Courtesy Talya Simha Fanger-Vexler)

My whole body trembled as I tried to fight back the tears that were streaming down my face. “Wait!” I screamed. “One more, just one more photo … please?” I said meekly as I tried my best to swallow through a dry and swollen throat. The pre-op nurses nodded at one another as I slid my shaking body off of the hospital bed and hopped on one foot toward the far wall where my crutches and bag of personal items sat. I was doing everything in my power to balance my body as I took my cell phone out of my bag. I hopped back to the bed and looked at my right foot marked for surgery. I could barely see through the scattered vision of my teary eyes, yet I tried to take one last photo of my right foot and lower leg, and then another one, and another. I took photos from this angle, from that angle. I tried to notice every last ridge, every last scar, and every last curve of the body part that would no longer remain with me past this point. “Ok, thank you,” I told the nurses. “I think, I think I’m done now … I think I’m ready …” I stuttered as I handed my phone over to one of the nurses to return to my bag and then, I totally lost it. I let the tears flow with full force. I was so scared, I was so lost, I was even angry. However, I knew that this was the right thing for me, for my future. I nodded at the people who were preparing me for surgery and they injected me with something to “calm me down” and started to wheel me out toward the surgery room. “Goodbye foot … and thank you …” was all I could think as everything started to go black.

A few years ago, I thought I had my whole life figured out, like many 22-year-olds; however, there are some things that you can never prepare yourself for. At the age of 22 my right foot was totally crushed when I was a passenger in a motorcycle accident. I fought for about two and a half years to save my foot. I was in and out of foot salvage surgeries, surgical procedures, casts, stitches, medical devices, doctor’s offices, medications, therapies … you name it, I tried it. I even had the surgeons remove parts of tendons and bones from other parts of my body, just to try save my right foot. I fought so, so hard to save the part of me that I was born with, to save the part of me that I felt I deserved to keep, only to find out that I was not going to be coming back from this injury like I had initially hoped. It took me a few years to realize it, but on top of everything else that I had lost in my life at the moment of the accident, I had already lost my right foot years ago — I just was not prepared to accept it for a long time.

I remember sitting down with my new surgeon after moving to Tucson a few months ago. I looked him in the eyes and candidly told him about my situation and about everything that I tried since my initial injury to get my previously crushed right foot to be functional, stable and in less pain. I told him that it had been years and that I’d like to talk to him about amputation as a solution to finally have a chance to regain whatever I can of my young life. He agreed that it would be a viable solution at this point and so did the many other professionals I saw before I made the decision to move forward with my right below knee amputation.

A few nights before the surgery, I wrote an official goodbye letter to my foot. I thanked God for allowing me to be born with two working legs and feet. I thanked my foot for carrying me through my first 22 years of my life well. I thanked my right foot for being there for me as I took my first steps, I thanked it for allowing me to run, jump, play and grow. I thanked it for carrying me through to adulthood, for being there for the good times and the bad … and mostly, I thanked it for the good fight and for allowing me to try to save it after the injury, even though the pain was constant, explosive and unremitting. I wrote to my own lower leg and foot that I plan to lay it down in peace so it no longer has to be in pain and I was to try to hold my head up high and fight to live the best, most active life as I could muster as an upcoming amputee.

Before my accident, I had my whole life ahead of me. I was young and extremely active. I held very active positions at work, had huge goals and aspirations and took every chance I could to get outside and to move. I ran 5 kilometers daily, did 12-mile trail runs every week, and would hike like a fiend. On top of that, I loved to utilize my weekends to go traveling and/or backpacking.

All of a sudden, I found myself in an extremely limited position. Now I was faced with the choice of living a very painful life on crutches and with all sorts of medical mobility devices in order to move. My other option was to take a chance on a more capable life as an amputee, which also may, or may not, be a less painful life in the long run. But I would have to go through severe pain upfront.

After I woke up from my amputation surgery, my main goal was to learn how to walk again. For years following the accident, walking was something that I could not do with my injured foot without experiencing horrible, explosive, merciless pain that ran rampant throughout my right leg and my entire body. The pain and dysfunction only grew worse with the countless traumatic attempts to salvage my injured limb until every moment in my body became torturous.

