Nikki Bradley (35), who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma – a rare form of bone cancer – at the age of 16 has had a new knee joint constructed from her right foot.
The Donegal woman underwent a rare rotationplasty whereby surgeons removed her hip prosthetic, amputated her right thigh and rotated her lower leg 180 degrees before attaching the knee at the hip socket.
The Donegal native made the life-changing decision to amputate her leg eight weeks ago after radiotherapy treatment destroyed the bone in her right hip, leading to almost two decades of chronic nerve pain.
Now, in an exclusive Sunday World interview, the motivational speaker and avid adventurer – who has been unable to walk without aid since her illness – has opened up about her journey.
“I gave the surgery a definite ‘no’ when I googled it – I was like, absolutely not. It looked like Frankenstein, taking a leg off and putting it back on the other way. I hated it. That was before I educated myself and once I did my research I knew it was the right decision.”
Sharing her journey to recovery on her social media platform Nikki is determined to shine a light on the highs and lows of life post-op.
“I put up a post shortly after my surgery, and I just said, ‘look, let’s all acknowledge this together. Yes, it looks weird, let’s just get that out of the way straight away and let’s all get used to it together’.
“Everybody that commented or sent pictures admitted, ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying but when I saw it first, I found it really unusual. I couldn’t understand it. But the more I’ve been following your journey, the more it makes sense’.
“I think just being honest in that way has helped and has allowed people to actually express their real feelings rather than feeling ashamed for just having that initial reaction.
“It is strange, when I go out people are going to stare because it’s very unusual, but as long as people don’t stare in a negative way, I don’t mind if people are curious. If I can help anyone coming up behind me and ease their worries, then I’m happy.”
Unable to access the revolutionary treatment in Ireland, Nikki travelled to Birmingham where she was one of just four patients to undergo the operation.
“I spoke to my specialist and I was given three different options. One was a 3D-printed hip, which is essentially a third hip replacement. Another option was full right leg amputation where they take absolutely everything right up to your waist and the full leg is gone. The third option was the rotationplasty which would allow me to have a prosthesis fitted and give me a great quality of life.”
The operation works whereby the patient’s foot fits down inside a prosthesis and functions much the same as below-the knee amputation
“I don’t know if there’s anybody in Ireland that’s had the exact type of surgery that I’ve had. My surgeon who is a leader in his field told me I was the fourth person he ever performed this specific surgery on.
“Normally it’s from the knee, that’s where the operation takes place but I actually had my hip taken out and replaced with my knee.”
Nikki, who in 2013 set up Fighting Fit For Ewing’s, an awareness campaign to show others that goals can be achieved, regardless of physical disability, was spurred on to take action after she began to experience debilitating pain during lockdown.
“I’ve struggled with nerve pain since my very first operation; sometimes the pain was so bad I would fall over, but when the first lockdown happened, I noticed that my pain spiked and it was because I was out of my routine.”
Unable to train in her local gym or enjoy Pilates, which aided her muscles and joints, Nikki’s condition declined.
“I started experiencing quite a lot of pain in my back and my neck. I eventually ended up having to have steroid injections. I was told that the issues with my back was starting from problems with my hip and until I fixed the hip, the back was going to continue to worsen.
“I started thinking about my future, and with the pain worsening quite quickly, it was a case of where am I going to be in five years time?
“I did my research and I found a girl called Jess Quinn, from New Zealand, who had the surgery. When I found her profile and saw she was living a completely normal life, everything changed. Suddenly I found a girl that was close in age to me that was living her best life. The operation didn’t seem as scary.”
Since going under the knife, the avid hiker has openly detailed her struggles with excruciating nerve pain.
“The nerve pain has been definitely the biggest hurdle to overcome after the surgery, at times it has just floored me.
“I still find it so hard to describe. Just in my foot right now I’m feeling a mixture of pins and needles and burning even though it’s not hot, but that’s the way it feels all day every day.
“It’s the worst shooting pain in the entire world. After saying all of that, it’s getting better.”
Speaking of the emotional fallout of her surgery, Nikki said: “I took a few pictures before the operation. I had such a significant leg length discrepancy where my right leg was so much shorter than the other that my leg didn’t look normal before anyway, but it hasn’t fully hit me yet.
“I do feel like that’s something that I’ll probably have to work through a little bit further down the line. The one thing that I wasn’t expecting was, I call it the football, the big circle at the top of my leg. I was expecting my leg to be backwards I built myself up mentally for that but I didn’t know I was going to have this big thing at the top of my leg.
“I found that harder to accept because it’s been so difficult to just even dress myself. It will continue to shrink over the next year and in about 11 months I’ll be able to have whatever’s left removed.”
The outdoor enthusiast who has already scaled some of Ireland’s highest peaks with the aid of her crutches, will undergo physio to be ready her for her prosthetic. Looking to the future, she has no plans of slowing down.
“Even though I’m only eight weeks tomorrow post-op, I’m dying to drive,
“I can’t wait to get the prosthetic and go back to adventuring. I wasn’t able to bend at the hip before the operation, I wouldn’t have been able to lean forward even to reach further than my knee before. That movement will allow me to try skiing. Kilimanjaro is also on my list, and I haven’t ice skated since I was a teenager.
“I’m excited for the future and for all that is to come.”