Massachusetts woman to undergo life-changing surgery

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NORTHAMPTON (AP) >> When 17-year-old Clara Gardner was being treated in the Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center just after her legs were amputated above the knee, a nursing resident named Mary took care of her.

Gardner does not remember Mary's last name. But she does remember how Mary — who had some sort of disability that caused her to limp — gave her hope that one day she, too, could have a career despite severe physical limitations.

"Being in my position, I instantly latched onto her," Gardner, a Northampton native, said as she sat on a couch in her apartment recently.

Gardner, now 24, was loading her luggage into the back of a van outside the Amtrak station on Lyman Street in Springfield in August 2008 when a car turned the corner and crushed her into the back of the van. She had just returned from a trip to Mexico with a Spanish immersion program.

She later learned that the driver, then-20-year-old Roberto Carasquillo Jr., had been drunk. Carasquillo was sentenced to three to five years in state prison.

It's been three and a half years since Gardner taught herself to get around without a wheelchair by walking on prosthetic legs. And all things considered, she lives a pretty normal life. She drives a hand-controlled car, and lives with her long-term boyfriend, Jeff Rogers.

Not unlike others in her age group, Gardner is figuring out what she want wants to do with her life. She graduated from Smith College in January with a bachelor's degree in Spanish. Ideally, she'd like to use the skills she has acquired to bridge the language gap between her future self — who she imagines will have a career in pediatric occupational therapy — and her young patients and their families.

But Gardner says she is still limited by her mobility. The prosthetic sockets that her legs fit into are made of hard plastic that cover her thighs, so even sitting with them on is uncomfortable. The edge of the sockets rub against her skin and dig into her bones, leading to sores and abrasions. And it's hard to get the alignment of the sockets with her legs just right, causing an abnormal arch in her lower back and chronic pain.

"At times it's heartbreaking to see her having such a hard time, to see her putting up with so much pain, to see her having difficulty getting herself up and out," Kate O'Kane, Gardner's mom, said in a phone interview.

"I think I would be terrified trying to walk on those things," O'Kane went on to say. "I think it's pretty amazing she can do it at all."

If Gardner's going to be standing constantly as a therapist someday, if she's going to give young kids hope through her career, just as Mary did, something has to change.

On May 4, Gardner will undergo osseointegration surgery, which will eliminate the need for the troubling sockets. The procedure involves implanting a rod into the femur, which will extend outside the limb so that the prosthetic leg can be snapped into place.

"The surgery gives me hope of being able to live daily life comfortably, to stop limiting what I'm doing every day," Gardner said.

But the operation is expensive, between $150,000 and $200,000. Gardner's family put forward a large sum for the endeavor, but couldn't front everything. O'Kane set up a fundraiser for the surgery on youcaring.com in early February.

Neary 500 people had donated $49,758 to the crowdfunding campaign. The goal was $40,000.

Because this type of operation has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Gardner has to travel Down Under to make it happen.

Recently, Gardner and O'Kane bought their plane tickets to Sydney, Australia.

Gardner will spend one week in the hospital there post-operation, and four weeks in outpatient rehab with others from around the world who have had similar surgeries through the Osseointegration Group of Australia. Gardner and Rogers — who is joining her halfway through her Australia stay — will spend a few days sight-seeing.

Gardner said her recovery should be fairly quick because she is a "standard case," meaning she was fully developed when she lost her legs.

There are a number of people in the U.S. who have undergone this kind of osseointegration surgery, which was first developed in Europe in 1990. The Aussies have perfected the procedure, Gardner said, making it much less risky than it once was.

Gardner said she is looking forward to the next stage of her adulthood, which will likely involve applying and attending graduate school.

"It's perfect timing to have my whole life up in the air and be able to focus on the surgery," she said.

She acknowledges that without her rocks — her family, close-knit group of friends and Rogers — she would have had a much tougher time getting to where she is today.

But Gardner asserts that her "extended support system" has been just as instrumental in her growth.

"The town has risen to the occasion to help me time and time again," Gardner said of Northampton residents, later adding, "It's not that the whole town has been in my life each and every day. But they have, in a way, in the background. If you know that you have this support system behind you, that can totally change how you see everything."

Gardner said that the day she lost her legs, she was suddenly confronted with a dark side of the world — a world where people are careless with their own lives and the lives of others.

But through her trials she has seen the best of people, too, she said.

"There's so much horrible stuff going on in the world, and it can get really depressing. We can get cynical about humanity sometimes," Gardner said. "But you see what happened with this fundraiser; It's been a flood of money, but it's also been a flood of love."

Information from: The Springfield Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/


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