My limb and I were finally separated and it was all very bittersweet. I had prearranged with the hospital to pick up my limb to be buried after my amputation. As Jews, it is our custom to have our whole body returned to the earth. This custom extends to limbs and major body parts lost during our lives, whenever burial is possible. In this case, I signed all the right forms, even as hospital staff members were completely puzzled by my request to pick up my own limb at a later date. My limb was eligible for release via hospital policy at the three week point post-surgery.

I was driven to the hospital by a family member to pick up my lower leg/foot. It was wrapped up in a red biohazard bag and placed in an open cardboard box when it was presented to me. It was definitely surreal to be clutching my own lower leg on my lap as I was wheeled out of the hospital in a wheelchair by a staff member.

I clutched that cardboard box close to me the entire way from the hospital to the cemetery where my lower leg was to be prepared to be buried. A chilling feeling ran over me as I realized that this will be the last time that I will ever get to be this close to my own right leg again. By the time we got to the cemetery, I almost did not want to give complete strangers my leg at all! I mean, it was my leg … and they get to have it while I cannot? I begged them to love it and treat it kindly as if it were their own leg. As if it too, had allowed them to see the world and experience life as preciously as it has done for me. I cried so hard as I left my limb in the care of people I did not know. I turned around and left, not wanting to ever really say the goodbye that needed to happen. It broke my heart as I realized that I would never get to look at nor clutch my right leg again as I had so ungratefully done my whole life without even thinking about it twice. Thoughts flooded into my mind. I wished that I could just feel my toes in the sand one more time at the beach … or just have one more annoying, scratchy mosquito bite, or a painful blister on my right foot. I would have given anything to have my foot back, if I could just feel anything at all, just one more time, anything aside from the gut-wrenching pain that I had become all too accustomed to. I wished I could keep it, but I walked away from a part of myself that I would have never thought I would have to choose to give up.

My limb burial was held a few days after I had deposited my right leg in the compassionate and capable hands of the cemetery staff. I asked a local Jewish community leader to help put together a small ceremony to help me gain closure for the loss of my foot, as there is no specific ceremony for burying a limb. My “Foot Funeral” (as I like to call it) was announced in a local synagogue when I was not in attendance and I was amazed and elated to see so many congregants, who have become my friends, join me in support and solidarity as a beautiful ceremony was put on in honor of one chapter of my life closing and a new chapter beginning. I was reminded of the fact that we were gathered to bury my limb, and not to bury me. This statement particularly touched me, because I try to wake up every morning and remind myself of how lucky I am to be alive. I try to remember how each moment is a gift from God even though I still experience constant pain and face extreme challenges daily.

Now, as I sit here writing this article, I am again going through the emotions that I encountered during my fight for my foot and beyond. It has been about three and a half months now since my amputation and I still struggle with a lot of pain, issues with mobility and with other things as well, but I find myself writing to you humbled and alive. I write to you knowing that I have had to overcome many challenges over these last few years, and I also write to you out of hope for a new tomorrow. A few years ago, I had experienced something that I had no control over whatsoever. Today, I’ve learned to make the most difficult decisions in life out of bravery, instead of making decisions purely out of fear. My injured lower leg was buried, but I’m still here on this earth to live another day and to keep fighting toward a better life. I am currently working on learning how to walk with my new prosthesis. I am working on becoming physically capable enough to return to performing neuromuscular therapy sessions for other people who have any sort of pain in their body, even if I can only do the work in a limited capacity. I am also working on getting my real estate license, because I’m a real estate geek, and when life presents you with blocks along the way, you have to learn to carve out more options for yourself in ways that you will enjoy. The mere thought of giving back to others and working toward making our world a better place challenges me through even the toughest of moments. I would like to take the time to thank every single person who has taken part in helping me from my arrival in Tucson through my amputation and beyond. The Jewish community’s continuous support, assistance, kindness and warmth mean so much to me. Thank you.