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Erin Lazarus: from amputation to aspiration

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At the end of 2021, Erin Lazarus (23) had the world at her feet – literally. She had just finished her degree, and was due to start working in the new year. She would never have guessed that in January 2022, her leg would be amputated or that she would bounce back with incredible new goals.

“Either I kept this essentially dead foot which could be detrimental to my health, or I could amputate,” says Lazarus, remembering the moment her life changed. “For me, there wasn’t a choice and as a family, we decided to amputate immediately. I danced when my family came to see me. I was on the walker 12 hours after surgery. This was my new journey, and I would do everything in my power to come back stronger.”

It all started a year before that. Throughout 2021, Lazarus experienced joint pain, migraines, hair loss, rashes, fatigue, redness around her nails and on her feet, and swelling. Multiple blood tests came back clear. “It’s a miracle that my body pushed through to finish my postgraduate degree. The day I finished, my body broke down,” she says.

She had her wisdom teeth removed in the hope that it would alleviate the migraines. “After this, I had a rash all over my body. My calf was very sore – I couldn’t walk for five days. That was when I clotted. In late December 2021, the side of my left foot started forming what looked like a purple bruise. The doctor told me that it was anxiety and gave me anti-anxiety medication, a sleeping pill, and anti-inflammatories.

“Two days later, I started slurring my words. We called Hatzolah. I blacked out from the moment they arrived until the moment I was in the emergency room. The hospital did no further tests, told me I had Raynaud’s Disease, the anxiety medication was too strong, and let me go after an hour.”

A few days later, her family went away for her sister’s birthday. “I put my feet in the pool and immediately felt my left foot burning. It turned black and I felt excruciating pain. I screamed the entire night with pain I’ll never forget. The tests came back to say I had lupus (an auto-immune disease in which your immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissue).

“My family and I celebrated because, for the first time, we knew what was wrong. The next day, the pain got worse. We went straight to hospital. At this point, morphine didn’t help. They sent me for a CT scan which said I may have a clot, and transferred me to Milpark Hospital because its vascular department was so good.

“Within seconds of arriving at Milpark, I was connected to drips with steroids and medication to help fight the lupus and help my foot. I went for an angiogram to try to dissolve the clot. I had to be awake for this operation. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. The next night, the vascular surgeon decided to try pick out the clots and reconnect my artery, which had completely cut off in my calf. Again, this was unsuccessful. My foot was completely dead..” It was then that the decision was made to amputate.

Lazarus grew up in the same house she lives in today, with her parents and sister. She went to King David Linksfield from Grade 1 to matric. “Playing sport with my friends and sister have always been my happiest moments,” she says. She excelled in various sports, including gymnastics, netball, soccer, touch rugby, athletics, and cross country. She studied a BCom at the University of the Witwatersrand, and completed her honours. “I was due to start working at Investec in January 2022 but then everything happened, so I’ll start in July 2022. They have been phenomenal.”

Since the amputation, “I haven’t felt any pain, thanks to my incredible surgeon. I truly believe that what my family went through having to wait outside theatre is more traumatic than anything I’ve dealt with,” says Lazarus about all her operations, including the second, which took two hours longer than expected. After the amputation, “My family walked in, took the blanket off, and said, ‘We’re going to name it Stompy,’ and gave Stompy a kiss. They made me feel so comfortable with the new and improved me.”

Since that day, she has “realised how privileged I am to go to the most amazing hospital, have the best doctors and nurses, and be able to select my team. Farrell Cohen has always been my physio, so it was a no-brainer for me to do rehab with him. We focused on staying strong and mobile in preparation for my new [prosthetic] leg. After exactly four months, I got my leg. I’m able to walk without crutches – it’s been incredible.”

Not many people have access to this kind of treatment, “which is why I’ve decided to start a foundation which helps people who have lost a limb get a prosthetic and live the life they would never be able to without the prosthetic. I’ve also committed to running a marathon at the end of 2023 with my dad.”

Lupus can be controlled with medication, which will allow Lazarus to live a completely normal life. “I wake up every day feeling like me again. The medication has completely changed my life. I’ll experience flare-ups here and there, but I now know what to look out for.”

Her life has changed because “I have a completely new outlook. I realise how lucky I am. I didn’t realise the severity of the situation until three days post-amputation when the doctor told me I was no longer in a life-threatening situation. I’m going to live my life with the people I love, do the things I love, and be grateful for the little things in life.”

Her family has played a crucial role in her recovery. “My doctors tease us that my family comes as an entourage. They have been my rock during this. Going through something bad allows you to see who cares for you unconditionally. I have nine friends who have been with me every single day, know my doctors’ names, and know more about lupus than I do. They held my hand for my first steps, and let me be vulnerable.”

Ninety percent of the time, she feels positive, “but there is that 10% that’s still upset that everything had to go so far. When I’m down, I lean on friends and family. I find that humour has been a huge coping mechanism. I make jokes about how now I can get 50% off a pedicure!”

Her advice to anyone going through something difficult is to “let yourself feel whatever you need to feel, and let those close to you help you. But don’t allow yourself to become a victim. Feeling sorry for myself isn’t going to get rid of lupus or grow my leg back. Surround yourself with a support system and distract yourself by doing the things you love.”

She says the community’s kindness has helped in many ways. “Knowing how many people took the time to wish me well made me feel like I wasn’t alone. We also need to be more conscious of building facilities that are disability-friendly.

“When you hear in the news that blood is in short supply, it really is a call for help,” she says. “I was unable to have a blood transfusion the night after my operation because there was no suitable blood available. The Hatzolah blood drives are a wonderful way of giving back. There is a blood drive happening on 22 May. Please donate if you’re able to.”

Finally, she says, “Don’t stare and wonder of you can talk to me. Come ask questions. I’m still little Erin from Norwood. Nothing’s changed.”

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