Amy Purdy: ...how much perseverance you need to be successful
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black. It is an absolute joy to welcome our guest on this episode, Amy Purdy. 19 years ago, when Amy was just 19, she contracted a form of meningitis which led to septic shock and the loss of both of her legs, her kidneys, and her spleen. Amy promised herself that if she survived, she would live the best life possible, she wouldn't limit herself, and she would somehow help others as a result of her journey.
Laura: Amy has done all of that and much, much more. Among other things, she's a three-time Paralympic medalist in snowboarding, a runner-up on Dancing with the Stars, and the author of the bestselling autobiography, On My Own Two Feet: From Losing My Legs to Learning the Dance of Life. Amy, thank you so much for joining us today.
Amy: Thank you.
Laura: What was your life like before your life-changing battle with meningitis?
Amy: Let's see. I grew up in Las Vegas. I was not athletic at all. I did not grow up playing sports, my family didn't play sports, it just wasn't really a part of what we did. I was actually an artist; I loved to paint and I loved photography. I ended up snowboarding at the age of 15 with a group of friends that I met in an art class, and absolutely fell in love with it.
I have to say that before that, I didn't really know where I fit in. My sister was a cheerleader, she was head of the cheer squad. She also was Student Body President and Homecoming Queen. When I first got into high school, I wasn't Amy Purdy, I was Crystal Purdy's little sister. I wasn't sure where I fit. I tried to go the path that she went. I tried out for cheerleading and it didn't work, I was horrible actually. I tried out for dance class and I was horrible. I tried out for tennis. I was just trying to figure out where I fit.
It wasn't until I met this group of skateboarders and snowboarders in my art class that I really found my group of friends. As I started snowboarding, I absolutely fell in love with it and really found myself through it. I knew that snowboarding would be a part of my life forever, one way or another. I set myself up so that I could hopefully travel the world and snowboard. That was my plan. I went to massage school the day after I graduated high school. I moved out to Salt Lake City with a friend and went to massage school. My whole plan was I could take this job with me. I could actually make money and live in different ski resorts across the world while I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Then my life took a detour.
Jan: Tell us about that, how you got meningitis.
Amy: We don't know exactly how I got it. They say one in four people are carriers of this particular bacteria, so that's 25% of the population. It's actually a fairly common bacteria that's not that common to get sick from. But if it finds its way into your bloodstream, they say it's spread like the flu or the cold, on your nose or your mouth, if it finds its way into the bloodstream, that's when it's deadly. They say, it multiplies, doubles, every 20 minutes, something like that. You don't even realize that you have this until it's too late. That's why the fatality rate is so high with it as well. Many times, people go to the doctors or to the hospital, and even the doctors think they just have the flu.
That was how it was with my case where I thought I just had the flu. I went to work one day, I was working in Las Vegas, that's where I was born and raised. I got an amazing massage job there at this world-class spa. I loved my job, I was making great money, I felt on top of the world, and nothing could stop me. All of a sudden one day, I remember doing a couple massages and just felt drained. I was exhausted, so I took a break. Over my break, I started to feel like my back was a little bit achy, my neck was a little bit achy. Thinking I had the flu, I went home from work early. That night I had a temperature of 101, that's typical flu-like symptoms, so nothing too bad. The next morning, my temperature actually broke and my family went out of town. I told them I probably have a 24-hour flu or something and not to worry about me, I'd meet up with them later.
But instead of feeling better, that afternoon I started to feel worse. At one point, I closed my eyes and fell asleep. I had this strong urge to wake up, but I couldn't, I couldn't open my eyes. Over and over, I forced myself awake. I was so tired, I just couldn't pull myself out of it. When I woke up and I went to sit up, I realized that something was really wrong. My heart was beating out of my chest, I was so weak. It probably took a good two to five minutes to get into a seated position. I put my feet on the floor, I stood up, and I realized that I couldn't feel my feet. When I glanced at the floor, I saw that my feet were purple. When I glanced at my hands, I saw that my hands were purple. When I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I saw that my nose, my chin, and my cheeks were purple as well. In that moment, I was dying and I knew it.
