Double amputee dreams of walking down the aisle

A woman's dream after quake took both legs

Last updated 05:00 09/08/2014
Stacey Herbert
DETERMINED: Stacey Herbert had both legs amputated above the knee after she was crushed in The Press building in the February 2011 quake. Her wrist tattoo reads 1251, when her life changed forever.

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Double amputee Stacey Herbert still dreams of walking down the aisle.

And waking up on a Saturday morning, refreshed and ready for the weekend.

It sounds like normal stuff, but Herbert is no ordinary 27-year-old.

She had both legs amputated above the knee after she was trapped for eight hours under a pile of concrete and steel in The Press building after the February 2011 quake.

After countless surgeries, she needs to raise about $150,000 for computerised legs, known as C-legs, from the Hanger prosthetic limbs clinic in the United States.

She feels it's her best shot at walking again.

Help Stacey get her C-legs: Donate at RiseUpStacey2

The Hanger Clinic in Oklahoma City specialises in making C legs for soldiers who have lost both legs in bomb blasts.

Herbert hopes to blaze a trail for other Kiwi amputees.

Relaxing on the couch in her and her husband Nick's new Rolleston house, her modified car parked out front, she is still quick to laugh and joke. But there are times when she cries and breaks down. She dotes on her two dogs and cat, goes shopping, and she and Nick go on regular dinner dates.

The former promotions model worked in the finance department of The Press on the top floor of the heritage building in Cathedral Square. On the day of the quake she ate lunch at her desk before the shaking started and the walls and roof caved in.

A colleague texted her fiance, Nick, in Culverden and he was by her side while Urban Search and Rescue fire fighters fought to free her.

She felt almost no pain for the eight hours she was pinned under a concrete slab. She was conscious for most of it.

"I guess it was the adrenaline," she said.

Herbert's first leg was amputated soon after she was rescued and days later her second had to be removed.

The crushing fractured her spine, tailbone and three pelvis bones.

She married Nick, her childhood sweetheart, in the Christchurch Hospital chapel, where she was wheeled down the aisle, three months after the quake.

Back then, she thought her dream wedding - large ceremony, full bridal party and walking down the aisle - might be a year away.

But rehabilitation has proved a long, slow journey.

Three years after leaving hospital for the first time, life is still a struggle. She sometimes wonders if it was worth surviving the quake.

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"With death, at least it's over and done with. I know it sounds bad. For me, being alive, it's like, when does it start getting easier? The emotional part is not fun. It's always pretty raw."

She lost count of her surgeries after 20, which have included amputations, fasciotomies on her arms to relieve the toxin pressure, nerve blocks, clean-outs, skin grafts, bone spur removals and leg lengthening.

Stretching the bone in her right leg, to enhance prosthetic control, required metal rods to be inserted and a key to be turned daily.

The bone grew 10cm, but an infection meant 8cm had to be removed, and six more weeks in hospital on intravenous antibiotics.

Herbert takes 27 pills a day, including nerve blockers, pain killers and sleeping pills. There is at least one daily medical appointment with a doctor, osteopath, acupuncturist or pain counsellor.

She still feels both legs and although the nerves were cut to numb phantom pain, the right leg still tingles and itches.

Walking on her prosthetic legs - short, rigid metal poles about 30cm long, with sleeves to sit into and the feet facing backwards - is awkward. "It's more like walking on stilts, but attached to your hips."

The prosthetic options in New Zealand were limited, she said, and uncomfortable. She spent endless hours researching the latest prosthetic technology, and the Hanger Clinic gave her hope.

She would need to make repeat trips as she increased her strength and the height of her prosthetic limbs.

She would start on "stubby feet" before progressing eventually to C-legs with knees.

"I know I can get up and walk, because I've done it before," she said.

"I always wanted to walk up the aisle. At some stage, we'll do it. Then go on a honeymoon, one day, hopefully. The kind of wedding I want, we'll probably end up having children first. We'll get there."

With every centimetre of bone making a crucial difference to prosthetic control, she is determined to try and lengthen the left leg too.

"I don't know if I'm crazy for doing it again. But if that side gets a little bit longer, when I get to go to the States, it gives me more chance at having some success," she said.

Each C-leg, designed to reproduce the functions of a biological leg, will cost about $US70,000 (NZ$83,000). The fittings, treatment, flights and accommodation will add to the bill.

She hopes Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), which will not pay for prosthetic treatment abroad, will send a physiotherapist with her to learn how to do the fittings - not just for her, but future Kiwi amputees.

"I'm sure down the track, there will be other people [like me]. "

Herbert also hopes to upgrade the cosmetic legs she wears in public. She dislikes their webbed toes and "toe nails I can't paint".

What would she do if she raised $1 million?

"I'd get legs more expensive than Heidi Klum," she says, laughing.

- The Press


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