For Andrew Fairbairn February 25, 2015 will always be a significant day he will not forget.
- About 4.4 million Australians live with a disability, the ABS says
- More than 93 per cent of those acquired the disability after birth
- It can take amputees several years to fully accept their body
That was the day he had his leg amputated after 10 years of pain and suffering from a foot infection.
No matter how many antibiotics he was prescribed the pain just would not subside.
Mr Fairbairn explained the decision to have his leg amputated was one that he did not take lightly.
“I researched widely, and spoke with many amputees, including the CEO of Limbs 4 Life, Melissa Noonan AM,” he said.
“I had to make sure that I was educated and, possibly more importantly, that my wife and children understood what I was going to have done.”
“I was in and out of hospital, I had three surgeries and numerous outpatient visits before I met Dale, my therapist, who guided me through the journey to becoming an amputee.”
Mr Fairbairn said he worked with a psychotherapist, who is also an amputee, to come to terms with his disability.
The physio told him it would take about five years to fully come to terms with being an amputee and being able to see his body as whole again.
“Reflecting on his words, he was pretty much spot on,” he said.
“By 2020 I had come to terms with being an amputee and having a physical disability.”
Adapting to amputation can take years
Clinical exercise physiologist Jake Nimmo said quite often amputees will develop a poor gait pattern due to hypersensitivity to pain, and the body adjusts and compensates for its new centre of gravity.
“From this we will see bad habits arise leading to joint impingements and poor activation sequencing leading to tension and pain,” he said.
“It is very important to address these issues early and have a pain management plan that is easy to implement for the client.
“This process can take a long time and varies depending on the individual.”
Mr Nimmo said it could take anywhere from six months to two-to-three years for someone to become accustomed to moving without a limb.
“This will be due to swelling surrounding the point of attachment for the prosthetic changing regularly, altering how the prosthetics feels and how they sense the prosthetic moving,” he said.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) there are an estimated 4.4 million Australians with a disability, with a large proportion of those acquired at a later stage.
“Of these 4.4 million people, the majority — 93.1 per cent or 4.1 million people — reported age of onset of main condition sometime after birth,” a spokesperson said.
“Only 6.9 per cent — 302,700 — reported their main condition was present at birth.”
Finding a new way of life
As a below-the-knee amputee, Mr Fairbairn said he has had to find ways to do things that he used to take for granted.
Something Mr Fairbairn must do on a daily basis is get himself up earlier than he used to, as he has to be fully awake before putting on his prosthetic in the mornings.
“I have had a few times when I wasn’t fully awake and have gone to take a step and ended up on the floor.”
As a performing musician, he must scope out a venue before playing there.
He has to look at the physical layout, particularly if there are stairs, as he uses a wheelchair when he is tired.
Mr Fairbairn said he had found a lot of places are not wheelchair-friendly at all.
“As a saxophonist I have been asked many times ‘How do you play saxophone missing a leg?’ and I credit this to people’s perceptions around amputees,” he said, adding he had not done any major damage apart from cracking his hip bone.
Ongoing negotiations with disability insurer
Mr Fairbairn said he had a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding package which covers most of his day-to-day needs.
But he is in fiery negotiations with the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) about the need to have his home modified for this purpose.
“In my original plan I was given funding for my wheelchair, but the delegate decided that my need for ramps over the front and back stairs accessing my house were neither reasonable nor necessary,” he said.
“This is still ongoing, but we have made some progress.”
Learning to be in public again
Mr Fairbairn said he had to learn how to deal with being out in public again, with people in shopping centres and public places regularly coming up to him and asking him what happened to his leg.
“This is usually accompanied with a story that they know someone who was an amputee,” he said.
“Most of the time I am good with that, but sometimes I just don’t want to share anything.
“My biggest disappointment is when parents drag their children away after they have asked what happened, and before I can talk with them, as children are very open and inquisitive.”
Mr Fairbairn said he was also usually asked if he had “one of those blade things”.
“People’s perceptions seem to be that all lower-limb amputees must be sports people,” he said.
“I believe they get that idea from parts of the media, saying ‘You are now an amputee, you can go to the paralympics as a runner’, and if you are not, then somehow you aren’t as worthy.”
However, Mr Fairbairn said identifying as disabled has allowed him to immerse himself within the disability sector.
He is currently the WA representative on the Limbs 4 Life National advisory council, is the elected director of People with Disabilities Australia, the WA state director and vice chair of Physical Disability Australia, and is also on the Western Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO) board.