Luckily, my cousin walked in right then, my mom had called her to come check on me because we thought I just had a 24-hour flu. My cousin walked in right then and she said, "Oh, my God, Amy, it looks like you're dead." I said, "I'm dying. I'm dying. I know I am." She rushed me to the hospital and I was immediately put on life support. They had no idea what I had. I was going into cardiac arrest, my lungs were collapsing, my veins were collapsing. All they knew is that my white blood count was through the roof, something like over 200,000, they knew that something was taking over my body, but they just didn't know what it was. That was the beginning of a very life-changing journey.
Laura: Amy, I have a few questions for you. How long did it take to diagnose you with meningitis? How long were you in the hospital? And how did you find out that you needed to lose your legs?
Amy: It takes about five days to diagnose because it actually takes that long to process the bacteria in the petri dish, or whatever they do. They don't know for a couple days if that's what you have or not. For me, they just treated me for whatever it could be, everything under the sun. They gave me the four strongest antibiotics in the world. They had no idea what I had.
I was in a coma. I was immediately put on life support, I was put into an induced coma. I fought for my life for quite a few weeks. My lungs collapsed, my veins collapsed, my spleen burst, my kidneys failed completely. When I entered the hospital, I was in full kidney failure. The doctor had told my mom that he had never seen anybody pull out of kidney failure like that before. They didn't think I was going to make it at that time. My entire body was shutting down.
When I went into this induced coma, which was about the day after I entered the hospital, I was aware that that's what was going to happen. They were putting me into this coma because I couldn't breathe, I was gasping for air, my feet were purple, they were achy, and they hurt so bad. I remember asking my dad to show me my feet because they were covered with a blanket. He said, "Your feet are the last thing we're worried about here. We just want to keep you alive here." But I begged him to see my feet because they hurt so bad. He pulled the sheet up, and my feet were completely purple. That's the last memory I have before going into this induced coma.
That next week, I really fought for my life. There's moments where I flatlined, I was on 24-hour dialysis, they had no idea if I was going to survive. I went into something called DIC as well; the word that it stands for is very long, so I don't remember it. Some of the nurses say it stands for ‘Death is Coming’, basically it's like your blood cells are hemorrhaging so your blood gets very thin. Just a needle poke and the sheets would be red. Meanwhile, I had something like 14 to 17 IVs in at a time. It was a very critical situation.
When I woke up from this coma that I was in, I knew that my feet were in trouble. We did everything we could to save them, physical therapy. I was actually pretty lucky, to be honest, that we had that time. Some people go in with a bacteria or something, septic shock, which is what I was in, some people go in with that and they've got hours before they have to do amputations. I actually had quite a few weeks. I had time, to a degree, to wrap my head around it a little bit, the best I could. We did everything we could to save my legs below the knees. Ultimately, the doctors had to amputate them. I will say, I also was facing losing my hands as well because my hands were just as bad as my feet. All of a sudden, it turned around and my hands were better and my feet were the ones that were worse off. It puts everything into perspective. Honestly, I thought, "Oh, my gosh, thank God I only lost my feet. How lucky am I to pull out of this only losing my feet?"
Amy: Yeah, it's all about perspective.
Jan: I know you've said that when you lost your legs at the age of 19, you thought your life was over. Tell us more about what you felt and how you overcame that because yours is such an amazing story.
Amy: Nothing can prepare you for that moment. If somebody had told me when I was younger, that at the age of 19, I was going to lose my legs, lose my kidneys, lose the life that I knew, lose my health, I would have said, "There's no way that I could handle it." Just like anybody else would say, anyone else's 19-year-old would say, "There's no way that I could handle that." Then it happens. All of a sudden, I have to pull strength from somewhere, strengths that I didn't even know that I had.
