'Losing a leg has made me a happier man'

Chris Patterson went travelling as a cure for his mid-life crisis. The trip changed his life – but not in the way he'd expected. Holly Williams hears his story

Tuesday 15 June 2010 00:00

It was in 2007 that Chris Patterson decided he needed to get away. He was suffering from severe depression. Leaving his family in the UK, he headed to California in the hope that embracing the traveller lifestyle – in his early forties – might provide some answers. "I suppose the simplest way to put it is that I was having an existential and mid-life crisis," he explains.

It was in 2007 that Chris Patterson decided he needed to get away. He was suffering from severe depression. Leaving his family in the UK, he headed to California in the hope that embracing the traveller lifestyle – in his early forties – might provide some answers. "I suppose the simplest way to put it is that I was having an existential and mid-life crisis," he explains.

What he couldn't have known was that the trip would change his life for ever – but not in any way he could have predicted.

In December, he went to Mexico to join a Rainbow gathering, an alternative-lifestyle camp that has its roots in the hippy movement of the Sixties. "You build a community of people who contribute voluntarily to collecting water, chopping wood, feeding each other. It was really good for my emotional wellbeing. Having to get on with basic physical things to survive doesn't give you too much time to be stuck in your own head."

With fellow Rainbow gatherers, Patterson joined a horse caravan February 2008, travelling through Latin America with musicians, acrobats and performers.

Arriving at a village in the mountains of Oaxaca state, southern Mexico, one day three months down the line, the "cowboy circus" was greeted by a group of local children. Showing off a bit – "as they always did when they saw 30 gringos riding into town" – the kids began jumping off a cliff into a river.

"I was really just compelled to join them," says Patterson. "I've had that feeling a few times in my life, and though what it has motivated me to do has initially looked like a mistake, it has always turned out to be the right thing."

Patterson jumped. But as he hit the water a sharp rock hit his ankle, boring a hole in it. "When they pulled me out, there was blood spurting everywhere," he remembers. "They took me to the nearest thing they had to a doctor – a vet." Although initially unaware of the serious nature of his accident, Patterson later found out the rock had smashed all the bones in his lower leg and foot. Despite being roughly stitched up, the pain got worse and by the next morning he knew he needed to go to hospital.

"Easier said than done; we were in the middle of nowhere," he explains. But somebody rode off to get an ambulance, and then Patterson endured a three-hour, very uncomfortable ride to the hospital in Oaxaca city. "The doctor there said immediately, 'He's got gangrene. We need to amputate.' Three of the Rainbow girls had come with me, and they freaked out and wouldn't let him. So for the next few days I had operations to remove the flesh and gangrene. They cut two strips down my leg; it was basically flapping open!"

That didn't work, but the girls had discovered another treatment, hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The patient goes into a chamber and breathes pure oxygen under pressure; increased oxygen in the blood kills the gangrene. A facility in the port city of Veracruz offered the treatment, and Patterson had two sessions of two hours a day, for five days. It saved his leg.

Having embraced the free-spirited traveller vibe, Patterson didn't have insurance. Yet all the treatment, and a return flight to Britain, had to be paid for. The Rainbow girls got on the case and sent an email out. "Incredibly, it went viral, and people from all over the world who'd seen me perform sent money, and they raised £8,500. I had a huge pile of emails from people – it was quite overwhelming actually. I couldn't believe there was that much love and support for one person, for me."

But that wasn't the last of their trials. During the treatments, Patterson needed six pints of blood, but there was none of his type, not only in the hospital but in the whole region. "So the girls just started writing out banners and went onto the streets and campaigned for blood on my behalf," he explains. "It must have been a massive undertaking. I was only semi-aware of it, but they managed to get six pints and saved my life. I was blown away by everything they did for me."

In June 2008, Patterson returned to the UK. Experts at London's Charing Cross Hospital said they would be able to reconstruct his leg but there were risks: he wouldn't be able to walk for a year; he was at risk of infections; and he might suffer pain later in life. They recommended a below-knee amputation.

"I asked the doctor: 'Will I be able to ride a bike, dance, and walk in nature?' She said, 'Yes', and I just said: 'Ok, let's do it.' For five minutes I said goodbye to my foot, said 'thank you very much for carrying my weight around all my life', and that was it really."

Difficult times often bring families together, and so it proved for Patterson, who was visited by his mum, dad, half-brother and sons. "I've always had a very difficult relationship with my mum. She's like the Jamaican Hyacinth Bucket. She always thought I was a bad influence and had bad friends. But when she visited me in hospital she was blown away by my attitude – because I had no self-pity – and then these lovely friends. She literally said, 'I'm seeing you for the first time ever and I'm proud of you'."

"My mum always hated my dreadlocks with a passion, and I felt it would be a nice present to cut them off. So I got my stepdad to shave my head the day before the amputation (my mum was so happy she walked around the hospital room singing 'What a friend we have in Jesus'). That was like a ritual, an opening of a new chapter."

