Back on track after amputation


He may have lost his right leg, but SÉAN O'DONNELLhas regained his independence and love of life

One evening last March I came to after an operation in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. My right leg had just been amputated above the knee. I had been warned that this was likely to happen.

My consultant, the excellent Mary Barry, told me she would try to save the leg but that it would be unlikely in the circumstances. This, and the fact that I was semi-comatose at the time, meant that there was no immediate sense of shock or psychological trauma.

My problem had started six years earlier when I underwent a bypass to an aneurism in the leg. The lower part of the surgical wound ulcerated due to diabetes. I had been hospitalised several times with this in the intervening years.

Just when the leg appeared to be healing, I developed septicaemia. This ultimately led to the amputation. I had become very ill a week earlier. A keen Rugby supporter, I had was to attend the Ireland v Italy 6-Nations rugby match but could not do so because I was so ill. That weekend I spent lying on the couch remains a blur.

Heavy duty painkillers

By Tuesday night I had intense pain behind my right knee. Even with heavy duty painkillers I could get no pain relief nor sleep and, in agony, phoned an ambulance and informed the crew that they would have to carry me down the stairs as I could no longer walk.

When the ambulance arrived the buzzer at my apartment entrance was malfunctioning so I dragged myself to the window and threw the keys to the crew below.


By now my leg was completely black. The medical staff at the hospital were unable to give me more painkillers as I had already taken so many. My consultant diagnosed septicaemia and I was prepared for emergency surgery. Despite everyone’s best efforts, my leg could not be saved.

The weeks that followed were the bleakest of my life. The residual poison in my system and my medication caused a vicious circle of nausea, stomach cramps, constipation and severe diarrhoea.

Nurses had to turn me in the bed and change me like a baby which was humiliating but they were very professional and reassured me that it was a regular part of their duties. This condition persisted even after I began to feel better and had gingerly resumed eating.

Single-minded determination

During those long dark days I was sustained by a single-minded determination to put my life back on track and regain my independence. I was eventually transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dún Laoghaire where my rehabilitation took 18 weeks on top of the five I had spent in the acute hospital.

At a group therapy session at the NRH, I articulated how I defined the position in which I found myself as being on a straight road with no turn-offs and a cul-de-sac behind me. My only option was to keep going forward. I believe some of my fellow patients may have benefited from this observation.

It was a tough regime sharing a ward with a large group of men. The main difficulty was in getting a night’s sleep with late night noise and early morning awakening . I got on very well with most of my fellow patients but the sharing of limited facilities, notably showering and toilet, were difficult for someone used to independent living.

The recreation and therapy area in the NRH, however, was a different world. This area is laid out in a quadrangle, the centrepiece of which is a pleasant well-kept garden. It also houses the patients’ canteen where the food is of restaurant standard and the staff extremely affable. The dayroom has two sections, one offering television and pool and the other, a quieter reading area with computer and broadband.

Occupational therapy

The therapy areas have fully equipped physiotherapy and occupational therapy (OT) departments, the latter with its own working kitchen and garden. In the gym we worked out for an hour under supervision most days. A swimming pool is available for hydrotherapy.

Thanks to the therapists and my own determination, I achieved the necessary fitness levels and upper body strength required to deal with an above knee prosthesis and over several weeks I got used to wearing it on some of my social excursions. I was also brought to practice using the bus and the Dart, something I do regularly now on my own.

One problem I had on discharge was that my apartment was no longer accessible, being two floors up with no lifts but with the help of my family, I found an alternative rented apartment in my preferred location.

I will be forever grateful to the therapy, nursing and care, canteen and other staff in the NRH who are people devoted to the development of the patients. Two deserve special mention: Joey Herriott and Sinead Duffy from the OT department. They were especially helpful with advice and practical assistance. This, delivered with kindness and good humour, was invaluable to me and will never be forgotten.

I have now resumed normal living following the most life-changing and traumatic few months of my life. The other day I took the Dart to Greystones as I used to do before all this happened and had dreamed I would do again, during my early dark days in hospital.

Simple pleasures

As I looked on the marvellous sea views, I pondered on how we take such simple pleasures for granted until we are faced with an uncertain future and the prospect of not being able to experience them again.

At that moment, I realised I had got my life back as I had promised myself I would do even when doubts had crept in. Onwards and upwards.

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