How Paralympian Amy Purdy got back on her feet and why ‘easy’ is all about perspective
Whenever Amy Purdy visits Las Vegas, her mind would race back.
The Sunrise Hospital, where she was born, the Venetian hotel, where she had worked as a massage therapist, and the whole lot of touristy attractions and secluded nooks that had endeared her to the desert city as she grew up. Among the many memories of Vegas, it’s one about bright, blinding lights and masked-up faces that often floods her mind.
As a young girl, Amy wanted to travel the world, live in a city where it snowed so she could snowboard, and tell amazing stories of adventure. Her job as a massage therapist, it appeared to her, was a godsend to help realize her dreams: “I had my hands, my massage table, and I could go anywhere…”
She remembers how her limbs would sometimes ache after back-to-back sessions, and how she would still hit the gym before hitting the sack. She remembers the sweltering summers, the chilly nights, and the clear and alluring skyline she could look up to wherever she went. She remembers how her dreams and ambitions were always soaring, just like the temperature in the city.
Amy had her world upended swiftly and rather mercilessly one day. It began like any other day—five sessions lined up for the day, traffic was light, and she was well on her way to work with some time to spare. By the middle of the day, she assumed she’d caught the flu, for she felt achy and reasonably sure a fever was rising. Seriously sick at home (her legs and hands had turned purple, her heart was hammering against her ribs, and she was shaking all over), Amy was taken to the hospital.
After a slew of tests, Amy was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, a virulent bacterial affliction that can go after vital organs and have a significant neurological impact. It has a high mortality rate. Through two months in hospital under serious medical observation, she had lost the functionality of her spleen, her kidney function, hearing in her left ear, and—both her legs.
“From a 19-year-old who could just pull on a dress and a pair of flip-flops and run out the door without a care in the world, I became a person who had to rely on machines, mechanics, and medical innovation in order to not live… but just survive,” Amy said in her keynote talk at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on the Las Vegas Boulevard at Freshworks’ annual global conference, Refresh 2021.
What followed was not just a grinding recovery path. Coming out of the hospital, Amy realized she had changed forever. A prosthetist brought two chunks of what looked like pipes bolted together, and she thought: “Those can’t be my legs!” Through the initial days after hospital, Amy had an existential truth staring at her in the face, no matter which way she turned. She had no legs, and she had to live with it. She felt both pierced horrendously and smacked frontally, a realization that was at once a sledgehammer and a scalpel. When she slept, it was no ordinary sleep—it was a “desperate dash out of the real world.” For months on end, the struggle to accept the new Amy was depressing and exhausting on both physical and emotional fronts.
Her emotional recovery, amazingly, started after months, and with new perspectives about her own condition. As her courage soared and her prosthetics improved, she was no longer five foot five, as before. In fact, she told the audience that she could be anything now—five foot ten or even six foot if she wanted to be. Out on dates, she could adjust her height so she and her date could always be eye to eye, no matter whom she dated!
The other benefit of having bionic body parts was that it helped satiate her need for different kinds of shoes. Any pair she wanted to buy, she needn’t worry about the fit. She could have as many pairs as she wanted, in as many sizes as she wished: “I no longer have to buy the shoe to fit the foot, I can buy the foot to fit the shoe.”
Even though fleeting, what Amy felt when she made light of her condition made her realize one thing: it is possible to be happy—even after a tragedy like the one she suffered. In life, there is always a silver lining.
As though to make sure of that, she was tested again. Months after she got on a steady recovery course, her kidneys failed her. To help her gather the immunity to fight meningitis should it visit her again, Amy had been on all kinds of immunity-boosting drugs (including a unique aloe juice her mother would get her after 3-hour drives twice a week). And to think of taking immuno-suppressants all her life so that the transplanted kidney wards off any attack from her immune system!
Describing her state as ‘absolutely devastated’ would be an understatement. The gurneys, the clean corridors, the faint smell of disinfectants, the blinding lights and the masked-up faces. How much deeper is rock bottom? she wondered.
Amy was truly at a crossroads. To tackle the question in front of her, she focused her mind on the future. What did she want people to remember her by? Furthermore, what was that one thing she didn’t want people to remember her by? And pat came the answer. She didn’t want to be identified with her amputation. She wanted to be known as Amy the snowboarder who comes carving down mountains of snow.
Beginning there, Amy started her march toward her personal summit. After the surgery and slow recovery, Amy began working on the snowboard in earnest. It wasn’t easy. Her knees wouldn’t bend and at the first attempt, she sent her prosthetic support flying, scaring a couple of first-timers into quitting the whole snowboard thing altogether!
It dawned on her that if it were that simple, other people with prosthetic legs should have been seen snowboarding. She contacted adaptive ski schools to find out if anyone with a similar condition had managed to do it. Sometimes, it felt like a wild goose chase but she persevered. After months, she decided she might have to make her own feet. Sitting with her legmaker, Amy fashioned a pair of feet that would do her bidding —bend or turn at her will. Weeks of iteration and trying out followed, and one day, rather miraculously, Amy was on her feet and out to make a serious attempt at snowboarding.
After that, it was a typical no-looking-back story. Amy hit one milestone after another. The first one was to extend a hand to those behind her: she started Adaptive Action Sports in 2005 to help those with permanent disabilities to get into action sports. Along with husband Daniel Gale, Amy canvassed for getting adaptive snowboarding into the Paralympic Games, leveraging a partnership with the ESPN X Games.
Intense training on the field and her campaign to get a competitive platform for adaptive snowboarding happened in parallel. Finally, Amy was all set to compete.
She won the Bronze medal in the 2014 Paralympic Games held in Sochi, Russia. The record is that she was then the only competitor, male or female, with two prosthetic legs to win a bronze medal for the US. In 2018, she competed in the second Paralympic Games tournament in PyeongChang, South Korea; she brought home a silver, and a bronze.
Between these two victories, Amy describes the latter one as far more ‘delightful’, because she was there not for the medal but for the spirit of the sport, as opposed to the earlier contest when her delight was somewhat overshadowed by all the dash for perfectionism and achievement. She extrapolates the underlying sentiment to mean something larger here: in work, just like in life, if there’s someone who understands that the purpose exists in the struggle as much as the end, it makes work delightful.
From being someone on the verge of death, Amy Purdy climbed all the way to win three Paralympic Games medals and become one of the most popular adaptive snowboarders in the world. Along the way, she has set up a non-profit organization that supports people like her and traveled the world to tell amazing, inspiring stories of grit, passion, and determination. She did not stop there. Just as she used her determination to get the feet for snowboarding, she got the ones that helped her dance. Amy and her partner finished up second in the popular dance show Dancing With The Stars. Amy also became a best-selling author with her memoir On My Own Two Feet.
Two years ago, Amy had an accident that severely injured her left leg. Since the accident, Amy has had several surgeries, all in the attempt to save the leg. She says that she has no idea which way things will go, but one thing she is sure about: she is not going to let her challenges get the better of her. Every time they close in on her, she returns to her crossroads, which is a question:
“If your life were a book and you were its author, how would you want your story to go?”
The Amy Purdy keynote was one of the many sessions at Refresh 2021. There were other inspiring guest speakers, customer and breakout sessions, awards, and much more.
To revisit the Refresh 2021 sessions and get to know more about the speakers/topics, please head over to https://www.freshworksrefresh2021.com/
For new product and feature announcements, go here: https://www.freshworks.com/whats-new/
For more blog posts on Refresh and interesting happenings at Freshworks, watch this space!
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