While in Mexico, Patterson had developed immunity to local anaesthetics. Before the amputation on the 10 June 2008, he was given an epidural to dull the pain after the operation. But when he woke up, it hadn't worked. Despite being given increasingly stronger painkillers – morphine, then methadone and ketamine – by a specialist pain team, the pain just got worse.

On top of the feeling of the amputation itself, Patterson experienced phantom-limb pains – "like I still had my leg and could feel the pain inside the ankle". He also suffers from sickle-cell anaemia, a genetic blood disorder. Unrelated to the amputation, but made worse by stress, this caused an additional burning pain at the top of his thigh.

He recalls going through a "nightmarish" 13 hours, but just as the pain got unbearable, Patterson simply let go. "I went through a range of positive-thinking techniques to try to deal with it, and nothing worked. Then there came a moment when I genuinely surrendered. I stopped trying to get away from the pain.

"I'd been suffering from agonising, excruciating, exponential pain. After I let go there was still agonising, excruciating, exponential pain, but it didn't bother me. I went into this impersonal state, where there was pain but it wasn't happening to anyone. I remember lying there for an hour thinking, 'This is the most amazing experience ever.'"

By the third day, the pain had subsided, and today, he is remarkably philosophic about what he went through: "It was a gift, really. I've always had this feeling that nothing in life is wasted. But I've always learnt my lessons the hard way. The answer to suffering is to use suffering. The human spirit boils down to attitude: it's how you respond to what happens to you, because you can't stop bad things happening. How you choose to respond to life is a freedom that no one can take away."

The experience has shaped the poetry he writes, and he now runs poetry workshops, encouraging people to write poems drawing on their own experiences.

"The amputation was the worst thing that has happened to me, and the best thing," he insists. "Losing my leg actually felt like healing. Rainbow had lifted me out of my depression but I might have gone back there. Instead, after the amputation I went through a three or four-month period just full of peace and humour. And then you just have to get on with life. But I'm still way, way beyond where I was before. I feel filled with well-being."

After the operation, the big challenge was 'gait re-education' – learning how to walk on the prosthetic leg. Instead of his weight going through the calf muscle into the ankle, he had to put the weight through a front tendon, just below the kneecap. "It feels very unnatural, like your knee's going to snap. All your body screams 'don't do that!' It took two weeks to train myself psych-ologically, as well as physically getting the rhythm and balance."

Patterson says he has actually enjoyed the experience of relearning to walk, describing the "little triumphs along the way" – like the first time he ran again. But periods of activity would also mean pain and chafing on the skin where the stump fitted into the prosthetic. "About a month after, I really danced – and that was ecstasy although I was in pain afterwards," says Patterson.

He also suffered three types of phantom limb pain: "Firstly, the pain caused by the accident; secondly, a nightmare feeling like someone's tickling you really well on the bottom of your foot (but there's no foot there). But most interesting, there was a sensation like ethereal hands were giving me the mother of all foot massages. I kind of miss that one!" After four weeks he tried homeopathy and hasn't had the pains since.

Two years on, although losing his lower leg has made everyday life trickier, Patterson doesn't let it hold him back.

"I don't feel 'disabled'; I just can't do certain things. Life is a just little bit more awkward now. I take chairs to festivals, make a few little creative adjustments." Watching him, you could easily not even notice, although he explains that "walking down stairs is the one thing I'll never be able to do 'normally' . You'll notice straight away." He also fears staying in a place with the toilet on another floor: "It's a nightmare. You don't want to put the leg on in the middle of the night, but you can't hop upstairs."

After the experience of being stitched up by a rural vet in Mexico, Patterson is full of praise for the NHS, the staff at Charing Cross Hospital, and the prosthetic limb he's been given. "I'm very lucky to live in this country. The leg is an amazing bit of tech."

He was offered a "real"-looking, flesh-toned leg cover, but opted to keep the shiny metal skeleton, which he thinks looks great. "It's like having a new limb: I lost a leg and gained a stump!"

Patterson has been fitted with a series of 10 prosthetic limbs, decreasing in size as his stump shrank, but hopes his most recent will be the last. He has also just collected a water-proof leg for swimming and showering.

"I'm looking forward to being able to have my first proper, stand-up shower, and I'm absolutely dying to go swimming again," he says with a grin. "I'd like to jump in too – I'm not afraid of jumping any more."

Life after amputation

* Below the knee amputations (BKA), also know as transtibial, are among the most common major limb amputations. Statistically about half of all major lower-limb amputations are transtibial.

* Those who undergo BKA retain the knee joint. This is important, as the process for mimicking native leg movement becomes much easier for any prosthetic limb that is attached. Because of this, transtibial amputees have a high chance of regaining normal mobility.

* The amputation must be done high enough up the leg, to an area that has good blood supply. This ensures proper healing of the stump.

* The accidents most likely to result in a transitibial amputation are traffic accidents, followed by farm and industrial accidents.

* Amputations as a result of disease are performed as a lifesaving measure. Common examples of this are peripheral vascular disease (poor circulation of the blood) and cancer.

* Most amputees suffer from a sensation known as "phantom limb" post-amputation. Phantom limb is that sensation of still being able to feel the amputated limb, however, it is usually fairly mild and passes with time.

Chris Powers

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