'I want to walk. Just walk'

BACK ON HIS FEET: Ian Winson’s $3000 legs mark the end of a 15-month struggle to walk again.
BACK ON HIS FEET: Ian Winson’s $3000 legs mark the end of a 15-month struggle to walk again.

Pink, plastic and functional fibreglass rather than realistic, Ian Winson's new legs finally arrived 10 days ago. They cost about $3000 but are worth much more: independence, employment, even athletic competition - and they mark the end of a 15-month struggle to walk again.

"I don't have any flashbacks," says Winson. "Which is really good, because it means I am not haunted by anything. For me, it was just like waking up, being modified, like Robocop. I don't have any memories of the accident, so sometimes it feels like it didn't actually happen.

"I have all my memories of life before the accident, and then I have this new life, and I don't have anything in between to join the two together. So we had this life beforehand, now we have this life, and life goes on. And I don't think my life is anything less now, definitely not."

Life changed, although Ian Winson doesnot remember it, on June 4 last year, when an explosion in a water main under inspection in Onehunga, Auckland, killed Watercare engineer Philemon Guilland and left Winson with life-threatening injuries.

Both his legs were amputated above the knee, both arms badly damaged. He was critically ill for 12 days. His first, hazy, memories don't start until day 13, when he was being transferred from Auckland Hospital to Middlemore in South Auckland.

When I ask him about pain, he confidently declares he hasn't felt any. His wife, Katherine, interjects. "That's because they managed it so well . . . because of the drugs he was on, he doesn't recall any of it. He was in severe pain but he doesn't have any memory of it - but I remember it very vividly."

Now Winson sits in a compact electric wheelchair no bigger than an office chair. At first glance, he looks as if he's kneeling up; his legs end symmetrically and neatly just above the knee. Above the waist he's almost completely recovered: after somewhere between 12 and 16 surgeries (he's lost count), he's missing a finger on his left hand and a tubigrip bandage hides severe scarring on his right arm, which is due one more final cosmetic operation. It will regain about 90 per cent of its movement (he won't be able to rotate his wrist). A fortnight ago, he couldn't touch his nose, now he can reach above his head. His left hand is strong enough to write and throw a cricket ball.

It's his arms, not his legs, that have made this a tortuous recovery. If his arms had been fine, Winson was told he would have walked on prosthetics within six weeks of the accident. But because he couldn't bear weight on them for months and subsequent surgeries also interrupted progress, only in the past few weeks has he been able to consistently trial his artificial limbs.

"A lot of people don't realise how damaged my arms and hand were and the implications of that," he says. "[Despite that] I've been told by a lot of medical people I have made a really dramatic recovery. It has been pretty quick."

Winson was a competitive runner and Ironman triathlete before the accident. His wife has no doubt that's why he survived. "His fitness kept him alive. It has given his body the strength to fight. They [hospital staff] were adamant, that first week in critical care, that's what kept him alive, and that grit and determination . . . stood him in good stead to survive the future."

But while progress has been slow until lately, it has accelerated. His legs have arrived. His new modified car - a Mercedes Sprinter van with swivelling driver's seat and automated handbrake - is four weeks away, and brings with it the promise of independence.

And next month, the Winsons will move home. Remodelling work began on their Green Bay home last December, and it has been a difficult process, in which Winson has learned plentiful detail of disabled-friendly toilet seats and showers. Asked what ACC originally intended, Winson says: "Maybe we shouldn't go there. We went down a long road of frustration . . . we had to make sure our argument was put across strongly . . . but what has been provided to us by ACC is huge. A lot of people say bad things about ACC but in this case we can only praise them."

W HEN ADULTS look at you, and stare long and hard, you want to say to them ‘They are not gonna grow back, 'cos that's how long you've been staring for," says Winson.

He can accept kids giving an appraising look, but not their parents. He's also frustrated by able-bodied people who use disabled toilets and parking spots. On crisp, cold winter mornings he deeply misses running. And he suffers an unpredictable sense of what he calls deja vu - of passing a place and remembering being there with legs.

The feeling last struck when driving through Cornwall Park in Auckland, a memory of jogging along that flat stretch of Puriri Dr under the trees. But, he says, he doesn't have kidney failure or brain injuries or any number of ailments that would permanently disfigure his family life. He is, he believes, lucky. And times when he doesn't feel lucky, such as his wedding anniversary this year when he reflected on how normally he would be on a Coromandel beach, he withdraws to his room and sleeps and mourns the loss of his legs.

"I am allowed to grieve for them. But it doesn't last long."