I'm trying to think what exactly I went through at that time. I made some choices that I think really shaped my life. As I was being wheeled into the operating room where they were going to amputate my legs, I made three goals as I was being wheeled in, and I recited those goals myself. The first goal was that I wasn't going to feel sorry for myself. Everybody else was feeling sorry for me, my parents, everybody was so sad that I was losing my legs. It was so tragic, and we didn't know what my life was going to be like. I didn't want to feel sorry for myself. The second goal was that when I somehow figured all this out, I would try to help other people. The third goal was that I was going to snowboard again that season because I had never missed a season of snowboarding before and I wasn't about to.
Those three goals I hung on to when I went into the operating room. When I came out of the operating room, I still had those three goals in my mind. I think just having that, it pulled me to the future instead of looking at the past. It's something that could give me something to look forward to. I'm going to figure out how to snowboard again, I don't know how, but I am going to do it and I will find a way. It got me excited to try to figure it out. I knew, I felt it inside, that I'm going to figure this out, and when I do, I'm going to help other people. I know that that sounds really strong in a very vulnerable and heartbreaking situation. I had my down moments, absolutely. But I really tried to pull myself out of those moments by hanging on to these three goals.
Laura: Talk to us a little bit about that nonprofit that you started, Adaptive Action Sports, and your passion for helping people with disabilities get into action sports.
Amy: I went on a mission to try to snowboard again. About seven months after I lost my legs, I was back up on a snowboard again, it didn't go very well. My knees wouldn't bend, my ankles wouldn't bend. The mechanics and my legs really didn't work the way that I needed them to. What it did is it sparked this creativity inside of me. I decided, "I'm going to find a way to make this happen. If I don't find a pair of legs that work, I'll make a pair of legs." That's exactly what I had to do. I actually went to my prosthetic shop and we ended up piecing together this pair of legs that would move in a way that I needed them to. That allowed me to get back up on my snowboard again, allow for my body to move the way that it needed to.
At that time, I really just wanted to snowboard for fun, it wasn't for competition at all. Through my process, I started to realize, "This is possible, why are more people not doing it?" In fact, I remember going to Breckenridge, Colorado and going to this ski spectacular event for people with disabilities. There are hundreds of people that are skiing, and I was the only snowboarder. I thought, "Why am I the only snowboarder? It's obviously possible." I wanted to be able to help other people give this sport as an option as well.
When I met my, now, husband, Daniel, in 2002, we decided to start this organization, Adaptive Action Sports, to give resources for other people with disabilities who wanted to get involved in action sports; snowboarding, skateboarding, wakeboarding, mountain biking, all the sports that I was passionate about. We wanted to be able to help other people get involved in those sports. One of our goals was to get snowboarding into the Paralympic Games. Snowboarding was in the Olympic Games, but it wasn't yet in the Paralympic Games. We worked for many years, very hard, to finally get snowboarding into the 2014 Paralympic Games. I came back with the bronze medal, which was amazing.
I think the most fulfilling part of all of it is just setting this pathway for anybody who has a disability, whether there's a little kid out there, a wounded veteran, or somebody who's in their 20s, or who's 15, somebody who has a disability, who wants to snowboard, wants to compete, wants to live a full life, and wants to be a professional athlete. We've been able to team up with amazing companies, like Toyota, and run our organization and help make dreams come true.
Jan: How difficult was it to learn to walk again using prosthetic legs, let alone snowboard?
Amy: Very hard. Especially at first, I was so used to my normal legs and what things were supposed to feel like. Now I'm walking in carbon fiber that's so confining. It's kind of barbaric, if you think about it. You've got bones and soft tissue, all of the sudden it's encased in carbon fiber that doesn't move and doesn't breathe. I lived in Vegas, it was 115 degrees, it was hot. Also, your feet aren't touching the ground. The normal human foot has 150 bones and muscles for balancing and for jumping. My foot has one piece of carbon fiber. Just walking alone was very daunting and very challenging.
