By Samuel Peace
“Two steps forward, one step to the side, and one step back,” is a description of how amputee John Tarrant made his way home on crutches after a drunken night out. In an interview given earlier today, John, 69, from Peacehaven told of the ups and downs of having only one leg, and how it has shaped his life over the years. With modern technology and the Paralympics showcasing the incredible abilities of disabled people, and what they can achieve these days, there is no lack of inspiration to behold. However, not everyone is able to afford the latest advancements, or enter the games. Most folks like John just don’t have enough money, or don’t have enough time to commit. This is why John’s story is so interesting to hear because he’s an everyday person doing everyday things.
John, a retired senior medical technician, lost his leg at the age of 18 following a motorbike accident which nearly cost him his life. The crash happened roughly six months after his birthday on the new Royal Enfield 250cc Crusader Sports he was given. The collision was caused by the negligence of a driver coming from the opposite direction. John said: “A yellow Ford Anglia hit the right side of me when it tried to overtake a car. It was a clear day on a straight road, there was no need for it.” The contact temporarily impaired his vision as he struggled to stay on the bike “having no control is terrifying,” John said as he recalled the heart stopping moment. The last thing he can remember before losing consciousness was: “God I hope nothing hits me in the face.”
It was June 3, 1961, when John’s life changed forever. The clanging bell of a Red Cross ambulance acted like a wake up alarm as he came around from his slumber. He was suffering from shock and blood loss, but witnesses wouldn’t let him move because of the serious injuries he had sustained. At the hospital he was told there was no circulation in his right leg where he was initially hit, and it was unlikely they could save it. Gangrene had begun to set in fast, so they needed to ensure it wouldn’t spread any further. Despite having an amputation however, John was out of hospital within three weeks, yet he had to go back every other day for check-ups. Taking off the dressing was “incredibly painful,” John said. He also remembered his mother’s initial reaction when she saw the injury, he said as he laughed: “It looks like something out of a butcher’s shop.”
What about the emotions he went through after the realisation he had lost a limb? He replied that it was quite upsetting to begin with, but overall he was “just happy to be alive”. John was faced with a long road to normality; it was like stepping into a “whole new world”. Although he likes to remain optimistic he describes how he was at first in a “dark place,” after enduring the harrowing experience. Things didn’t improve when he eventually came face to face with the culprit of the crash who simply said: “No hard feelings.” Not fazed by the lack of remorse however, he managed to get justice by winning the court case and was determined to get back to work as soon as possible.
Having to adjust to moving around on one leg with the support of crutches John was often confronted with difficulties. He didn’t let this deter him however, as he tried to lead a normal life. This involved doing things himself, and going out to get intoxicated with his friends. How he managed to drunkenly get home with only one leg (when most can’t with two) no one will ever know. It took just over two years to get his first prosthetic limb, in which time John was in and out of hospital for about five months. Constant checkups were needed to make sure the stump didn’t get infected, yet unfortunately ulcers started appearing. After the amputation the surgeons had put a skin graft on the wound, but consistent rubbing made it sore, and caused it to swell up. Therefore it was decided he should get some plastic surgery in order to create a ‘smooth round off’ at the end.
John was sent to Odstock Hospital in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he not only sorted out this stump, but also met the love of his life, Mabel, a trainee nurse. He got to know her quite well throughout his stay, and they became very attached. Their happiness was short lived however, when she had to fly back to her home in Hong Kong at the start of 1963. He wouldn’t see her again until 1965 by which time he finally had his first prosthetic leg, at the age of 20. The prosthetics back in those days were a lot more basic and cumbersome he recalled. He had to: “adjust the foot angle to match the height of the heel.” Luckily John’s amputation was below the knee, which means he had his own joint allowing him more control over the new leg. He could just “plug in,” and use his upper leg muscles, and knee joint to fling the leg forwards.
With this he was able to go back to work and do most of the things a fully abled person can do (eventually), which even includes the ability to run! To begin with “it was frustrating,” he said as he was unable to ride his bike again until he passed a new test. While still getting used to normal life a huge surprise came when he found out that Mabel had managed to find a way back to England. She wrote a letter to his house hoping he was still living there. When he received it he went straight up to the hospital where they originally met to try and find her. Once they were reunited he proposed by saying: “I think we better get engaged don’t you?” John laughs: “There was no ring and I was standing up,” but he said he “knew it was meant to be”.
Over the years of being disabled John has made the most out of life. Not once has he let his disability get in the way of what he wants to do. In fact he made light of the defect and recalls more funny moments than troubled ones. One such time he was setting up an operating theatre (putting out the equipment and sterilizing them) when he decided to stick a metal spike through a hole in his prosthetic leg as a joke. Unluckily the student nurse he was with thought it was real and fainted. John also worked on giant industrial chimneys at one point. He reminisces about a day where he was quite high up a ladder when suddenly his knee strap came loose causing his prosthetic leg to slip down his jeans. Once it got to the bottom it got caught, so it ended up looking like he had a double length leg, which got a lot of passer bys chuckling. A few of the other highlights include one of his mates accidentally stepping on his fake foot on a lad’s night out, which consequentially pulled his leg off when he stepped forward causing them both to fall over. There was also a comical occasion when one of his more recent prosthetic legs would come off with a press of a button. His mischievous granddaughter therefore took advantage of this, and decided it would be funny to run off with his leg while he was sitting down. Lastly there was one moment where he was lifting a heavy object when all of a sudden his prosthetic leg collapsed. The ankle bit broke and twisted upwards causing him to become lopsided, and immobile. This made it look like a horrific injury causing passer bys to be in a state of shock. John has now had over 14 legs, but his current one has lasted a lot longer due to it being an improved build.
Wrapping up the interview I asked him about his thoughts on modern, and near future prosthetics which connects to the body’s nervous system. He told me how even though he thinks the technology is great he is more than happy with his current leg: “I have no complaints about my leg, why would I want to move my toes?” To finish off I asked if he missed his real leg, John responded by saying: “I have no regrets because I met the nurse who I married. I’ve never felt disabled because I’ve always been able to do what I want to do.” Many people suffer from some sort of disability, John has been lucky, but he wants people to know that a bit of optimism can go a long way. Don’t give up and live life to the limit.