Not long after graduating college, Manisha Palla became an amputee. Here, she explains how she's embraced an active and independent life with a prosthetic limb, and what her experience taught her about gratitude.
“Manisha, you have to stop screaming,” my friend Regan pleaded with me. "You need to bring your heart rate down so the blood stops flowing so fast." I bobbed in and out of consciousness as she spoke, the lower half of my body lodged in the propeller of a boat.
I guess I should explain how I got there. It was July 2016, and I was in California for a month-long training program with my new colleagues. I'd graduated from college just two months earlier and relocated to Chicago to work at a tech company.
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I'm originally from Portland, Oregon, but I decided to move halfway across the country to start fresh after school, to dive into adulthood head first. I found myself in a city I barely knew, with familiar faces far away. Luckily I grew close to my coworkers. We became so tight, 13 of us planned to spend our last weekend of orientation in California at Lake Tahoe.
On our last morning in Tahoe, our group rented a boat and a water tube. We hit the lake, and I took my turn on the tube after a few others tried it out, falling off into the water just as they did at the end of my ride. No big deal.
My friend who was driving the boat came around to pick me up, signaling for me to get back in once he’d put the boat in neutral. Only he hadn’t put it in neutral. Instead, the boat was accidentally in low-speed reverse, a gear that makes the vehicle look still while it fights an oncoming current.
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As I approached the boat to hop back on, the force of its propellers pulled me in. Within seconds, the lower half of my body was lodged between the boat’s propellers. My shrieks told the driver to cut the engine immediately, but that didn't cause the propellers to release me; I was still caught.
Struggling to survive
As all this was happening, I felt confused. I knew I was in excruciating pain, but I couldn’t identify the cause. As I struggled to keep my head above water, I realized something was keeping my right leg down.
I reached down to try to yank my leg free as the water around me turned a deep red. Instead of feeling the flesh of my leg, my hand was touching exposed muscle and bone. My right leg, or what was left of it, wouldn’t budge.
It took nearly 45 minutes for help to arrive, thanks to the lake’s spotty cell service. Until then, a few of my friends jumped into the water, working together to hold up my body so I could continue to breathe and remain conscious. Others stayed aboard to call the police and flag down a nearby boat that was able to ping officials with our coordinates.
That brings me back to Regan. “Stay calm, Manisha,” she coached me. “Keeping talking to me, keep fighting.”
Though part of me just wanted it all to stop, I did fight. I managed to stay conscious until the police showed up. An hour later, they finally freed me. Between that moment and when I woke up in the ICU the next day, I remember nothing.
Losing a limb
I woke up, alone, in a hospital room the next morning. The first things I saw were notes on the window by my bed. “This isn’t the end,” my friends had scribbled on the glass. “We love you!” I wasn’t alone after all.
When a nurse walked in, I wrote her my own note; the breathing tube in my throat prevented me from speaking. “Is my leg okay?” I wrote on a piece of paper. She told me they had to amputate it.
Yesterday when I arrived at the hospital, I later learned, a team of 20 trauma specialists tried to save my mangled right leg, but the damage was too extensive and the likelihood of future infection too high. They amputated it above the knee. At least I’m alive, I thought.
My family came to the hospital in Reno and stayed with me for a month before I was transferred home to Oregon for further care. Over the next two months, as my colleagues resumed work in Chicago, I underwent 10 additional surgeries. The procedure I had immediately after the accident was merely an attempt to save my life. Now the doctors worked to optimize the functioning of my lower body.
In the fall, I had regained enough mobility to begin the process of having a prosthetic leg designed. That took three months, and then once I had it, I had to learn how to walk with it. You don’t realize how much it takes for your body to move up stairs, kneel, or sit until you don't have two functioning legs to help you do it anymore.
I tried my best to be upbeat and positive while relearning to walk. But even the simplest tasks could incite frustration in the months following my accident. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have bad days. Sometimes I felt furious. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Why me?’ I was constantly oscillating between feeling deeply discouraged and then profoundly supported.
My mother was (and still is) my rock in the darker moments, giving me the strength I’ve needed to get through each day. She reminded me that I could’ve had spinal or brain damage, or that my left leg could’ve been mangled too. With her help, I’ve come to realize there’s opportunity even in adversity.
Returning to regular life
After taking a six-month leave from work to recover and go through rehab, I came back to Chicago in January. But my self-confidence had taken a hit. I’d moved to the city a year ago to get a fresh start, embark on adulthood, and meet new people. After the accident, those goals felt daunting.
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I continue to try to embrace my new normal as best I can. But I've had to make adjustments, especially when it comes to fitness. I used to love running—I'd actually been training for the Chicago half-marathon before the accident. I still plan to get back into training for it, but different activities require the right prosthetic, and I have to find one for running first.
For now, I'm just grateful my body has learned how to put one foot in front of the other again. I try to go to the gym three days a week and am working on some mini fitness goals, like running a 5K eventually.
The way I view my body has completely transformed as well. I used to look in the mirror with angst, examining the circumference of my thighs or pinching the flab on my stomach. Six months of hospitalizations, surgeries, and physical therapy changed all that; I no longer want to hide the things that prove I'm human.
I also avoided showing my prosthetic leg in public at first. Today? I rock it. I sport shorts and dresses whether I’m going out with friends or heading to the office. The only time I don't wear the leg is at night; just like my iPhone, it charges while I sleep.
I also try to be patient with people who don't know how to approach me or treat me. My feeling is, we teach people how to treat us. I could get annoyed by an Uber driver’s questions about my body (yep, that happens often). But why bother? I'm grateful to be able to answer them.
While my accident may have flipped my world upside down, I'm still me. With the right prosthetics, I'll be able to swim and ski again. I can still go to bars with my friends and spend time with my little brother. Last spring, I went to Frankfurt, Germany for my first trip abroad since the accident. I’m here, I’m alive, and I just happen to be an amputee.
Note to my younger self: You have no idea how good this life is going to get.