From The St. Catherine's Standard, Saturday, January 25, 2014
By Cheryl Clock
The pain in her left leg was incredible.
At first, a young Carol Mills thought it was from the physical abuse she took playing semi-pro soccer in Scotland. After all, she was a healthy, 18-year-old who was at the peak of fitness.
What else could it be?
In fact, the pain was from ostegenic sarcoma - the same aggressive bone cancer that killed Terry Fox.
To save her life, her leg was amputated. And even that was no guarantee.
On May 4, 1978, surgeons removed from as far up her thigh as possible to get rid of the cancer, yet still allow her enough off a leg to learn to walk again with a prosthetic.
The decision was hers, but there weren't many options. Doctors told her afterwards that even with the amputation, and the chemotherapy that followed, they had given her three months to live.
Carol is 55 now, the mother of three adult children, grandmother of one.
And, in her own words, she is the "luckiest person alive."
"If I was going to die, I was going to have fun doing it," she says.
"I was going to live life to the fullest."
On her terms.
When she was pregnant with her first child, doctors suggested she not wear her prosthetic leg. She did. When doctors suggested she give birth by Caesarian, she insisted on trying natural childbirth. She did that too. She's taught her children how to ride bikes, even though she couldn't run alongside them. And when she first stepped into a pool, she swam in circles until she learned how to propel herself with one leg in a straight line.
Carol is president of the Niagara Amputee Association. She is passionate about helping new amputees regain confidence and view life with a renewed hope. She and other members visit people in the hospital or rehab centre.
More recently, she and the association have been working alongside the Brock-Niagara Centre for Health and Wellbeing, to create an exercise program for amputees. T.E.A.M. - Therapeutic Exercise for Amputees in Motion - began on January 13, for people with leg amputations. It's run like a regular gym - membership is $400 annually for amputees, $300 for a spouse, with no contracts to sigh. Yet, that's pretty much where the similarities end.
The Centre's coordinator, Scott Stevens, is a kinesiologist who has worked previously with amputees when he was at the Hotel Dieu Shaver Health and Rehabilitation Centre.
First off, the gym is non-threatening, he says. Amputees share the space with seniors 55-plus and cardiac rehab members. A second gym is used by people with spinal cord injuries and is open to amputees in wheelchairs.
Exercising among peers is a safe, comfortable experience, and often leads to friendships and positive connections, says Stevens.
"There's a social bond that develops." he says. "A feeling of hope that everything's going to be OK."
As in-patients in rehab, amputees exercise and eat well. Once they go home, many struggle with maintaining that healthy lifestyle. They might try going to a gym, but often have issues of body image and using the equipment, and don't continue, he says.
Students from Brock's Med Plus and kinesiology programs volunteer to help amputees develop and progress through a personalized exercise program. And if necessary, equipment can be modified.
When the program had a trial run in 2013 with four amputees, the feedback was unanimous: "All their fears, misconceptions and trepidations they had about going to the gym didn't come true." says Stevens.
Will my leg fall off? What if I can't get on or off the equipment? All those fears and more were alleviated.
It's common for new amputees to struggle with issues of body image and negative self-esteem, says Karen Valley, Director of The War Amps' National Amputee Centre. They need to relearn all the skills needed for activities of daily living, including centre of balance, agility and mobility. Amputees are susceptible to falls. All this can impact their pride, self-esteem, and feelings of independence, she says.
Carol, too, has seen amputees regress once they return home. They loose hope. "They think they'll never be able to be the way they were before, so they give up," she says.
The experience of being around other amputees can motivate and inspire, she says.
It's about helping amputees live a better quality of life, she says. "How can we help amputees have a better life? How can we keep them on their feet and mobile."
And you just might find Carol at the gym too. After all, there are few things she won't try with a motto for living that has served her well: "Your life is what you make it."