WAXHAW, N.C. (AP) - There was a time - not too long ago, in fact - when the mere thought of an amputee or a prosthetic limb would sink Jenn Andrews into a depression that might take days to dig herself out of.
She couldn’t identify. Didn’t want to identify. If she tried to imagine what her life was about to become, the exercise would end with her crumbling into an ugly cry.
At the same time, she knew allowing a surgeon to eliminate a key part of her body was the strongest possible stance she could take against the rare form of sarcoma that was trying to take her life. So on March 12, 2018, she woke up in a recovery room at the hospital lighter by one right foot - but also, surprisingly, with a weight removed from her shoulders.
With a fresh optimism about the future.
In the nearly 21 months since her right foot was taken away, the 35-year-old Waxhaw mother of two young children is long over grieving her loss, long past feeling sorry for herself. In fact, today, a big chunk of her life is devoted to amputees, to prosthetic limbs, and to bringing them together through the 501(c)(3) organization that she and her husband, Miles, established last year.
Today, Andrews cries a lot less often for sad reasons and a lot more often for happy ones, namely when she gets to surprise a fellow sarcoma survivor with a new activewear prosthesis courtesy of a Move For Jenn Foundation grant.
Does she miss being on two feet? Absolutely, she says. Would her life be so much easier if she still had both of them? Yes.
“But this whole experience has changed me so much to the core,” she says. “I’m not the same person that I was. … And with each grant we give, it just heals me emotionally. Nothing can make me feel the way that I feel when I give somebody back their mobility. Nothing. So I just want to do it over, and over, and over.”
‘LIFE DOESN’T STOP. I PROMISE.’
After learning in January of 2018 that the cancer she thought she’d beaten more than three years earlier had come back, and after subsequently turning over every possible rock to try to find a solution that didn’t involve cutting off her foot, Andrews scheduled her surgery and tried to make peace with what was going to happen.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was hell.
As her head filled with dread in anticipation of her surgery day, she also - at her lowest point - lost the motivation to work out and cook family dinners (despite the fact that she was then a full-time health and wellness coach and food blogger), avoided social situations, and tore through box of Kleenex after box of Kleenex.
“I was on the highest possible dosage of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety (medications) - literally anything that they could give me to not feel was my goal,” Andrews recalls. “I mean, when you’re going through cancer and about to lose a limb and you have two small kids, like, how are you not a wreck?”
But a couple of bright spots were able to penetrate the dark cloud hanging over her.
One came in the final days before her surgery, when she took to social media to ask people to celebrate their ability to move by doing some sort of meaningful physical activity on the day of her surgery; her tearful video went viral and inspired a flood of supportive messages that buoyed her spirits - as well as the hashtag #moveforjenn.
The other also was facilitated by social media, although out of public view.
Through online searches, she stumbled upon Jacky Hunt-Broersma, a Raleigh woman who lost her left leg to the disease in 2001 and in recent years has achieved a modicum of fame as an amputee trail runner. In the middle of an anxiety-filled and sleepless winter night not long after her new diagnosis, Andrews sent Hunt-Broersma a plea via direct message on Instagram.
Your page and website are amazing. Inspiring doesn’t quite cover it for me. You see, I have sarcoma and will be losing my lower right leg/foot in the next few weeks. I’m struggling with it, and was curious if you’d be open to chatting about your experience?
Hunt-Broersma’s reply couldn’t come soon enough:
YES, would absolutely love to chat with you. … It is something really hard to accept, but you can still have a wonderful life after it. Life doesn’t stop. I promise. When do you want to chat?
They were on the phone together later that day.
“And she answered every question I had about the surgery, the procedure, what to expect, things to know,” Andrews says. “She really put my mind at ease on a lot of things that really I felt like nobody could have helped me with. In a way, she helped me when I didn’t think I could be helped … and restored my faith in myself that I was going to get back to doing - in terms of my activity level - what I did before.”
The two stayed in contact, and just recently, through her foundation, Andrews was able to return the favor in spades.
