Katie Mettner is one brave lady! She is a survivor, that’s for sure, but she’s also one of the bravest and most giving people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Her story is harrowing to read, for many reasons, but despite the suffering she is now a very successful author and advocate for amputees …
“The experts say something will happen in everyone’s life that will forever shape their future. For me that event happened January 13, 1989. Never being much of a sporty person, okay that’s an understatement, I hated sports; there I said it. Anyway, I was in seventh grade and had joined a new church. Living in Wisconsin, January was the favorite month for skiing and the church youth group was going about an hour north for a ski trip. Wanting to be part of the ‘cool’ group I decided to go. I borrowed some skis from a friend, hindsight truly is 20/20, and got in the van that morning. Long story short? I skied down the bunny hill for the first time ever! Whoooo hoooooo! Look at me I’m skiing! It was fantastic until I got to the bottom and didn’t know how to stop, so I just fell over thinking I’d stop. It worked, I stopped, but only because those borrowed ski bindings didn’t give and I shattered my left ankle. I was only thirteen then and laying in that hospital bed, after they pieced my leg back together, I had no idea that was going to be the event to shape my future.
Fast forward five years and I’m walking up a long set of stairs to a little upstairs ballroom. Why? Because I might be walking, but not well, and my doctors suggested I try to find an activity I could do that was low impact, but would strengthen my tendons and muscles. Did I mention I hate sports? I did, okay, just checking. After some thought I decided ballroom dancing just might fit the bill, so I tried it out for a ‘Friday night dance party’. I was expecting to be bored stiff in a room filled with people my grandparent’s age, while foxtrotting to Frank Sinatra. Then I pulled the door open and stepped inside. The song playing was ‘Walking on Broken Glass’ by Annie Lennox, and there were couples on the floor of all ages. I soon found out they were dancing the cha-cha and I can tell you, in the span of one song, I was hooked. I danced almost every night thereafter and couldn’t get enough. Did it help my leg get stronger? Nope, it sure didn’t. In fact, my ankle got worse and my foot began to fall apart, but it didn’t matter. When I was on the floor I was floating, I wasn’t in pain because I was lost in the music. I remember one specific time when I had damaged the tendons in my ankle so badly they had to cast it in order to get it to heal, but I was begging them to take it off ‘just for this one dance.’ I loved dance that much, I even learned to love the foxtrot!
Fast forward six years and I’m living in the town just south of where that accident happened all those years ago. I’m living in an intense amount of pain every day and I’m only twenty-four. I had to give up my career as a chef and worse yet, I had given up dancing. That Thanksgiving I met my husband Dwayne and we fell in love and were engaged by New Year’s. Well I certainly couldn’t get married and not have a first dance, right? Exactly, I couldn’t, so I called up my old dance instructor, who happened to be a good friend, to help. She came up and taught my new fiance a whole waltz routine to ‘When I said I Do’. I can tell you there wasn’t a dry eye in the ballroom the night of April 15, 2000 when we were gliding around the floor, including mine. They were tears of joy for a new couple starting out their life together, but mine were tears of pain, real pain, because every step was excruciating for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my foot was covered in stress fractures.
Fast forward five years and three kids later, and I’m living the dream! Well okay, I’m a completely mother with three small children living in chronic pain. I’m walking only by the grace of God and a really good ankle foot orthotic made by my local prosthetic company. When even that wasn’t holding me up anymore I underwent a surgery to fuse all the bones in my foot, lengthen my Achilles tendon, and add plates to hold my arch up, since my tendons no longer could. I had high hopes for this procedure to get me back to being active with my family, but it wasn’t in the cards and instead of getting better, it got worse. It healed into one big block of bone and when I walked on it the bones broke. After walking around in a big boot cast for almost eighteen months there was nothing left for me to do but go into a wheelchair. Why? Because after using crutches for the last twenty some years I had blown out my shoulder. Was I discouraged? Absolutely. Was I angry? Absolutely. I was without question, broken. I couldn’t walk and I certainly couldn’t dance. I avoided music like the plague, knowing if I heard it, I’d want to dance, and that certainly wasn’t in the cards.
Fast forward three years and I’ve been riding the chair for years, my left leg is now about the size of a small child’s and I have to wear a tight stocking on it to prevent blood clots from forming. I can’t walk on it, but I’m getting along and am resigned to being in a chair. I take care of my kids, work full time, spend time with my husband, organize community events and nonprofit organizations and try to do everything I want to do. My motto was ‘I don’t want to be the mom who says I can’t.’ I wanted to be the mom who did what her kids wanted, no matter what it was and no matter the cost. I managed it pretty well too and it gave me a very good insight into just how difficult it is to be a disabled parent.
