Finding My Place: The struggle a nurse faces after a sudden disability

A three-part series guest post; by Carolyn McKinzie

I was working as a nurse at my local county jail when I crushed both legs in an auto accident in October 1998. I also sustained a skull fracture, facial fractures, multiple broken ribs and both lungs partially collapsed. I was lucky to be alive. I anticipated only being out of work for a few weeks, but the complexity of the fracture to my right tibia led me to resign from my job. I would undergo multiple surgeries over the next 2 and ½ years in attempts to repair the damage and hopefully, heal completely. I went on disability six months after my accident, but my hope remained to return eventually to nursing.

In February 2001, I slipped on some ice which broke some of the hardware in my leg and, ultimately, re-fractured that section of my leg. At that point, it was determined that the probability of 100% healing was unlikely. After lengthy discussions with my orthopedic surgeon and a general surgeon, I had to concur that a below-knee amputation was both warranted and necessary. I was devastated and knew my days in nursing were over at the age of 35.

It’s hard to know how to prepare yourself mentally when faced with amputation. I am a fairly smart person, but I felt dumb. All of my nursing knowledge seemed to have disappeared. I was now the patient facing a huge unknown. That day, I didn’t have the slightest clue about anything. I was full of questions. How could this happen to me? What had I ever done to deserve so much agony and pain? I felt helpless and alone. It had been such a long and difficult struggle since my accident 2 and ½ years prior. I felt so tired: my body, my mind, and my soul. My spirit was totally gone. I had nothing left, and I didn’t want to fight it anymore. I was absolutely exhausted from what this journey had been. I wanted to give up, to throw in the towel and say the hell with it all. I just couldn’t imagine ever smiling again, or laughing, or even wanting to for that matter. I knew my career was gone. All that I had put into my life’s work over the years was gone, and I would never be able to get that back. I wondered what my purpose in life really was.

Before all of this it had been my nursing -but now what?

That was gone forever, and I knew it. I felt that my purpose in life was to be doing something beneficial to others, and I believed that was the reason I had been spared from death in the accident. I was needed here; I had much more work to do, but now all of that had changed. I didn’t care anymore. I felt as though I had lost such a big part of myself, much more than just a leg. I felt like I had disappointed my family and friends. They had been there through all of it, from the original injury and for all of the surgeries that followed. They were always there to help me without ever being asked; they were my silent strength. I’m sure I never told any of them that, I just assumed they knew.

I used to hate it when someone would comment to me on how wonderfully I had dealt with everything. They didn’t have a clue. I was strong on the outside for everybody else, but on the inside I felt like I was slowly dying; this whole ordeal was sucking the life right out of me. Yes, I had come a long way since the accident, but I certainly hadn’t done it alone. I would never have made it this far by myself. I thought about my son; his 15th birthday was just around the corner. It reminded me of the day he turned 13, the big day a kid becomes a teenager, and we had to have his party in my hospital room. How shitty was that for a kid? I thought of all the times he had cooked, done laundry or any other little thing I needed him to do. On April 11, 2001, my family gathered in the surgical waiting room as I was wheeled off for my amputation. I told myself that if I didn’t wake up from the surgery, it might not be a bad thing. So many people were there to support me that day, but I had never felt more alone in my life.


The next day I insisted on weaning off the morphine.

I started on oral pain pills so that I could get home. Although the pain was the most excruciating I had ever experienced, I knew I had to move as much as I could so I didn’t lose any strength. I would surely need it in the weeks to come. After only two nights in the hospital, I was discharged home. My family all lived close by, and my son would be with me after school anyway. I was already familiar with using crutches, a walker and I had my own wheelchair. I was good to go! The physical recovery was easier and faster than I expected it to be. I never really lost my independence through that, and I was even able to vacuum while in my wheelchair. I knew I needed to be doing something productive and not just lying on the couch all day crying.

I was fortunate that I had some secretarial skills to fall back on, so three weeks following my amputation I went to work for a podiatrist that was new in town and needed help in the office. I worked just a couple of hours a day doing transcription with the intent of working my way into being his office nurse once I got my prosthesis and was able to resume walking. Within a few months, we determined that my mobility wasn’t advancing quickly enough to meet his needs, so we parted ways after eight months.


That was a huge emotional blow for me.

I just assumed things would have improved more quickly than they did. My mind was already struggling with my new body image. I still felt sad about the loss, and it was hard for me to look at my leg. I didn’t feel feminine or attractive, despite the fact that I knew I was better off this way. I started drinking a lot. I would go off with friends for the weekend and leave my son home alone. He had his license at that point, and he had his own car, but he still needed a mother. I couldn’t see through my own pain to be the mother I needed to be.

After a few months of that, I returned home at the end of a weekend to find that he and his things were gone. He had moved to his dad’s a few miles away. He took all of the pictures I had of him in frames throughout the house. Instead of getting my shit together and straightening out, I continued trying to run away from myself and drink away the pain. I was ashamed of myself for letting things get this bad, and I knew that my entire family was completely disgusted with me. But I didn’t know how to tell people I was having a hard time. I was a nurse and should be able to deal with this. What the hell was wrong with me?
In a phone conversation with my sister one day, she said, “it’s been almost a year; you should be over it by now!” Wow, she didn’t get it. This isn’t something you “get over”. I realized at that point that my entire family probably felt the same way. That made me withdraw even more and made the shame ten times worse than it already was.

This month as we celebrate Nurses Week, let’s recognize ‘Nurses with Disabilities.’
Part two of Carolyn’s story is coming soon…


Carolyn Mckinzie is a Speaker and Amputee Nurse Consultant.
To contact her:
Phone: 207-624-1076
Facebook: Amputee Nurse Consultant/Carolyn McKinzie, LPN, RBKA

To learn more about Nurses with Disabilities see:




  1. Hi Carolyn,
    You already know how much I respect you and your work! So glad you are sharing your story here.
    For those who are interested, Carolyn wrote a chapter in my book…”The Exceptional Nurse: Tales from the trenches of truly resilient nurses with disabilities”.