‘THAT RIPPED ME APART’
To a certain degree, the Move For Jenn Foundation was born out of frustration. Andrews’ frustration, with a health-insurance system that helps amputees to obtain a prosthesis only for walking (along with the socket that joins the prosthesis to the residual limb).
Above and beyond that - say, if you’re an amputee who wants to run a few miles with your dog, or bike through the park with your kids, or play basketball with friends, or engage in any other type of fitness pursuit more advanced than walking - the money for what’s often called an activewear prosthesis will have to come out of a patient’s own pocket.
The going rate? It varies, but a running blade and a custom-fitted socket paired together starts in the $5,000-$10,000 range.
“My husband and I got to thinking about how many families out there were exhausting all of their funds and going into huge medical debt because cancer treatment is expensive by itself,” Andrews says. “And then when you add in prosthetics … I mean, how many people aren’t being active and aren’t running because they can’t afford it? Thinking about that ripped me apart.”
Move For Jenn (which is hyperfocused on helping sarcoma amputees, not just amputees in general) was established as a nonprofit in May 2018; by December, it had raised enough money to help out Jacob Poteat, a 20-year-old firefighter from Rutherfordton who had lost his leg to osteosarcoma the previous spring and dreamed of returning to active duty.
As she presented the new running blade to the stunned young man at the Hangar Clinic in Charlotte, Andrews was practically squealing in delight - and weeping tears that rolled down the sides of her face past a broad smile.
‘I WILL NEVER BE THE SAME’
On a brilliantly beautiful blue-sky morning at the beginning of this month, Andrews - dressed in a white unicorn costume and a pair of black Nikes - fought back tears once again as she addressed a crowd of supporters at the Pajamas All Day 5K, which drew nearly 850 participants and marked Move For Jenn’s biggest fundraising event to date by far.
Generally speaking, it was a day to celebrate the gift of movement while raising the means to help more sarcoma amputees. In a way, though, it was also a celebration of Andrews’ journey.
In less than two years’ time, she’d gone from being someone who was filled with hopelessness to being someone who fills the lives of others with hope. In less than two years’ time, she’d gone from being terrified about a life without one of her feet to embracing that life.
At the Nov. 2 event, her foundation awarded two grants:
The first was a hot-pink racing wheelchair for Karen Jenks, a Charlotte woman who had mentored Andrews in early 2018 as a below-the-knee sarcoma amputee and then had a recurrence of the disease that forced her to have an above-the-knee amputation that March - the same week Andrews’ foot was amputated.
The second grant was a custom, one-of-a-kind, not-yet-on-the-market trail running blade for Jacky Hunt-Broersma, who since first connecting with Andrews online had graduated to ultra-marathons of 40 miles and longer.
It wasn’t just that she’d gone from seeking help from other amputees to providing help for other amputees; in that moment, the whole thing came full circle in a way that left both women in happy tears.
Indeed, the future that once looked so bleak to Andrews now looks brighter than ever.
The Pajamas All Day 5K raised $90,000 for the foundation, and over the next few months, Andrews says Move For Jenn hopes to get the stars to align on grant approvals for two more sarcoma amputees. She’s written a draft of a book about her trials and her triumphs that she hopes a publisher will connect with.
And she’s getting back to running herself, finally, after a long struggle to find a properly fitting socket for her own blade; if all goes well, she’ll run another 10K soon - she’s completed three since she lost her limb, after never running that far on two feet.
“I will never be the same person. Like, that person is gone. My thought process on life and what’s important and my mission in life is not the same.”
But she doesn’t believe this was her destiny.
“I’m not one of these people that thinks ‘Everything happens for a reason,’” Andrews says. “At all.”
Here’s what she does believe: “You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction. It’s normal to crumble and be crushed when you receive news like I initially received. But then it’s like, OK, what am I gonna do with this? Am I gonna stay crumbled? Or am I gonna rise up? And I didn’t let myself stay crumbled.”
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