Still Water Skiing -- An Amputated Leg Hasn't Slowed Holley Howard Down

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - December 1997

At age 21 Holley Howard was a healthy, intelligent, active, popular, golden blonde dance instructor living in east Texas. On the afternoon of July 4th, 1981, she went out on Lake Tyler in her family's motorboat with a girl friend. She'd been to the lake many times since she was 8 years old to swim and water ski. This was day like any other. She felt no concern about dangers as she steered the boat. Suddenly a wave struck their boat sideways. The boat pitched over so violently it threw Holley and her friend into the water.

Their boat, its engine still running at full speed, circled around in a tight spin and ran over them. The propeller cut deeply into Holley's left leg. The boat kept going around in small circles and ran over the two women again and again.

Holley became exhausted trying to tread water and fight off the boat. She recalls drifting down under water, looking up at the boat overhead and thinking it was a lot safer to stay where she was. But when she realized she could drown, she said to herself "Girl! You better do something!" She surged upward away from the boat and surfaced near her friend who was passing out. Holley grabbed her friend and held on until other boaters could get to them and pull them out of the water.

With two main arteries severed, Holley almost died before she reached the hospital. Emergency surgery stopped the bleeding, but she remained in critical condition for weeks. Her left hip was shattered, her pubic bone broken, her left thigh was cut to the bone, her lower leg was mangled. During the next three months she underwent 25 surgeries and developed a severe bacterial infection--all while remaining in bed in traction.

At first the surgeons thought they might be able to save her leg, but it became too infected. A decision had to be made. Her family gathered at the hospital to talk with the doctors. Holley's father came into her room and said that her leg would have to be amputated below the knee. She could feel his agony. She thought it might help if she made a joke. She said to her father "Well, at least I'll always be able to find a spot in handicap parking!" He laughed and she says she could hear the rest of her family laughing down the hallway as they repeated to each other what she said.

Holley's family was wonderfully supportive. They visited as much as the hospital would allow. Her sister parked their car so Holley could see her dog from her bed. When she went home she was in a body cast up to her chest. Her mother made her large, wrap around skirts that made her look like "a cross between Mrs. Butterworth and the Statue of Liberty." Because she couldn't bend to get into a car, her father bought a van for transporting her.

Holley never thought of herself as a victim. She says she felt depressed shortly after the surgery, but things changed when she fell in love with her physical therapist. They were married and now have two fine sons.

Holley persisted in leading a full, active life without being identified as a handicapped person. She has worked with specialists to develop several prostheses. One is a sports model she uses to work around the home, mow the lawn, ride her bicycle, and even bounce on a trampoline with her sons. She has a "dress" model she wears when she travels and speaks before groups. It is so real in appearance it is hard to tell she is wearing an artificial leg.

A short version of Holley's story can be found in You're Not Alone: Stories of 38 Remarkable Amputees Who Conquered the Challenges of a Lifetime by John Sabolich. He is a pioneer in developing life enhancing prostheses. His observation that an amputation is a defining moment in a person's life is very insightful. A person with an amputation will never be the same again. He or she will either drift into a victim identity or be changed into a better individual with a strong inner identity.

Holley is a wonderful role model for successful coping. She is now the president of a women's association in Texas and travels widely to speak about not letting an amputation become a handicap. She has a marvelous, happy spirit and wonderful self-confidence. She appeared recently on the Gayle King television show and said she and her family were buying a home on Lake Tyler because they like life at the lake so much. When the video monitors showed Holley water skiing on her right leg the studio audience burst into applause.

You're Not Alone: Stories of 38 Remarkable Amputees Who Conquered the Challenges of a Lifetime can be purchased through the THRIVEnet bookstore link to Amazon Books

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