I had this kind of breakthrough moment where I had just started walking in my legs. Let me back up real quick. I actually walked in my sister's wedding, about a week-and-a-half after I got my prosthetics. That was another goal that I set for myself was, I didn't want to be in a wheelchair. I didn't want people feeling sorry for me and I was going to walk in her wedding. I didn't want the attention, which I ended up getting the attention because everybody was crying. Nobody expected me to be walking in her wedding, but that was a goal that I set myself. I got these legs, they're so uncomfortable, so confining, then ended up just very cautiously walking around the house, and was able to walk in her wedding, which luckily it was at my parents’ house. But that was one of the first breakthroughs I had where I thought, "Okay, it's possible. Just two weeks ago, I wouldn't have thought this was possible, and now I'm walking in her wedding. If I can do this, maybe I can keep going, maybe I can work out again, maybe I can do the things I love again."
Another breakthrough I had was, I had a little puppy dog. I'm so happy I got her when I got out of the hospital. She was a little beagle, her name's Roxy, she was only three months old. I got her, brought her home one day with my sister, I was still in a wheelchair at that point, but had my legs. My parents said, "You're going to have to take care of her." I remember I was sitting outside with her and a coyote came through our yard, bolted out of the yard, and she went right after him. They went a fourth a mile down the road chasing each other, then the coyote turned on her and attacked her.
The minute she jumped out of my arms and went running down the street, I jumped up in my two prosthetic legs and ran, I ran so fast. I had flip-flops on my feet that were actually velcroed to my feet, I loved my flip-flops so I was determined to wear them, and my flip-flops flew off my feet. I went running across the street, jumping over cactuses. I'm telling you, I ran a half a mile in these legs before I barely even walked in them. I was able to save her, she was a little beat up and had puncture wounds around her neck, but she was okay. I ended up picking her up and walking her a half a mile back home.
My whole family was standing there in awe. Here they had seen me walk so cautiously, so carefully around the house in these legs because they were so painful, then all of a sudden, I'm running full speed down the street. It made me realize that it's about what we focus on. If I was sitting there focusing on how uncomfortable my legs were, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did. But I wasn't, I was focused on something bigger than myself. That is what made me all of a sudden realize, "This is possible. If I can run in these, then I can walk in these. If I can do that, then I can snowboard in these. And then who knows where I can go from there."
Laura: You've been quoted as saying that, even if you could change your situation, you wouldn't. How do you think you would have been different as a person had you not gone through this?
Amy: I definitely wouldn't change my situation. It has been very challenging for a lot of different reasons. People want to focus, at times, that I've got prosthetic legs, but I also have a kidney transplant. To be honest, the kidney transplant was more challenging for me than my prosthetics. My prosthetics are something that I'm always going to have to deal with. A lot of times people talk about overcoming obstacles. I don't really talk about overcoming obstacles, I talk about using them, about pushing off of them. It's the obstacles that ultimately give us our opportunity if you get creative and you can work through it. I have to deal with my obstacle every day, I put my legs on every single day. It's not something that suddenly you overcome and it goes away.
At the same time, I wouldn't be where I'm at today had I have not lost my legs. I have an amazing career as a motivational speaker, I speak to Fortune 500 companies around the world. I travel all over the world. I snowboard, I compete, I run an amazing nonprofit organization with my husband, and I've got a brand that I'm building. I would not be the person I am today if I didn't go through the challenges that I've gone through. Those are just some of the challenges I've been through. Losing my legs is just one part of my life, that happened when I was 19 years old. I'm now in my 30's, I've gone through plenty of other ups and downs and challenges. I think they make you who you are, there's no way to expedite the process. You can't have all the good stuff without having the bad stuff to build up your character, build up your confidence, and build up your strength.
Jan: You've said that you believe faith is the most powerful tool we have. Explain more about the role faith has played in this whole journey for you.
Amy: When I talk about faith, I don't really talk about it in a religious way. I was not raised religious. I went to the Mormon Church a little bit when I was younger, but outside of that, we didn't have a religion that my family was raised in. For me, just having the faith that all of this is going to make sense at some point. For me, I have the faith that in the end, all of this will make sense, whatever that means. All the ups and all the downs, even if they don't make sense right now, even if we don't have clear answers right now of why something happened, I have it inside of me that all of this will make sense in the end. That helps me on the journey when things get tough.
