Five years ago, Caitlin Conner was riding on the back of her husband’s motorcycle on their way to dinner just a few miles from their home. One moment she was feeling the warm summer breeze, arms locked around her husband, and the next she was rolling on the side of the highway, skin burning, ankle broken and positioned at a ninety-degree angle. They were T-boned by a car and Caitlin absorbed most of the impact with her leg. Turns out the driver was texting on their cell phone.
“I knew at that very moment I would lose my leg. I was in a state of emergency and wanted to save as much energy as possible. I began to breathe slower so I would lose less blood and ultimately less limb. I accepted it from that very moment.”
In the emergency room, a nurse walked in and delivered the next curveball: Caitlin was pregnant. Knowing the stress her body was under would have a harmful effect on her baby, a difficult decision had to be made. After six reconstructive surgeries, Caitlin made the final call to amputate her leg.
"When the nurse walked in and announced my pregnancy, I switched from emergency mode to protective mode immediately. I always wanted to be a mom. There was no doubt in my mind I would amputate and soon. Because I was pregnant, I was on minimal pain medicine, antibiotics, and anesthesia. I was at a pain level of 10 all the time and I knew that my stress would affect the baby even at 4 weeks of gestation. I did not want to lose what I had just been blessed with. My foot did not define me as a person, my kid was more important.”
Caitlin promised herself she would learn to walk and run before her daughter and this was just the beginning of a long fight to transform herself into the super mom and triathlete she was destined to become. She tries new things, takes more risks and puts herself out there. Sometimes that’s all it takes to start attracting opportunities you never thought possible. Now Caitlin is living a life that is authentic to who she is and who she wants to be.
2018 is a big year for Caitlin. Her daughter Tinley is three years old and Caitlin is not only running, she’s a competitive para-cyclist, training to represent Team USA and compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan. On top of that, she’s modeling for several brands including Target’s C9 Champion line of apparel, and this month, she told her story on Lifetime's "This Time Next Year."
When faced with a traumatic experience we have no choice but to accept the pain and live through the suffering. Life will carry on and we have to make an important choice, accept the circumstance and grow stronger or resist, which can lead to some serious regret and extended suffering. Easier said than done but choosing to embrace the situation will lead to transformation and the inner peace required to move on. I had the opportunity to speak with Caitlin in-between training sessions and mom duties and we dug deeper into her positive mindset. Enjoy these insights into an amazingly strong, loving and beautiful human being.
Mark McGarry/YORK: How did you land on the name Rex for your prosthetic leg?
Caitlin Conner: My leg is named Rex because after I amputated, I received 50 stitches around the sides and bottom of my leg. Combined with a scar from the external fixator and a scar from road rash, my limb resembled the prehistoric beast. I try to find humor in everything. There was a guy at the office I used to mess with that couldn't handle my humor. One day I rolled up in my wheelchair, didn't have a prosthetic at the time, and put two fingers under my knee to resemble tiny arms. I roared at him and told him Rex was going to get him. He had to walk away and couldn't look at me for a week after that. Now after years of atrophy, it's more like grandpa Rex, but the beast mode is still there.
MM: This was one of those uncontrollable happenings in life, you were catapulted into this situation, you had no choice but to confront it. Can you tell us more about this feeling and how you look back on what happened?
CC: When I look back on how life was before and all of the pain I endured, and sometimes still endure, I can't help but recognize the blessing in it. I was very settled in life. I had no goals or ambitions except that I always wanted to be a mom. If you asked me what my story was, I couldn't really reply. I may have told a few stories about how I was once in Miss Texas Teen because my mom entered me without my knowledge, or the several stories of me killing poisonous snakes. However, that was all there was to me. A couple stories that had no impact on the world or anyone else. I am blessed to be where I am today, and I wouldn't be here if I hadn't gone through what I had.
MM: You had a decision to make, choosing your daughter’s life or saving your leg. Can you talk more about this and the journey leading up to it.