At the end of August we got a phone call telling us my husband’s brother was rejecting his kidney and was going to need a second transplant within the next year. He’d had his first transplant at 18 when his father donated a kidney, but 20 years later it was failing. My husband is the only sibling in the family and he readily agreed to get tested. I had just undergone surgery on my shoulder and was spending a lot of time every day in a machine that raised and lowered my arm and it gave me a lot of time to think. Time to think about my relationship with his brother, my relationship with my husband and my relationship with my mother and father-in-law. I’ll be honest with you; I didn’t much like my brother-in-law. He had burned some bridges early on in my marriage. We were friendly, or maybe we just tolerated each other, but we were family. As I sat there I knew one thing, I had to be tested too. I had to know that I had done everything I could for this family, regardless of his and mine relationship. I called Mayo and ordered the kit to have the initial blood work done to determine if I could be a donor. I didn’t tell my husband, I just sent it off and put it in God’s hands. I just felt like I needed to know when I laid down at night I had done everything I could to save him. I was also watching my husband and my in-laws faced with the prospect of losing their brother and son and husband. How would I feel if it was my husband or son or daughter? The Golden Rule really came into play here and I knew it was what I would want done unto me.
When I got the phone call from Mayo telling me I had matched all the requirements in the blood work to be tested as a donor I was shocked. How did that happen? The odd circumstances of how my husband and I met and the turmoil that brought my brother-in-law led me to believe it was set in motion a long time ago. And I had no idea just how true that would become as we went forward with the testing. When my brother-in-law and sister-in-law came down that weekend to talk to my husband about donating we decided we would mention it, just so they knew they had a ‘back up quarterback’ in case my husband wasn’t a match. I told them just before they left, to save the awkward silence, and as I suspected it didn’t seem to register with him. I shrugged my shoulder and said, ‘I tried Lord’ and waved goodbye as they pulled out of the driveway. About 30 minutes later I got a phone call from him as they were driving home. He was very quiet and said ‘Did I hear you right and you’re a match to be a donor?’ I chuckled and said ‘Yup, I’m your backup quarterback and I’ll be there if you need me.’ The rest of the conversation is too private to share, but it was the day our relationship began to mend.
After extensive testing at Mayo my husband was determined as not being a suitable donor, and the nurse turned to me and said, ‘I can send you down right now if you want to start the process.’ I didn’t hesitate, and as much as my husband didn’t want me to, he didn’t stop me, either. There I was in a wheelchair looking rather disabled and trying to convince people I could still donate a kidney. It was almost comical to be honest. Every time a doctor walked into the room they stopped short and quickly checked the chart to be sure they were in the right room. Regardless I pushed on and went through the rigorous testing. When we came out on the other side the physicians couldn’t find any reason why I couldn’t donate. In fact, I was a perfect match. They recommended me to the transplant team as his donor in April 2009. I remember getting the call at about six at night and just yelling ‘We have a kidney!’ It was such a relief after all those months of testing and turmoil. Now Mayo is incredibly protective of the donor and will not call the recipient to tell them. They leave it up to the donor in case you change your mind. I called my brother-in-law and when he answered for the first time in my life I was at a loss for words. How do you tell someone they can have your kidney? I didn’t know how, but it seemed he didn’t need words, he just knew. A few months later we were laying on gurneys in the pre-op area. You know that awkward silence I wanted to avoid early on? Yup, there we were, both of us pretty scared and both of us pretty unsure what to say to the other. So we really didn’t talk, we just kind of laid there both lost in our own thoughts. After the operation I woke up to them telling me my brother was back in recovery and I could see him before they took me to my room. It became clear, even in my drug induced fog; they thought he was my brother since we shared the same last name. I remember saying, ‘Oh he’s my brother-in-law, not my brother.’ The room around me got quiet and that sentence went around the room, passed from nurse to nurse in each cubicle over a dozen times, until they got to the sonographer doing my brother-in-laws kidney ultrasound. He said, ‘Now that’s love.’ And I heard His answer in those words.
About six months later I was healed from the transplant and back to doing all my usual day to day activities when one night while sleeping I rolled over, catching my left foot in the blanket and twisting it funny. The now completely taut Achilles tendon snapped and I have what they called an ‘acute on chronic’ injury. The bad news? There was nothing they could do to help me. Well there was one thing, *hushed voice*, amputation. Surprisingly, I didn’t even hesitate, I just said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ I was certain of one thing, it could only get better. Even if I couldn’t walk with a prosthetic, I got rid of a diseased limb that was dragging me down. If I was lucky I would walk again, chase my kids again, and maybe even dance again.
