- February 10, 2016
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I drove into a little neighborhood in Conway, South Carolina searching for the home of Karen Watowa. As I slowed my car, I saw a good looking little boy who eyed me intently as I pulled into his driveway. Stepping out of my car he pulled his bike right next to me and greeted me politely and asked if I was looking for his mom. As it turns out this was Karen’s 7 year old son, Johntay. I told him I was and he pointed me toward the house and headed out to the road and his waiting friends. I watched him ride away appreciating his sweet greeting and excited to meet his mom.
Karen Watowa answered the door with a beautiful yet nervous smile. She welcomed me into her home where her beautiful daughter, Khyra was playing. As we sat down together I found myself drawn into her life and story in a way I was not expecting. She is a young mother, 27 years old, a fiancé, a daughter and friend and now pregnant with her third child. She is also an amputee that had to overcome incredible difficulties and challenges to get to this moment. Very brave, very strong and determined to be fully present for her family.
As with so many stories of people encountering difficulties or sickness there was a day that started like any other day at work. Karen twisted her ankle at her job and thought she sprained in. After x-rays that showed she did not break it, she was treated for the pain and sent home with a splint. The pain in her foot continued so she returned to the doctor where they performed another x-ray, and found a hairline fracture that was not seen before. She was then sent to rehabilitation where they attempted to treat her for the hairline fracture and performed a normal course of therapy for the fracture. During rehab and afterwards the pain in her foot became unbearable. Her doctor decided to send her for an MRI of her foot, at which time they discovered that she had a tumor in her bone called Clear Cell Sarcoma, a very aggressive cancer. It was shocking news that sent her life into a complete tail spin.
Karen was immediately referred to a doctor in Columbia South Carolina for a biopsy and treatment plan. After a long week of waiting, the fateful call came with the news that the tumor was malignant. This was a huge emotional blow that sent Karen and her family into a tailspin. She had one young son at that time and the very real notion of death was looming over her. The thought of leaving her son was terrifying. As we sat together in her living room the pain of this moment was still so real to her and tears fell from her eyes and I fought back tears as well. There is something so raw about a mother’s love
On March 28, 2006, in a doctor’s office, in a room full of family, the doctor told her she had to have her leg amputated immediately. By immediately he meant the next day. She was sent directly to the hospital from the doctor’s office for surgery the next morning. There was not time to prepare or grieve. She said “I was suddenly so afraid that I would not be able to take care of my son, or teach him to ride a bike”. She was not confident that removing the leg would save her life. The fear was overwhelming; it was a lot to take in. A few short hours later Karen entered the world of amputees and began to embrace the challenges this would bring. The days following the surgery were very difficult. She could not be fit with a prosthetic right away because of swelling in her stump. She struggled deeply with depression and incredible pain. But her son gave her strength to keep pushing and trying. There was always the looming fear of the cancer being found in some other part of her body. But each day she grew stronger and determined to live.
She was blessed to find her Prosthetist, Alexander Lyons, C.P.O., clinician and owner of Lyons Prosthetics & Orthotics, Inc. in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and receive her first prosthesis in September 2006. There is an interesting coincidence about meeting Alex, she later realized later she had already met him at the store she used to work for. She truly believes that God initiated the encounter with him. She said, “I knew immediately that Alex was the person I was supposed to work with. I knew he was a good man and there was something different about him”. She also said, “Alex seems to have an intuition about his patients and has not stopped working with me to get the perfect fit. Alex is really an expert in his field; he knows what he is doing and really cares about his patients”.
Karen said “I feel blessed every day I wake up and I know there is a purpose in this. I am a stronger person, a better mother”. She adds, “Living life with a disability is hard but every day I find reason to get up and keep going. I am convinced that God really does not give us more than we can handle and amazingly, this has made my faith in God stronger. I realized that everything I was taught in church as a child came flooding back.”
Karen and her fiancé Josh have another child on the way despite being told that they would not be able to have any more children, and for that she feels incredibly blessed. Karen is a beautiful and strong young woman. Every day of her life is about overcoming and trusting God for the next step.
Chris Koppel ckphotography