I'm not just talking about my legs. I think we've all been through it when it comes to business, or it comes to a job, or it comes to trying to figure out what your purpose is, all the different challenges that we all deal with. For me, I have this bigger picture that I don't have the answers. But just to know that it will all make sense in the end, that, for me, gives me faith that there's a reason, and everything's going to be okay. I've figured it out, up till this point, going through the worst-case scenario that I could ever imagine going through, so I'm pretty sure I can handle the challenge that's in my hands right now. Faith has really allowed me to just step back, get out of my mess, out of my bubble, and really focus on that it will all make sense at some point, so just keep going.
Laura: Amy, as you know, we have a mother-daughter show. Your mother played a big role in your recovery. Talk to us a little bit about what she did that helped you so much during the process and how you think your recovery would have been different if her attitude was different.
Amy: I have a very nurturing family. Although we weren't religious, we were very, I'd say, spiritual because there's just a lot of love in my family and we have a lot of women in my family as well. My mom, she quit her job the minute that I entered the hospital, sat by my side, along with my dad, my sister, and my grandparents as well, they sat by my side. Throughout my entire hospital experience, I think my mom stepped away once, and I was in the hospital for about two-and-a-half months. She was by my side through all of that.
She really became my full-time caretaker when I went home. I went home at 83 pounds. I was in kidney failure, so I was on dialysis. I was in a wheelchair, I didn't have legs. My mom really needed to take care of me full-time, and she did that. She would drive me to my dialysis appointments a couple times a week, I had doctor's appointments all week. That was kind of the next two years of my life, between doctor's appointments and also the prosthetic appointments, getting my legs made. There's a lot going on and she was there the entire time.
We had some of our most amazing moments at that time as well. It's good when you can find humor in tragedy. We were somehow always making each other laugh, which was great. Looking at what my life had suddenly become would, sometimes that would even make us laugh. We just couldn't believe how crazy life was. To have her by my side was really amazing.
When I was in the hospital, she was really focused on the energy that people brought into the room. My grandmother showed up, this was one of the critical moments where they didn't know if I had another couple hours to live; my body was crashing, my blood pressure, it crashed, my heart rate went through the roof. My grandma showed up right at that time, my grandma started crying and my mom told her to get out. Basically, my mom felt that I was so on the edge of life and death that even a negative thought or energy could throw me over the edge. My mom told everybody, you can't enter unless you have positive thoughts, pretty much. Everybody who was there was thinking positive. No matter what was happening in front of them, they all believed in their hearts that I would make it through it. And I did.
Jan: Amy, what would you like to tell the rest of us about how we should react when we see a person who has prosthetic legs or arms, or no legs or arms. What's the right thing to do and what's the wrong thing?
Amy: I would say, react to him as any other human. First of all, we all have disabilities, everybody does. Whether you have prosthetics, we all have challenges that we're facing that sometimes stop us from doing the things that we love to do. The problem is, most people, their limitations are in their own minds. They think that they have reasons to not be able to do the things they want to do. People that I know who have prosthetic legs, who are Paralympians, they're more able-bodied than people who have all their limbs.
I think it's amazing when kids come up to me and say, “Oh, my gosh, those are so cool. I want a pair of legs like that.” That's pretty cool because, in their minds, they're not thinking this is a disability, or a handicap, or any of these weird labels that we put on things. They’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this person has robot legs. She can swim, she can run, she can snowboard, she can add different accessories. That's pretty cool.”
When people come up to me with that kind of sense of curiosity and, “Whoa, is that carbon fiber? That's amazing.” That instantly opens the conversation and allows me to be able to share my organization, what I've been able to go on and do in the world, and some of these other people I know who are doing incredible things. Our community that we're a part of, is just so innovative. It’s really, really forward thinking and cool. We are trying to figure out a way to do everything that we want to do. If you have to go to the garage and build a pair of legs yourself, you do. I think that's pretty amazing.
Laura: I'm curious to know, you've done all of these interviews and been very generous with your time for people who want to learn more about your story and about your organization. I'm wondering what is one question that you've never been asked before that you wish you had been?