CC: As soon as I stopped rolling on the ground, my skin being rubbed off at each sliding inch of highway, I sat up to see my ankle at a 90-degree angle. I knew at that very moment I would lose my leg. I was in a state of emergency and wanted to save as much as possible, so I began to breathe slower so I would less blood and ultimately less limb. I accepted it from that very moment. Granted I was nowhere near thinking about my future of walking, but I knew I would survive. I have strong faith and it kept me calm. When the nurse walked in and announced my pregnancy, I switched from emergency mode to protective mode immediately. I always wanted to be a mom. We were actually trying to have a baby after we were newlywed, and even more so after we found out my mother-in-law had stage IV liver and colon cancer. There was no doubt in my mind I would amputate and soon. Because I was pregnant, I was on minimal pain medicine, antibiotics, and anesthesia. I was at a pain level of 10 all the time and I knew that my stress would affect the baby even at 4 weeks of gestation. I did not want to lose what I had just been blessed with. My parents had the hardest time with it, they didn't want me to amputate. I could still wiggle my toes and feel them, so the doctors had hope in the beginning. Luckily, I had some medical background and understood what my future would be like if I tried to keep it. Immobile. That was not an option, I had a kid to chase after and play with. After an angiogram, a test that shows how the arteries supply blood to the body, we discovered that the artery on the interior side of my left leg stopped about 6 inches from my foot. They planned to take various muscles and tissue to rebuild my ankle, but this test basically told us that it wouldn't be able to have the proper blood supply. I had already gone through 6 reconstructive surgeries and even took part of the spongey bone from my hip to fill a golf-ball sized hole in my ankle. After hearing my options from the best plastic surgeon in Texas, it was a simple decision for me. One option would let me keep a broken and painfully useless limb, undergo several surgeries while pregnant and after, and eventually get arthritis and lose mobility in the limb anyways. The other option, I lose a foot and part of my leg in one final surgery, I have months of pregnancy in front of me but can work towards a prosthetic, and eventually walk again. It was simple for me. One path would cause harm to my kid, the other temporarily harm me but have time to heal. My foot did not define me as a person, my kid was more important. There was never a moment in my life that I wanted a body part over her. Some people could never make that choice, but those people were never meant to go through what I did. Let me tell you, she's the best decision I have ever made.
MM: At what point did you start recognizing and trusting your own inner strength, knowing that you could get through all this?
CC: Somewhere between just wanting to be mobile enough to chase after my kid and wanting to become a major influence in the adaptive community, I had some key life changing moments. It began by setting two simple goals. I wanted to walk and run before my daughter. My prosthetics company Baker O&P out of Fort Worth, Texas were there for me from the beginning. They came to me in the hospital and gave me hope, opening my eyes to the possibilities. My accident was at the end of May and by August, I had my first prosthetic. They approached me about the Challenged Athletes Foundation and informed me that I could apply for a grant and get a running leg. That was the first time I even thought about running. I was never an athlete, so sports were the furthest thing from my mind. I ran with the idea, pun intended, and by April I had my grant in hand. I delivered a healthy baby girl on Friday, February 13th. Yes, she waited two extra weeks for that date, and immediately I had my balance back. I searched through hell and high water trying to find another woman who had to go through amputation at the same time as pregnancy but couldn't find one. I had to figure a lot out on my own. My husband had to go back to work as soon as he healed up from his injuries, so I had to do a lot of things on my own. I would go to the grocery store, extremely pregnant, in a wheelchair with no leg and get all my groceries by myself. I felt vulnerable. However, it made me stronger and independent. I eventually wanted to get stronger. I hated seeing my already skinny body waste away from atrophy. With a baby on my hip, I started walking, then CrossFit. Somewhere in there I learned my prosthetist's wife, Jennifer Teague Clark, was a para-triathlete and decided to try something new. After all, I met my goals to walk and run before the baby with time to spare, what else could I do? There was an event in San Diego put on by the Challenged Athletes Foundation called The San Diego Triathlon Challenge. You could do relay teams and I decided to do the relay with Jennifer and another amputee from Baker O&P named Roy Martin. They're like family now. Roy and I couldn't swim so Jennifer gladly took the mile swim. Roy was a fantastic runner, so he signed up for the 10-mile run through the hills. That left me with the bike. Not only was I going to have to get back on two wheels in open traffic, but I had no idea how to ride a bike. I rode a bike as a kid but up and down the driveway a few times and that was it. The event was amazing-- it was the first time I saw other people with disabilities taking part in sports. The night before, I sat in a restaurant with quite literally the gold, silver, and bronze medalist in Paratriathlon from the Paralympics in Rio. I felt very out of place. They asked how my training was going and I lied through my teeth proclaiming that it was going well. (The first day on my bike, I clipped in both feet not knowing I wouldn't be able to unclip my prosthetic side, started falling to that side, and ended up fracturing my arm. This ruined my training and drive to train for SDTC.) They asked me how many miles of training I had done for the ride and I held up three fingers. After laughing a second, they asked again to only receive the same response. The look on their faces was priceless. They asked me if I knew what I was about to do and I had no idea. Ha. It's hysterical now. They thought I was crazy to show up with no experience, but I proved to myself my own strength when I finished. It rained, it was cold and windy, we almost got ran over by a bus, and I fell twice, but I finished. I faced fear after fear and was so proud of what I had done.
