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Losing my hand made me a champ!

A childhood accident changed Heath's life in ways he never imagined. This paralympian has come out triumphant as a champion.

Heath Francis, 28, Watson, ACT

Squirming with excitement, my older brother Bryn, nine, and I couldn't sit still. It was December and that meant butchery time on the farm. 'You're not to go in the butchery when the mincer is going,' Mum told us.

Our mum, Margaret, now 57, was a bit over-protective. But it was understandable. Dad, Kevin, was crushed to death on the farm when he was 30.

A week earlier, Mum had found out she was pregnant with me. Bryn was only a baby too, yet Mum stayed on the farm. 'It's a great place for boys,' she always said. Now I'd just turned seven and Bryn and I spent the morning watching the butcher. When it was time for mincing, Mum shooed us away. 'Go catch some yabbies,' she said.

An hour later, with no yabbies in sight, Bryn and I headed back to the butchery. Mum was busy so we talked to the butcher, who let us drop meat into the mincer funnel. Cool, I remember thinking as suddenly I felt my right arm being pulled into the machine. The vacuum was so strong I couldn't fight against it and in seconds my hand was trapped around the corkscrew grinder.

In shock I couldn't work out what had happened.

armThen I heard Mum scream. As she raced towards me I didn't cry. I didn't even feel any pain.

I don't remember much after that except the helicopter flying me, with my arm still in the mincer, to Newcastle Hospital.

Doctors took me for surgery and when I woke up, Mum was crying. 'The doctors had to cut off your hand darling,' Mum said.

'Will it grow back?' I asked.

She shook her head. 'You'll just have one hand now.'

'But Heath,' she said as I started to cry. 'Don't ever think this will hold you back from achieving anything you want.'

Nodding and sniffing, I thought Mum knew best. Maybe having just one hand would be okay.

After a week in hospital I went home. As I got out of the car I spotted a tennis ball. 'Let's play handball,' I said to Bryn.

It felt odd using my left hand but when I won a couple of games I knew Mum was right. I could do anything.

At first the wound, which was just above the wrist, made me feel sick. But I got used to it and back at school two weeks later, everyone thought it was cool.

I had a prosthetic with three clamp-like fingers but I hated it.

'It's clumsy,' I said, preferring to get by with one hand. It was only when I started noticing girls as a teenager that I became self-conscious. I hid my hand under shirts and completely ignored my right side. But by the time I was 15 I'd developed scoliosis from the muscle wasting away. By trying to hide my right side I've made it worse, I realised.

Determined to fix it, I started lifting weights and went running every day. A few months later I qualified for the NSW high school championships in athletics. I borrowed a friend's spikes and, although I didn't win a place, it got me thinking. If I can get here without trying, what could I do with a coach?

So I found one. I started competing in both able-bodied and disabled events, but while I did well in all of them I started winning the disabled ones.

Then my coach suggested I aim for the Paralympics.

'You can compete with able-bodied athletes but you probably won't win,' I was told.

It changed my outlook. I'd always thought if I admitted I had a disability it would define me. But I learnt a disability can be just part of who you are.

Three years later, at 18, I went to the Paralympics in Sydney. I won gold in the 400m and as I did a lap of honour, I could see Mum, Bryn and hundreds of others cheering me. I had never felt so proud.

I won two more gold and one silver medal in Sydney, and at the Paralympics in Beijing, I won three golds and broke two world records for 200m and 400m.

Back home I had another challenge. WorkCover, the government authority which promotes workplace safety, asked me to be an ambassador.

It made sense. My family had been touched by two terrible farm accidents. If I could help prevent others getting injured it was worth it. So I joined up and now, 10 years on, I talk to people including farmers and students about the importance of workplace safety.

'My mum still feels guilty about what happened to me,' I say, explaining how accidents affect everyone.

girlfriendI also talk to young people who've had accidents at work. 'It's not the end of the world,' I assure them. 'If it wasn't for my accident I may never have had the opportunities I've enjoyed.'

I now train for the Commonwealth Games and spend my spare time with my girlfriend, Rujeko, 27. She's been great and has never made an issue of my missing hand.

My accident set my life on a path paved with opportunities. Of course, if I could change things I probably would, but I still remember Mum's words from all those years ago. It'll never hold me back from being the best I can be.

How has a childhood experience spurred you on to achieve your dreams? Share them by leaving a comment below.

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