Amy: To be honest, I'm not sure because I have shared my story a lot. To be honest, I really haven't shared it that much in the last couple years because I've gone on to do other things. I went on and did Dancing with the Stars, wrote a New York Times bestselling book, went back to the Paralympic Games and won a silver medal and another bronze medal. I have a brand and a business that I run. I find that I actually get asked more about that stuff these days than I do the actual, how I lost my legs. I will say, at this point, I've been asked so many different questions under the sun that I'm not actually sure how to answer that.
Jan: One question that we always ask our guests, because our show is called, Nobody Told Me! We always ask, “What's your nobody told me lesson?” What is it that you have learned in this journey in life that nobody told you, nobody could have prepared you for, and maybe on some level you kind of wish somebody had?
Amy: I want to say nobody told me how challenging and hard it would be to run your own business and become successful. We do hear that all the time, but until you go through it yourself, you don't realize just how much perseverance and how much hard work goes into it. For me, being a motivational speaker, I speak to Fortune 500 companies, I'm a keynote speaker for some of the biggest corporations in the world, and it is hard work. Back in the day, people would say, “Just get up and share your story, that's it.” To a degree, that is it.
At the same time, the amount of preparation that I put into my speaking career is the same amount of preparation that I put into my competitive snowboarding career. When I was snowboarding competitively, the amount of training that I put in every single day, and focus and dedication so that I could go out and perform my best, I try to use that in speaking as well. I have to prepare so that I'm ready when I go on stage so that I'm in the moment and having a great time, can connect with the audience and perform at my best.
I think a lot of people don't realize the amount of hard work that goes into that. You think you can just stand up, share your story, and you get a standing ovation and that's good. But to actually have a career in it, to actually build a brand in it, and to be able to speak to these corporations, you have to work really hard. I would say maybe I never knew the amount of hard work, but I'm very grateful for figuring it out along the way and then being able to help others do the same.
Laura: Amy, I have one final question for you. You have been so great at reinventing yourself and doing the unexpected, I'm wondering what we can expect in the next few years?
Amy: I'm in a bit of a transition, but in a really good way. The last couple of years, so much happened at once. I went into the Paralympic Games, to Sochi, and won a bronze medal. It overlapped with Dancing with the Stars, I came in second place. I wrote a New York Times bestselling book, then I went on a speaking tour with Oprah. Then I started doing a ton of my own speaking. Then I went back to the Paralympic Games. To be honest, the last five years has been one thing after the next and it's been incredible.
I'm in a spot right now where I'm redesigning my future. I'm not sure if I'm going to compete in the next Paralympics, I’m one of the oldest competitors in our sport now. It's interesting, for a while there, it was just one thing after the next was coming my way. Now I'm in a spot where I get to create my future, what I want to do and what I see.
One thing I'm really loving is connecting with people, really connecting with my followers, whether it's on social media. I definitely have another book that I'm going to be writing that has nothing to do with my legs or challenges in that way, but really to help inspire people to live their best life. I see some kind of speaking tour ideas that I've got that I'm working on.
Right now, I'm just living an inspired life and trying to be my best self and see how these projects play out. There is a movie that's somewhat in the works, at the beginning stages, on my life, which is amazing. That's something that hopefully we'll see happening here pretty soon. But I get to redesign what the next five years looks like, and I'm really excited for that.
Jan: How can people connect with you via social media?
Amy: I am really big on Instagram, as far as when I say I'm really big, I mean that's where I put my energy, is to Instagram. I am on Facebook as well. Both my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, my handle is @amyprudygurl. I try to do a lot of live chats, I answer people's questions, I really try to share my experiences, my vulnerabilities, and the challenges I've had to just help other people succeed in their lives as well. It's a really great platform for me to be able to connect. I would love it if you guys join me.
Laura: Thank you so much, Amy. Our thanks to Amy Purdy who has been our guest this last show. She's a three-time Paralympic medalist in snowboarding, the runner-up on Dancing with the Stars, and the author of the bestselling autobiography, On My Own Two Feet: From Losing My Legs to Learning the Dance of Life.
You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: Thank you so much for joining us.