“Sharing a part of yourself allows others to feel like they’re not alone; as an amputee, it’s one of the most important gifts we can give.” ~Aly Herper
When you meet Aly Herpel, a 36-year old Senior Quality Software Engineer from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, you can feel her energy. The shine in Aly’s eyes tells you she lives a vivid, engaged life. And when Aly begins telling you about the latest book she’s reading, or tells you stories about her wild outdoor adventures with her family and friends–your hunch is affirmed: you’ve met a dynamic woman driven by incredible energy and an insatiable sense of curiosity. You’ve met someone who chooses how she defines her life and doesn’t let limb loss determine who she is.
But her path hasn’t always seemed so clear. In the face of major medical issues, Aly had to carve out her own path through a world of loss, confusion, and uncertainty.
In October 2015, Aly was paralyzed from the waist down unexpectedly by transverse myelitis–a neurological condition caused by spinal cord inflammation. Along with her then new husband and young daughter, Aly found herself fighting through years of hospitalizations, treatments, and therapies just to bring her back to roughly 67 percent of her pre-paralysis abilities. Even with some recovery, she suffered numerous broken bones, sprained ankles, and other ailments that rendered her feeling depressed and a lack of hope.
“By the time 2019 came around, I was in extreme pain,” said Aly. “I felt trapped in a broken body with a left foot that just wouldn’t heal. I felt like I wasn’t heard by my health care providers repeatedly when I said I wanted to amputate. I knew I had to make different decisions for myself, about my health and my community, to help me live life to its fullest again. I wanted to amputate so I would have a reliable deficit and be active again.”
In January 2020, after working with a new health care team at the Mayo Clinic, Aly amputated and joined the greater amputee community.
THE PATH OF HEALING, RECOVERING–AND FLOURISHING
Like many other amputees, Aly says that the majority of her recovery has been mental and emotional. “Throughout my journey, I have spent many days discovering the new me while mourning the loss of who I once was,” said Aly. “Even with the optimism of amazing family, friends, and therapist–I had to allow myself to be angry and heartbroken sometimes. But only for so long; I needed to become who I am now.” And recovery could feel slow at times. “Often, after I could walk post-amputation, I would just walk to the corner or around the block,” said Aly. “So then I tried geocaching, which seemed intimidating but it allowed me to focus my mind on something else. At least I could get out and start using my prosthetic.” After working with a local prosthetist with in-house fabrication capabilities, Aly was ultimately able to gain momentum because adjustments to her prosthetic could be made more quickly. She started trying things like yoga, hiking, swimming to gain strength, and more.
She then found the Wiggle Your Toes Twin Cities Mobility Clinic and was surrounded by people who “could truly understand her struggles and hardships.” She still fought through unresponsive muscles due to nerve damage–but in a place where it was okay to take risks. “Coaches at the clinic helped me learn to use a new running blade. The coaches, along with the greater prosthetic and amputee community, helped me learn how to do things like run using my thighs so my calf wouldn’t get injured by having to absorb all of the impact.”
Proudly, Aly was able to walk/run Goldy’s Run 5K in April 2022 with the Wiggle Your Toes Adaptive Team. “To think, several years ago I was paralyzed and I just ran a 5K, is amazing.” said Aly after the race. Recently, Aly said that her body still proves to be difficult. “I just learned that I may be experiencing more spinal flare ups. But I have a community around me who gives me the perspective I need to do whatever I need to do to make my path my own. I have the right peers and the right health care team. That in itself is a gift.”
ADVICE TO OTHERS
When asked what advice she might have for newly injured individuals, she said: “You have to remember to laugh at yourself. Life is messy and there will be falls, mistakes, and tears along the way. Remember that as amputees, we are able to take back the opportunity to redefine who we are. I challenge everyone to explore their worlds, try new things, and learn about the possibilities of who you can be now–today.”
Wiggle Your Toes is extremely proud of Aly and her family, and we look forward to seeing them at more events! Kudos to creating a thriving life, Aly.