Mariah Serrano, 21, New York, USA
Opening the gift box and pulling aside all the tissue paper, I squealed with delight. ‘They’re gorgeous!’ I cried. My mum Patricia, then 36, grinned. ‘I thought you’d like them.’
‘Like them?’ I laughed, lifting a pair of dazzling white wedges out of the box. ‘I love them! Slipping them on, I teetered around the room in my new pair of heels. ‘Oops!’ I said, giggling as I stumbled. ‘I guess they’ll take some getting used to.’
It was New Year’s Eve 2009, and tonight was a huge double celebration. It was a new year – and the start of my new life as well. Because unlike most girls my age, this was the first time I’d worn high heels.
It was a new year – and the start of my new life as well.
I was born with a club foot. It meant my left foot was twisted and curled inwards. I’d worn a cast on and off for the first few years of my life, had operations and even worn a leg brace at night to straighten out the bones. But nothing had worked, and by the time I was nine my foot had just stopped growing. Standing for any period of time was painful and I walked with a limp. I had to buy shoes in different sizes and the kids at my school made fun of me, mimicking my wonky walk and calling me ‘Peg Leg’. By the time I’d reached 15 I was stuck with it – despite having three ops.
‘It’s not fair,’ I sobbed to Mum.
My friends were great, but as they all got boyfriends and went out ice-skating and dancing it was hard not to feel jealous as I sat and watched. Sometimes it felt like the only thing my mates and I still had in common was our obsession with fashion. If we weren’t flicking through glossy mags checking out the latest trends, we were in town with our noses glued to the window displays.
‘Look!’ gasped my best friend Dorothy as we gawped through a shoe shop window. ‘I have to have those heels for the prom.’ My heart sank. If only that was me. I could never even dream of slipping on a glamorous pair of shoes like my friends. And sure enough, a few weeks later, at the school prom in June 2006, my friends teetered around in sandals while I had to make do with a pair of gold sneakers under my floor-length strapless gown.
‘They’re so cool!’ my friends all beamed when I arrived. But I didn’t want to be cool. I wanted to be like them.
But I didn’t want to be cool. I wanted to be like them.
By the time I was 17, the pain had become so bad it took my breath away. So, in April 2009, Mum took me to my doctor at the Hospital For Special Surgery near my home in New York, USA.
‘There must be something else you can do?’ I pleaded.
‘There is,’ the doctor said. ‘But it’s drastic. We can amputate below the knee.’ I was stunned.
‘Amputate?’ gasped Mum.
‘It’s a big decision, but it will stop the pain,’ the doctor added. I nodded, unsure what to do. I hated my foot, but was I ready to lose my leg?
Back at home I discussed it with my friends and family, and then I went to visit a prosthetic limb company to discuss my options. There, I met a woman who’d lost both her legs in a motorbike accident – not that you’d have known. She was walking around the shop wearing incredible six- inch heels and looked amazing.
‘Amputate?’ gasped Mum.
‘Living with a prosthetic leg is no big deal,’ she told me. Inspired by her confidence, in that moment I knew just what I wanted. Being able to wear high heels wasn’t about making a fashion statement or being vain. It was about giving myself an inner confidence. So one month later, in June 2009, I returned to the hospital for the operation.
‘It feels strange,’ I told Mum as my eyes slowly swam into focus after the surgery. ‘It’s like when you get your hair cut and keep running your hand through where your long hair used to be.’
I knew it was going to take time to adjust, but once I’d been discharged and sent home two weeks later, I couldn’t wait for my new prosthetic leg to arrive. But when it came two months later, I was devastated. ‘I can’t wear it,’ I said to Mum. ‘It’s so frustrating.’ The wound below my knee refused to heal and it made wearing the limb impossible. ‘It’ll get better,’ Mum soothed.
But I wasn’t sure. I began to question what I’d done. I didn’t want to go out or let my friends see me like this. It wasn’t until December that my wound finally healed and I was able to attach my false leg. ‘It feels so weird,’ I told Mum, as I hobbled around the house. But as my leg grew stronger, the prosthesis felt better.
Then on New Year’s Eve, I was over the moon with the white platform wedges Mum had bought me. Finally, I could wear the heels I’d longed for...
From then on, my life changed dramatically. I practised wearing heels and gradually built up my strength. It wasn’t long before I could stand on my prosthetic leg for ages, without feeling pain.
Finally, I felt confident enough to pursue my dream to work in the fashion industry. Before the amputation I’d been told that I’d never be able to wear heels and should give up my career goals. But the following September I enrolled in a course at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and then went on to land a job in the fashion industry. These days I own not just one but 10 pairs of high heels!
Choosing to have my leg cut off was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Even now, four years after the operation, I still wake up sometimes and wonder where it is. I’ve even leapt out of bed, forgetting I don’t have my leg and have fallen over.
Amputation may seem like a drastic decision, but for me it was simple. Cutting off my leg gave me my life back!