That race was a goal crossed off my list which made room for more, like deciding to learn how to swim and run so I could do a full triathlon. I began to live by my motto which is: "The best thing you can do for your life is to try."
MM: I loved what you said about finding your inner strength. The stronger you got, the more beautiful you felt. Can you elaborate on that?
CC: I started trying new things. After all, everything was new to me since I had to do it without a foot. The more I tried new things, the more I began to realize how much I had limited myself in life before. Growing up watching TV, I was always watching with that dreaming mindset, picturing myself on the screen and doing whatever it was. Whether it was modeling, sports, acting, I was dreaming it was me but never taking any of it seriously. I always thought it was something that I would never be able to do so I didn't even try. I failed without even stepping out of the door. When I realized I could do anything I set my mind to, I did! When an opportunity arose I jumped at it, always seeing it as an investment. The most important thing you can invest in is yourself, and that's exactly what I do every day. Each day should put you closer to a goal, no matter how small that goal is. I began to trust what I was doing, finding more confidence. I had been told in the past that I couldn't, that I was ugly, that all I was worth was doing a desk job. Because I accepted what I was told, it was true! When I began to break the mold that society put me in, that's when I started to succeed. Everyone's definition of success is different. For me, it was when I began to see my self worth. The more I valued myself, the more I began to see that I could, that I was beautiful just the way I was, and that I deserve to do something amazing. To make history even, and I have and will continue to do so.
MM: How is your life different now than before the accident? Do you feel like you’re living a life that is more truer to your values now vs. before?
CC: My life now compared to before is full of zest. I try to stay busy because I enjoy it but mostly because I'm still trying to get where I'm going--aren't we all? If you asked me 4 years ago if I believed I would ever do the things I've done in the past couple years, I would say you were crazy and go dream about it. You get one life, are you living it the way you want? Sure, there are circumstances in life that make dream chasing hard, but dream chasing isn't what gets it done, it's goal setting and completion that does it. I started with two small, simple goals. The part most people do that I don't is they settle when they have reached their small goals. They never set bigger, better, bolder goals. I have goals most would think impossible. It's not easy, but I have friends, family, and a support system that keep me going. I can't do this on my own and I don't really want to, that would be a boring life.
MM: Your fighting spirit and commitment to personal growth continues to inspire us. Can you share with our community what it was about YORK Athletics that spoke to you?
CC: My FAVORITE thing about YORK Athletics that spoke to me before I ever knew anyone involved is that it's all about the fight! Not like go out on the street. No. Don't do that. It’s that in anything and everything you do, you should fight. Fight to make a difference, whether in yourself or in others. Fight to succeed. Fight to get stronger, smarter, faster. Fight for others and fight for yourself. You don't have to be a boxer or MMA fighter to fight in this life. It's about taking that fighting spirit and applying it to every aspect of your life. When I first decided I wanted to be a boxer, I received a lot of negative feedback. People I cared about in my life told me no, that I would fail, that I would get hurt, I was too pretty (which was ironic being told the opposite for so long). But I wanted to box, so I fought for myself, for my passion, and I made history as the first female amputee boxer in the US and second in the world. The me now actually fights for myself. I stand for something.
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Mark’s writing explores mental & physical conditioning and mindfulness meditation. He is the CEO and Co-founder of YORK Athletics Mfg., a training footwear brand that honors the fighting spirit. His work can be found on their on-line journal, Lovers & Fighters, where you’ll discover healthy living tips and inspiring stories from his circle of athletes, professional fighters, meditation teachers and entrepreneurs.
Mark is married, a father of two boys, a surfer and co-owner of YORK Athletics MFG and MCGARRY&sons. He trains with the Rajasi Muay Thai martial art team and is a student of mindfulness meditation at the Benson Henry Institute at Mass General Hospital. He lives in South Boston, MA.