I'm just a girl with a cyborg leg. Treat me the same

Miranda Cashin puts her new cyborg leg through the paces at a training session.
Miranda Cashin puts her new cyborg leg through the paces at a training session. Chrissy Harris Photography

WHEN I was five, while learning to surf with my dad at Lennox Head and I was attacked by a shark. It ripped my right leg clean off.

No my Dad didn't punch the shark in the nose, nor do I know how big it was and I don't have it's head on my wall as a trophy.

Actually this 'shark attack' story isn't actually true but for many years it was the line I peddled to people when they asked about my leg.

Truth is I was amputated at 14 months as the result of a birth defect. As part of the condition I am also missing my right hip joint.

But growing up I never wanted to be seen as 'the disabled girl', I still don't.

I don't wish to be treated differently because I happen to be missing a limb. I don't want your sympathy, pity or concern.

I don't think of it as defining my identity.

Growing up Mum taught me that the only limitations my disability had on my life were those that I placed upon myself.

I have body-boarded, skied, rock-climbed, abseiled, kayaked and bushwalked and beat able-bodies kids at swimming carnivals.

On school camps the instructors would often eye my leg nervously and offer for me to sit the activity out.

'I don't think so', I'd respond. I'll give anything a go.

I tried best as I could not to let my leg limit me.

But in saying that, it has still been tough.

The hardest thing was living with the constant rubbing and pain that came with wearing an artificial prosthesis.

Each step is accompanied by pain and uncomfortable pinching, pulling and rubbing on the skin. Imagine the worst kind of blisters you get from uncomfortable shoes and you're halfway there.

At times the pain was so bad I would limit the amount of times I went to the bathroom at work as the short walk was akin to a Tough Mudder event.

Then it all changed one day in May of last year when I stumbled upon a brochure for a something called osseointegration.

It explained a new procedure where the traditional suction prosthesis would be a thing of the past as the operation involved implanting a rod into your femur that would attach to the rest of the artificial limb.

I had never heard of anything like it. But essentially it would completely revolutionise the way I walked, give me a more natural gait and eliminate the pain I suffered on a day to day basis.

I thought of it as the stuff of science fiction - I would essentially become a "cyborg".

I met with the only surgeon who performed the operation in Australia, Dr Munjed Al Muderis.

He explained he had performed 15 surgeries in Australia and there had been 120 worldwide but out of all those only one said they regretted it (he didn't say why this was) the rest said they would do it again in a heartbeat.

I had a quick discussion with my parents in the waiting room and without a moment of thought I said with certainty I wanted the operation.

I was terrified but I knew I had to be strong and make the tough decision without giving in to any doubts or second thoughts.

As big as the process and as scary as it sounded it would change my life dramatically and how could I live with myself passing up that opportunity?

I booked it then and there. It was a two stage operation, with extended recovery and rehab and all up l would need four months off work. 

The day before my surgery it felt like waiting in line to ride The Buzzsaw at Dreamworld for the first time. I could feel the panic rising.

But this was going to change my life.

The surgery was performed using a spinal block rather than a general anaesthetic.

It was the weirdest sensation. Below the waist I couldn't feel a thing but I could hear the saw as they chopped through my bone and I heard the hammer as they inserted the implant into my femur.

While I couldn't feel any pain I could feel the vibrations of the hammer up through the top of my body and hear it all happening. It was surreal and slightly unnerving.

The second stage involved attaching a piece of metal to the end of the implant, almost like advanced Lego, which my new cyborg leg would attach to using an allen key.

The first time I saw my new body in a full length mirror it was quite confronting.

While I knew was going to improve my life I couldn't help but feel uneasy eyeing my new leg and the piece of metal that stuck out.

I don't know if it compares at all but perhaps this is how pregnant women view their new shapes as they swell in size.

Surgeries completed it was then that the real work began. My five weeks in rehab was the hardest, most gruelling physical, emotional and mental challenge I have ever faced but the rewards, triumphs and personal growth has been incredible.

Like a kid on Christmas Eve awaiting a sack full of presents from Santa, I barely slept the night before I took my first steps. All night I had butterflies, every nerve pulsating with anticipation.

