Having a double amputee interrupted my exercise routine. Then I tried climbing

By the time I was 39, I was physically able to do any activity or sport I wanted; Play tennis, do aerobics every week, even hike for three days with a 17-kilogram backpack.

What I was up to was my own choice and nothing else. Now the opposite is true.

You see, my hands and feet were amputated because I had sepsis and I am now disabled.

Sports that I tried as a double amputee

I’ve tried swimming and yes, after a lot of practice and using floats to save myself from drowning, I’ve discovered that backstroke is the way to go. But it is painful to scratch my amputated stumps at the bottom of the pelvis. Plus, getting in and out of the car was not comfortable as a kid and still horrible as an adult, even with caregivers helping me.

After I was fitted with highly dynamic prosthetic legs, I went back to my aerobics class. The girls at my local leisure center were happy to let me take part again, but unfortunately my knees have been cluttered since my illness. And at the end of the hour-long class, my stumps were screaming at me too.

So I’ve decided that being able to walk is much more important than having a weekly training session.

I’ve even experimented with wheelchair rugby. Amazingly, I could only do this with my stocky arms, but since I lived in regional Victoria, the training location was well over an hour away. A two-hour tour in the dark is a lot, even for the best.

In the end, my training was reduced to group mobility courses, often with people twice my age and many patients who have recently received hip replacements.

The search continues

So, angrily, I started scrolling social media looking for ways to keep other amputees active.

I came across The No-Handed Bandit. Samona (Sam) Matagi lost both hands in an electrical accident while serving as a linesman in Colorado. As with me, Sam’s arms were amputated just below the elbows. Over the years, he posted videos showing him doing various tasks like brushing his teeth and eating hamburgers while using his body-powered hooks.

One video showed Sam playing basketball with a flat plastic hand attached to his arm.

I found out that it came from an American company that specialized in prosthetic fixtures for various hobbies such as golf, tennis, and softball. There was even a hammer attachment and a garden trowel.

The list of options was endless and with the help of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) I went through the catalog and bought a number of these things.

A selection of modified kitchen utensils, cutlery and metal hooks sit on a kitchen bench next to prostheses
Mandy uses specially developed attachments that are connected to her prostheses.(Delivered: Mandy McCracken)

From internet search to rock face

A few weeks later, the box of goodies arrived at my orthopedic technician. She was just as excited as I was, and after throwing my arm for the new socket, she sent me away and started building.

And while I was waiting, Sam, to my surprise, posted a video of himself climbing. Rock climbing! When I was in my early 20s, I used to climb religiously.

Climbing is both mentally and physically demanding and consists only of you and the wall, with only a thin rope preventing you from falling to the ground. It was a sport I loved and seeing Sam successfully make it to the top of a wall lit a fire in my stomach.

A few weeks later, when I was standing in my orthopedic technician’s office with new black sockets on my stumps, I had a simple question; “Will these hold my body weight?” And with a distinct eye roll, she grabbed the end of my new arm and pulled on it. They didn’t move an inch, brilliant!

Again I discovered Adaptive Climbing Victoria on social media. It is a group of volunteers who help people with disabilities with climbing. I signed up immediately and a few weeks later a team of beaming volunteers greeted me and my family in a climbing gym.

Woman grins and wears a prosthesis on one arm
Mandy with her new prosthesis attachments.(Delivered: Mandy McCracken)

How it felt that day

I and a dozen disabled participants were grateful because the room was closed to the public and shown the ropes. Rod – my husband – brushed my arms with two silicone inserts and clicked my new socket over them.

And with the call “On belay” I was gone.

Amazingly all skills came back and as I walked up the wall I could hear the young man who was holding the rope under it said to my husband, “My God, she actually can!”

Woman climbs indoor rock wall
With the support of Adaptive Climbing Victoria, Mandy was able to return to rock climbing.(Delivered: Mandy McCracken)

Climbing is all about leg strength. You really want your hands to be as close to the wall as possible. Fortunately, my new sockets held me tightly to the wall and with a few carefully arranged kicks I climbed about two stories.

The handsome guy downstairs gave the rope an extra pull on occasion just to help me get the next grip, but I did.

After an hour of climbing, my arms started sweating and my silicone sleeves started slipping which luckily ended my day.

Grinning from ear to ear, I got into conversation with the other climbers and discovered that there were no competitive quadruple amputee climbers in Australia.

So if I wanted to compete, I would automatically win by just taking off the ground! Hilarious.

That night at home, I sent these photos to my prosthetist and even tagged Sam on social media. Grateful for the inspiration, I thanked a man I had never met on the other side of the world.

ABC cooperates with International Day of People with Disabilities to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disabilities.

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