Zoe Gottwald – ‘It is what’s left behind that counts’ – The War Amps (CHAMP)
Submitted by Denise Roussel
I feel extremely blessed that we live in Canada and have access to such tremendous health care and professional services support, and because of them, I feel blessed that I still have my 10-year-old daughter Zoe with us and she is happy again.
Our darkest day occurred on May 16, 2010. Marc and I were at my parents’ farm located just north of Pickering, ON. We were getting ready to go to the Toronto Zoo. Zoe was playing just on the deck of my parents home. We had a clear sight line to her and asked that she stay on the deck. Of course, she is only 4 years old so I know I need to grab my shoes and join her to watch over her. No sooner does that happen when I hear my husband Marc say, “Something happened to Zoe.” I ran after him and what I saw next haunts me to this day, and will never leave me. My beautiful girl was lying under a riding tractor lawnmower. She was screaming in horror. The gentleman cutting my parents’ lawn accidentally hit her. Once Marc lifted the lawnmower off of her I knew the extent of her injuries were so severe. Her left leg was mangled. Minutes later, but what felt like an eternity for me, Zoe was airlifted to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Kids. I was in the helicopter with her praying that she would make it.
She was received by what felt like an army of health care professionals, mostly at this stage it was the emergency room nurses tending to her with such focus and fury. It felt like my whole world stopped even though there was such an immense flurry of activity around Zoe. The nurses got her ready and tried to stabilize her for surgery. There was no time for them to give my explanations they just had to act fast. As I write this I feel sick to my stomach as that moment of a Mother being so helpless as my Daughter was in such a horrible way and there was nothing I could do but wait.
I know that those medical practitioners saved my daughters life that day. Then Dr. Benjamin Alman and Dr. Gregory Borschel were the leading surgeons for Zoe. They were amazing. We will never forget what they did for our Zoe. Later that day, after they had stabilized Zoe they sat Marc and I down to talk, “We can’t say exactly what will happen for sure to her leg, or if we can save it, but we will do our best”. I do not remember much of that conversation, but the words that stood out most for me were, “This is not a sprint, it is a marathon”.
The doctors tried to save her little left leg. That was our decision to try to save her limb before proceeding to an amputation, although that was still a strong possibility. I tried to remain hopeful that her leg could be saved. She had 15 surgeries in a month, 3 blood transfusions and countless other procedures. She was so brave and we were a mess. Unfortunately, her leg was in such a state of disrepair and she did get an infection. We could not bear to put her through any more surgeries and we knew it was time to amputate her limb which happened the third week of June 2010. We were strongly convinced of our decision but how do you tell your 4-year-old child that she was going to lose her leg after trying so hard to save it and putting her through so much already! We had complete faith in the medical team, the best care in the world. I had some clarity knowing that we would be starting anew. I had to think of it that way. That we could essentially move forward for Zoe.
We had an incredible social worker Julie Keagan, at Sick Kids who did so much for my mental state. She was the first person that really reassured me that Zoe would walk again one day and everything would be okay. She was also the one who introduced to The War Amps organization. I only knew of The War Amps because of the work they did for war veterans, who lost limbs in combat; I didn’t realize they helped child amputees too. She gave me so much hope and a lot of clarity. I do not remember the exact date that Darcy Merkur, Thomson Rogers came into our lives. I believe it was in June 2010.Since the accident happened on my parent’s property, we were able to consider putting a claim through to my parents’ insurance company for the injuries that Zoe sustained. We interviewed three different lawyers representing three different firms in Toronto. We felt very comfortable and also comforted by Darcy. He was a Dad too. His children were one year younger and one year older than our Zoe. He showed care and compassion. We felt that he truly cared about our family and was the right lawyer to represent our daughter for all the right reasons. Ridiculously smart too, but please do not tell him I said that!
This would be another long, tedious, emotional roller coaster. It will take ‘years’ to go through this legal battle he stated. I was thinking it is amazing how I wanted time to be pushed forward, yet in so many ways time stood still. I was never one to wish the days away but in this time of my life, I wanted this to be over. I wanted 5 years to go by. I wanted my daughter to be home walking, running playing again. I also wanted anything to do with legal matters to be over quickly. Darcy was very clear that unfortunately that would not happen. He was very precise on instructions and how difficult this would be for my entire family.
Not long after Zoe’s amputation we were headed to Holland Bloorview Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, which is the largest rehabilitation hospital for children in Canada. This is where Zoe would become physically and mentally strong again. She received around the clock care and a ton of physiotherapy and psychological therapy. I quit my wonderful job and spent 8 months at Bloorview with Zoe, so I ‘lived’ there with my cot at her bedside. I helped with all her care and therapy. There was no place I needed to be but at her side 24-7. There was a doctor who checked on Zoe regularly but for me, the nurses were phenomenal and provided amazing care and love. They certainly supported me too. Holland Bloorview is the best place to be in the worst of times. It was here that Zoe underwent hours of physiotherapy. We also met with a new team, a team that would be our future, who we would spend so many hours with. This great team was the prosthesis’s Bryan Steinnagel and Kristin Matthews. They were the talented ones who would build custom prosthetic legs for Zoe. I really connected with Kristin because she was a Mom. Lisa Engle and her team headed up the physiotherapy that Zoe would be involved in every day at Holland Bloorview for 6 months. Lisa was another superstar. The physiotherapy did not, of course, end when we left the hospital in the late Fall of 2010 and still went on for another year.