Everything I had done in the past five months had been leading up to this moment. Every appointment, every exercise and weight loading session, it had all been for this moment.

Like an athlete preparing for the Olympics I had worked hard, pushed my body to new limits and done everything I could possibly do to ensure I was  prepared and in the best shape for when that leg was attached.

In a way I had been waiting for this moment my entire life. To walk without pain. To walk as close as possible to an able bodied person.

When it came time to take my first steps I could barely breathe.

Left leg up, left leg down. Right leg up, right leg down.

It felt amazing. I let out a squeal of excitement. Someone commented my grin is was huge you could see it from behind.

"Forget about having a sore leg tomorrow, your cheeks are going to be sore," they said with pearls of laughter.

I got to the end of the bars and spun around and did it again. And again and again. Lap after lap.

I convinced Chris, my physio to let me walk down the hall on crutches. He walked beside me and I felt on top of the world.

He then told me to sit down and rest.

Rest? Are you kidding I don't want to be off this bad boy.

The next day after the adrenalin had worn off, the reality of the huge challenge of learning to walk set in.

Before I was fully capable, independent and highly functioning and now I felt like a baby hippo trying to take its first steps. I felt so slow and awkward.

For 25 years my right hip and butt muscles had laid dormant, so at first there was no muscle tone there in the slightest. And now that they were being called to walk they protested painfully and put up a fight like naughty school children.

I was so frustrated with my body. It seemed to be betraying my mind. I would tell it to do something and it refused.

Cyborg walking school was a full time job. Each day I completed three hour long physio sessions as well as an hour to two hours of weights, core work and cardio.

At the end of the day I would fall into bed exhausted but triumphant.

Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day after day. But in the midst of things it was hard to see the small improvements as they happened each day.

It was looking back at the videos taken at various stages which provided a thrill to see my progress.

Each day my walking became smoother, my muscles stronger and my confidence grew.

Then came the advanced walking class.

Ramps, uneven ground, stairs and riding an exercise bike with the leg on.

The first time I stepped outside I could feel the grass beneath my feet. I let out a laugh of delight. To actually feel the ground beneath my feet was incredible.

The day before I left rehab I re-did my gait analysis which I had done with the old leg before the first surgery. I was blown away by the difference.

I barely recognized the girl in the first video. I felt tears spring to my eyes. In the new video I was so much more upright, taller, more graceful and there was barely a limp to be seen.

After five weeks of intense walking school I was awarded my walking P plates. I have graduated and am ready for the next challenge, the real world.

I feel immense gratitude to Chris my physio.

It may have been Dr Al Muderis that made all of this possible with the surgery but it was Chris that was on the front line working with me day after day. I'm not sure I would have succeeded without him.

In terms of life changing experiences they don't come much bigger than this. I barely recognise the Miranda that left for the surgery those months ago.

Not only have I been awarded a new physical lease on life but in terms of soul searching and personal growth this osseointegration business is better than an Eat, Pray, Love style trip around the world.

I have spent so much of my life trying to hide, wanting to blend in and be as normal as possible. 

That is largely part of the reason I jumped at the chance of this surgery.

The chance for normalcy. But I have spent too long feeling ashamed and inadequate when really I should have been feeling proud.

Before I would never have considered not having a cover for the leg but now I feel comfortable to show of my new hardware.

While this journey is far from over, there is much work to be done, the future looks glittering and shiny with possibility and holds so much potential.

This year I plan to make the most of my new found cyborg status and utilize it to its capacity.

I plan to use it to open up doors of activities previously shut to me.

My resolutions are first and foremost to walk with my new leg but to walk unaided is just the beginning.

I want to ride a road bike, climb Mt Coolum, and do the 5 or 10km events in the Sunshine Coast Marathon, Noosa Tri and Bridge to Brisbane.

I may be just walking them but that in itself will feel like a huge achievement.
Bring on life as a cyborg.

To read more about my adventures in osseointegration check out my blog

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Topics:  editors picks miranda cashin osseointegration prosthetic limb walking

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