Amy Purdy spent eight weeks with her mother in a beautiful Boston apartment this summer that was covered from floor to ceiling with captivating glass windows. It was her healing environment, inspiring her to bounce back from a five-hour surgery during which two centimeters of her already amputated left leg were cut off.
Purdy, a three-time Paralympic medalist in snowboarding, was discharged from the hospital on Aug. 11, exactly 20 years to the day after her initial amputation. And in the first four weeks of recovery, her leg was put in an immobilizer from the hip down. Her muscles had been reconstructed and she was not allowed to move or bend her knee at all.
“I just felt so confined,” she said. “I couldn’t even make it moment to moment keeping my leg straight. How was I going to go four weeks?”
Purdy had already undergone five vascular surgeries in 2019 in a fight to save her leg from a serious blood clot and had recently started taking baby steps for the first time in a year. The drawback from those vascular surgeries was that her limbs were left more boney; she effectively lost padding in the bottom of her leg. It was very uncomfortable to stand or walk in her prosthetic. She would need another revision to her leg.
Purdy took it upon herself to research next steps and looked to double-amputee Hugh Herr, who heads up the biomechatronics group at MIT, for advice.
“He’s like the Elon Musk of prosthetics — just an unbelievable genius of a man,” she said.
Herr connected her with a surgeon in Boston who was running medical trials at MIT focusing on revisions to amputations that prevent atrophy, or wasting away of the body. Instead of cutting muscles, doctors connect them so there’s a protagonist and antagonist.
That is exactly what Purdy needed. Surgery would allow the muscles in her leg to function again to a degree, prevent future atrophy and help her vascular system.
“Amputations haven’t changed much since the Civil War. They tend to just cut through the bone and sew you up and call it a day,” Purdy said. “With that comes atrophy because you’re not using the muscles. The longer you are an amputee, the more and more your body atrophies. If I did a traditional amputation I would continue to deal with more atrophies throughout my life.”
The surgery felt surreal because Purdy never imagined she’d be back on the operating table for another amputation. She kept her hospital glass half full, though, knowing she was at least starting from experience this time.
“I was able to go so far, and I have to believe that that’s possible again,” she said. “It’s amazing what your body and mind can do when you are forced to accept something and have to adapt.
“I was just as nervous and scared as when I lost my legs 20 years ago. The uncertainty was still there. However, I was able to rely on experience from 20 years ago when I was uncertain and scared as well but then saw how amazing things turned out to be. You can’t predict the future, but if looking at my past was any indication, then I knew it was going to be OK.”
Now on a long road to recovery, Purdy can’t control when she will be back walking and snowboarding as she had before, she can only take the steps needed to forge forward.
The same goes for the COVID-19 pandemic — she insists society can only control what to do in the moment to progress, instead of falling behind.
IT’S AMAZING WHAT YOUR BODY AND MIND CAN DO WHEN YOU ARE FORCED TO ACCEPT SOMETHING AND HAVE TO ADAPT.
“This year has been equally challenging as it has been rewarding,” she said. “With these obstacles that I and others have faced in 2020, I’m always looking for the opportunities within them. This downtime has actually been really amazing. I call it the fruits of COVID — these silver linings that have come out of the pandemic and lockdown, and also the surgery that I’ve had.”
Purdy, also the co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports, has refocused her energy toward passion projects she had always put on the back burner. She’s expanded her network. She’s immersed herself in current events. She’s created safe spaces to help inspire and motivate others. Her virtual speaking engagements, which started as Zoom calls, are now done from a full studio built into her house backed by a green screen.
“There’s still so much to be grateful for. It’s looking at what you can control and what you can’t control. Once we can separate those things and take a step back, we’re able to wrap our head around it more and see the bigger picture,” she said.
All while juggling surgery and recovery, Purdy joined a mastermind group of highly successful women entrepreneurs who meet weekly, set in motion her own six-week book club, and laid the foundation for her new podcast “Bouncing Forward with Amy Purdy,” which launches in January and focuses on overcoming obstacles and using challenges to get ahead.
She also laid the foundation for a future “Amy Purdy Fund,” which will one day provide grant funding for both future Paralympians and the general disabled population just looking to better their quality of life.
And even on the days when she wakes up fully overwhelmed by all that 2020 has thrown at her and the world, Purdy tries to be an opportunist. Following the protests of George Floyd’s death in June, she teamed up with professor and social justice activist Dr. Peniel Joseph to host a virtual book club for “Just Mercy” for 400 people. The aim was to educate people about social injustices and converse on how they can show up more for their communities. All of the proceeds and donations went to the Equal Justice Initiative.
“I thrive on challenging myself and helping others to do the same,” Purdy said. “I live up in a gorgeous ski resort with athletes, not always seeing the injustice that continues to go on in our country. It was a great opportunity to pull together my community, have conversations and learn something.”
Purdy is now almost healed. She’s waiting for one little spot to get better — it may be a nerve, scar tissue or a rogue stitch, she’s unsure — before she can walk again.
“It’s forcing me to have patience because I’m ready to go,” she said, with her goal of being a Tokyo 2021 torch bearer next summer at top of mind. “If I can walk comfortably on prosthetics, then I know I can snowboard.”
“It would be amazing to go back and compete at another Games. That was my initial plan. I’m not stepping away from that idea yet because I like having these goals to work towards, but I’m also continuing to work on helping other athletes to build their Paralympic dreams and goals.”