Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Meet the athletes who overcame limb loss and radiation damage

From losing a leg and shattering a knee, to fighting cancer, three fitness enthusiasts from the Middle East have battled immense challenges in their quest to remain healthy

Jacob Bury lost his right leg in a diving accident, but has learnt to ski and balance differently while lifting weights 
Jacob Bury lost his right leg in a diving accident, but has learnt to ski and balance differently while lifting weights 

Injuries arrive in many shapes and forms, always unexpected, sometimes unhealable. And yet, three fitness enthusiasts from the Middle East, one who lost a leg, another who developed complications after rupturing her knee, and a third who suffered from radiation damage, are undeterred in their quest for fitness. Here they share their stories and what they’ve learnt along the way.

Jacob Bury on losing a limb

On June 26, 2018, Jacob Bury’s life changed forever. It was just past 7.30am, and he was diving about 50 kilometres offshore in the Red Sea. A resident of Saudi Arabia for 15 years, Bury was familiar with the sport and dived often. Only this time, as soon as he entered the water, Bury knew something was wrong. “The current was pulling me toward the boat,” he says.

In a matter of seconds, and even as he grabbed at the boat with his fingertips, desperately trying to hold himself back, the propellers sucked his right leg under. The blades split open the bottom half of his leg from his knee to his ankle, broke his femur and destroyed the vascular structure in the upper half of the limb. “It was an unusual, strange sensation,” Bury recalls with a hint of a laugh.

Now, about a year after the accident, he regularly jokes about it all, saying that it’s given him great material for leg-based puns. But on that morning in June, Bury had one thought in his mind: survival. “I knew if everything didn’t go exactly as it needed to, I might not make it,” he says.

He survived after a journey that involved a five-hour ride on two different boats, during which Bury’s leg was wrapped in a tourniquet, travelling by ambulance to Al Laith, an emergency surgery to stop the bleeding, a transfer to Jeddah, and another operation to amputate his leg 10 centimetres above the knee. “When I woke up, I realised, ‘OK, this is what life is going to look like now. Let’s not waste any time,’” says the American. “Instead of feeling angry, I started thinking about all the things I could do.”

A keen outdoorsman, the gym owner realised he would have to make some changes. He learnt to ski on one leg and how to balance while lifting weights.

“I’ve learnt that, no matter what your situation is, you can find something to push you forward,” he says. “My physical process for exercise has changed, but I see that as a challenge.” His new situation is an interesting adjustment, he says, not a reason to stop. “Regardless of the circumstances, there’s always something you can do.

Lilly Sabri on shattering a knee

It’s a philosophy that fellow skier Lilly Sabri agrees with. The accident on the slopes that ruptured parts of the fitness influencer’s knee wasn’t “Oscar-­worthy”, she says. “I’ve had bigger falls.”

The ski didn’t detach when she fell and the damage was immense:

Sabri ruptured both her MCL and ACL, fractured her fibula head and tore her lateral meniscus. Like Bury, Sabri, a physiotherapist and fitness instructor, knew life would never be the same.

When she was in London to undergo emergency surgery, doctors discovered another complication – she had developed two life-threatening DVTs (deep vein thromboses). “I’d say that was the last straw, emotionally,” she admits.

As a result, Sabri’s surgery has been delayed. The whole process will take about 20 months and she’s now waiting for her surgeries while treating the DVTs. Sabri has thrown herself into researching the different ways we can help heal our bodies. “I’m eating more anti-inflammatory foods and meditating,” she explains. “We say this all the time in sports psychology: your mind-body connection is so important.”

Through all of this, Sabri has shared her struggles and victories on her social platforms. “I’d say it has helped give me a purpose,” she says. “A lot of that was taken away from me with the accident – I wasn’t able to provide my HIIT workouts, I can’t run events, a few brands even dropped me, which I understand. But having that purpose to wake up for, to show the journey, I owe social media a massive thanks. People have been ­really supportive and caring, and it’s given me a reason to keep fighting.”

In her recent online videos, Sabri is often exercising with one leg, or showing certain movements you can do after a knee injury.

Her healthy recipes have a new focus on healing foods. “This experience has given me a whole new appreciation of my life and my body,” she says.

Petrina Barber on battling cancer and radiation damage

Food is also foremost in the mind of cancer survivor Petrina Barber, not least because her body couldn’t absorb nutrients for months on end. After being diagnosed with cervical cancer when her son was four months old, Barber went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment helped her to beat the cancer, but severe side effects meant her organs were scarred and food couldn’t pass normally. “I lived in pain every day,” says the UAE resident.

In December 2018, Barber collapsed, beginning a long process of even more hospital visits, feeding tubes, and eventually an intense internal surgery. Doctors removed half of her intestines and half of her colon.

“The surgeon saved my life,” says Barber. “He’s given me the ability to go home to my husband and my son. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.” For years, she explains, she was focused on simply managing the pain. “Now I have a shot at ‘normal’, which I still haven’t gotten my head around,” she says.

Healing after her surgery will take a while, Barber acknowledges. She is working with a specialist bowel surgery physiotherapist, as well as a surgical team and personal trainer, to restore her fitness. Food is a huge focus, and she has also embraced meditation and breathing work. “If I’m honest, recovery is hard, healing is hard – some days are great and some days aren’t. But I’m so proud of my body and how it’s kept me alive,” she says.

On social media, Barber regularly shares photographs of her body at its fittest, and her body now, complete with her stomach scar. “I want to be open about this journey, in the hope that even just one person can feel better about themselves,” she says.

As she continues to regain her strength, she stresses the gratitude she feels. “There is so much joy in the world, and so much love and good in people,” she says. Echoing Bury and Sabri, Barber leaves us with one thought: “Life is worth living.”

Updated: April 9, 2019 09:51 AM

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