Fast forward two weeks and I’m home from spending a week in the hospital after the amputation of my lower left leg. Now what? I’m in horrific pain, I want to cry, my stomach hurts from the medication and the spasms in the leg I don’t have anymore are keeping me awake all night. What on earth did I do? I started to pray. I prayed a lot those nights when I couldn’t sleep, partly to pass the time and partly in the hopes that He would give me some answers. Being a Christian all my life I believed He always answered prayers, if you I listened close enough. I also knew I might not like the answer, but he would answer. I would pray ‘Now what, God?’ and would listen for His answer. What I heard was, ‘Now we dance.’ Now we dance? I can’t dance Lord, I can’t even walk remember? I don’t have a leg! And He answered, ‘You don’t need legs to dance Katie, you have a mind, you have hands and you have knowledge, those are the three things you are going to use to dance again.’ After that night I spent a lot of time letting my mind dance with the idea of writing a book. A book about a dancer who had suffered a lot in her life and was doing the same thing I was, and that was wondering ‘why?’ So I sat down and began to type. I poured my heart out onto a blank word document and I danced. I danced through tears and fear, but I was very much dancing.
Fast forward six weeks. I’m taking my first steps down those parallel bars and I’m praying it doesn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt and that gave me a huge boost of confidence! Suddenly I was out of that chair and walking again. My foot is a block of wood attached to a metal stick, but I’m walking! It was one of those moments I will remember for the rest of my life, that much I can assure you. So I’m walking again, and you guessed it, I want to dance. Dancing with my fingers over the keyboard just isn’t the same as being on the dance floor with the music flowing around me, so I was determined to rehab my leg to the point that I could be out on that floor again. What surprised me was in the span of six weeks I was also listening to music again. I was finding songs I didn’t know existed, but were telling me Sugar’s story as we danced. I was storing up those songs as inspiration. There were so many I wanted to be the first song I danced to again! Who wouldn’t want to dance to Michael Bublé’s Lost or Sam Cooke’s You Send Me? I had the itch again and I worked hard to first walk correctly after so many years in a chair, then I began to slowly practice some dance when no one was home to see how awful I was. I became frustrated very quickly though, because I discovered the prosthetic feet on the market really weren’t made for ballroom dancing. They were clunky, they hurt your residual limb and they didn’t allow a woman to stay up on her toes like she needed to in ballroom. I was frustrated, but I vowed not to give up.
Fast forward four years as I type this and I think back to that day all those years ago on that ski hill. I feel like I’ve come full circle as I now live only about ten minutes from the hill that changed my life that day. I’ve gone through a lot to get where I am today and looking back I wouldn’t change one day of it. Why? Because I know without a doubt I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. I’ve often thought about what I would be if I hadn’t broken my ankle all those years ago. I might not have met my husband and have my three beautiful children. I know I wouldn’t have Sugar, the character who may have danced out of my mind and into the pages of a book, but is truly my heart and soul. I wouldn’t be an advocate for amputees across the country who struggle to obtain the prosthetics they need to live an active life. I wouldn’t be working with Ability Dynamics to not only bring amputees the latest technology in prosthetic feet, but to write timely and informative articles that support and inform amputees. I wouldn’t be a huge supporter of organ donation nor would I have met the many wonderful people I have because we have one thing in common, organ donation has changed our lives. I wouldn’t be watching the man I used to not even like finish his master’s degree, buy a house and continue to share his love of art with kids every day. Very simply, I wouldn’t be ME. All those years ago when I stood at the top of that hill I had no idea it would led me here. But then none of us really do know what our path will be. Life is the teacher and I’ve learned a lot about pain, determination, perseverance, faith, acceptance, hope, and love for others.
In case you’re wondering if I ever got the chance to get back on the dance floor, the answer is yes, thanks to Sugar. At a book signing for Sugar’s Dance in my hometown I had a group of ballroom dancers performing while I signed. One of them pulled me out onto the floor and I waltzed for the first time in too many years. The song that came on was the song I had built the second Sugar book, Sugar’s Song, around. It was Norah Jones singing ‘Come Away With Me’. As I listened to the lyrics I’m pretty sure I heard them a lot different than my partner. What I heard was ‘This is just the first dance of many, Katie’ and my response was ‘I’m ready Lord, lead on.’”
If you haven’t yet come across Katie’s books, I can thoroughly recommend the Sugar series…
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