Finally in the Fall of 2010, Zoe and I were going home. A ‘new normal’ life was about to start and quite frankly we were scared, mostly me. How would I take care of her? I needed to go back to my job and how was I going to manage everything? The next chapter with The War Amps of Canada was where I would get tremendous support.
That Fall we met the wonderful people and CHAMPS (CHAMPS or child amputees) of The War Amps of Canada. The War Amps provides child amputees with financial assistance for artificial limbs and information resources that address all aspects of amputation. We were invited to an annual seminar that The War Amps graciously hosts for children with congenital limb deficiency or loss of limb(s) from accidents.
They provide so much more than financial support to families of child amputees. The emotional support and on going encouragement helped our family tremendously. I do not know where we would be without The War Amps.
I vividly remember our first seminar in the Fall of 2010 in Waterloo, Ontario. I was completely overwhelmed, emotional and grateful all at once. Zoe was so stressed. Here is my 4-year old who just lost her limb, still healing and without a prosthetic leg in her wheelchair and had no idea what this seminar was all about. I told her that she was going to meet other kids just like her, who had been in lawnmower accidents too. I was trying to do this with a happy face, yet feeling so sad and sick to my stomach. She, of course, was scared too. To see how all of the other child amputees were doing and interacting with one another was truly a beautiful moment. They welcomed us with such kindness, compassion and smiles. To see these children pushing beyond even an ‘able bodied’ child’s limits was beyond my expectations. I had so much admiration and respect. What they accomplished in the way of sports, athletics and music was far beyond what I expected. My heart raced with the fear of the unknown and shame on me for thinking for one minute that these children would not be doing amazing things. However, I do think a lot of the stress was getting the better of me, and at that time I was only thinking the worst of everything situation.
Oh how I was wrong! The children and the association gave us hope and strength. One of the CHAMP slogans I love the most is ‘it is what’s left behind that counts’.
At the seminar, we met with the Director of Playsafe, Rob Larman. Rob made Zoe laugh again. Zoe had not laughed since before the accident. She was born a healthy, a truly happy baby always laughing and smiling. I was so destroyed when that little smile was no longer on her face after her accident. She was finally smiling again at her first ever CHAMPS seminar and Marc and I were overjoyed. Rob Larman is a leg amputee resulting from an accident too. Zoe definitely connected with Rob and so many of the other CHAMPs (child amputees). She has made friends from all over Canada, for life. The War Amps is our family from the staff to all the kids. Zoe feels that she is not alone when she meets up at these seminars with all her friends. We can call on older CHAMPs girls for guidance or I can even meet up with moms through a program called ‘Matching Mothers’ whose children have gone through similar accidents and perhaps discuss issues growing up as an amputee. Zoe has been doing a lot of safety presentations and awareness campaigns that air across Canada. She was the National Safety Ambassador in 2010, and was she paired up with CFL’s Toronto Argos to do a National PSA! It is very important for Zoe to spread the Playsafe message to other children. So far she has done 5 safety presentations to her schools, and just completed another to 250 primary grade students at her school here in Calgary. We are so lucky to be a part of The War Amps. We finally feel happy again, supported and loved, most importantly for our Zoe, she feels happy again.
My family was and still remains a pillar of support for me through this whole journey. My mom, dad and brother and his wife too. As well, Zoe’s two brothers have been so supportive. Their lives obviously changed too, and a lot of Marc’s and my efforts and time go towards their sister. They have never once been less than understanding as to why. My dad loved his only granddaughter so much. My dad sadly died 3 years ago. Zoe and her ‘Papa’ were so close. Zoe was named after my dad whose name was Zoel. He just adored her. The name Zoe means ‘life’ and I believe my dad lives on in her as she is just as feisty as my French Canadian dad was.
I am so glad that Thomson Rogers decided to do this. It always helps to talk and to share my story. I am glad I wrote this, although I knew it would be difficult, I know it may give someone else hope and that makes me happy. Zoe has gone on to do wonderful things since her accident. She is a confident, strong girl ten-year-old who loves to snowboard and jump with her horse. She knows that it took an army of caring professionals and a family’s love to get her where she is today. We know we could not have done it without them, and we know we could not continue without them either. Awareness is important, feeling that you are not alone is important, and having great support helps get families through their darkest days. I have made so many new friends along the way; although they feel more like family to us now.