Otherwise, his sons - Josh, eight, and Ethan, three - keep him happy. "So I say to people, I have had a serious accident and I have lost a lot, but not as much as other people. There are a lot of people worse off than me. I have no right to complain."

Winson says he "picks his battles" . Going home is next. Looming after that is a return to work. He wants to go back to his old job at Watercare, his first and only employer in New Zealand and where he met Katherine, who worked for the company as a technical writer. Born in Zimbabwe - back then it was called Rhodesia - he moved to South Africa at 16 and New Zealand at 33, having wanted to come here since his Kiwi primary school teacher asked her class to write a project on New Zealand. At Watercare, Winson was a water operations engineer, overseeing their pipe network.

"New Zealand has been great to me," he explains. "Watercare has been a good employer. They have been good to me and I have some good mates there and people who understand me and I am looking forward to going back there."

He says he holds no grudge against the company.

"This year, with the car and house and no more surgeries, I can concentrate on walking. Then we can think about returning to work and thinking of life returning to some sort of normality, because the last year, that's not normal."

T HE LEGS aren't his real legs. They are yet to come. These are called ‘stubbies': about as tall as a flatscreen TV, they are training wheels of prosthetic limbs, comfortable, easily manoeuvred, on which new amputees can learn balance and proprioception - the art of orientating and coordinating your limbs. Over two days of fittings at the Auckland Limb Centre, they were custom-moulded from fibreglass to suit Winson. His legs slip into a flexible plastic sleeve which locks into the leg itself and a rubber shoe.

Eventually, he will graduate to full-length legs with jointed pneumatic knees and ankles and return to his natural height. At present, he can manage an hour at a time on his stubbies because of muscle wastage. For above-knee amputees, the effort required is enormous. All the exertion must come from their core muscles, lower back, hips and adductors, all strengthened by specialist physiotherapy and exercise. The Limb Centre estimates it will require an extra 150 per cent of effort for Winson to walk compared to a person with both legs.

There aren't many double above-knee amputees in New Zealand; likely even fewer with the upper-body complications Winson suffered, but he is inspired by those with congenital double-leg issues, like swimmer and wheelchair basketballer Cameron Leslie, who walks on prosthetics. He has also watched Youtube videos of war-wounded US servicemen in similar situations.

Katherine Winson says the Limb Centre told her it would generally advise it would be too hard for a double above-knee amputee to walk again, but they were sufficiently impressed with Winson to be prepared to work with him.

"The effort required will be immense," says Winson. "I have heard enough to know it will be a big, big ask, but it is not something I will shy away from at all. It's the same as when you are a kid learning to ride a bike. If you fall down, you get up and do it again, and one day it clicks. If you are interested and want to do it, you will do it. If you are not interested, and want to sit in a wheelchair all your life . . . I am not afraid of hard work."

His wife adds: "He is doing it, he wants to do it, and that's all there is to it."

For more than a year, I've been wanting to interview Ian Winson about his new life. This week was, finally, the right time for him to talk: there was the new car, the remodelled house, his legs. There have been highs and lows: "You can spiral into darkness, if you want," he says lightly, but right now, he's very chipper. And adding to that mood is the Legend, the West Auckland marathon race he conceived and launched as a tribute to his hero, running coach Arthur Lydiard. September 15 will be the eighth Legend. Until two years ago, Winson had run in every one of them. Last year, he made it to the finish line in his wheelchair to hand out medals. This year, he wants to stand there in his new legs. "Even before the accident, it was a big emotional day for me."

Next year, maybe, he will compete, walking the 5km as a precursor to bigger athletic goals. For now, he must be satisfied by seeing his eldest son compete. Winson is, as ever, wildly enthusiastic about the Legend, expounding on the event's expansion to include a schools event - the Lydiard Challenge Cup - for eight local primary and secondarys, including Josh's Sunderland Primary, and how it will promote school spirit and prolong Lydiard's legacy.

Walking next year's Legend won't be enough. Winson wants to adapt flippers to his wetsuit so he can body-board with his sons. He wants to consult Ian Ferguson on whether he can kayak. And he dearly wants to complete another triathlon.

But beyond all these athletic goals, he has a simpler ambition driving him to master those legs. They've always holidayed in the Coromandel, and love Buffalo Beach in Whitianga. "I want to walk on the beach with Katherine. Just walk. Who cares about getting my feet wet - I'll just worry about rust."

The Legend races will be held on September 15 in West Auckland. To enter: www.thelegend.co.nz

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