“Yes I look different now, but different doesn’t have to be bad.”
Photoshoot in collaboration with McElhinneys.com. Styling by Sarah Scott. Photography by Clive O Donohoe. Hair and Makeup by G&G Letterkenny.
As a recent amputee, Nikki Bradley’s journey of self-acceptance is only just beginning.
Her confidence had already been knocked countless times. She dealt with bone cancer at the age of 16, life-changing radiotherapy, and now, 20 years later, the amputation of her hip and thigh.
The Donegal woman (36) has never had to draw so much inner strength as she has this year. After undergoing a rotationplasty surgery in February 2022, Nikki is coming to terms with her new body.
The rare surgery removed her thigh and reattached her knee, shin and foot to where her hip used to be. Her right foot is now turned 180 degrees. On her hip sits a large lump of healthy tissue which medics saved during surgery. She calls this new piece of herself ‘the football’. It was the most shocking result of the surgery.
“We all hone in on our flaws, but the football is an exaggerated version of a typical body hang-up,” Nikki says. “It’s actually the best form of recycling I’ve ever seen, why throw away this good piece of my body filled with good muscle and tissue and nerves?”
Nikki’s first public outing after the amputation brought the reality of her difference crashing down on her. A few months into her recovery, she decided to join her mum on a trip to the supermarket.
“I remember standing at the fridge and seeing in the reflection in the glass of people staring at my leg. I could feel the panic rising,” she said.
“I told myself: ‘you are a grown woman, you knew people would stare’. People are only staring because they’re curious, they’re not being mean, but I could feel the tears coming.
“I was being harsh with myself, but in that moment I had to find strength from somewhere.”
When her mum left to pick up something from another aisle, Nikki’s first public moment alone felt like an eternity, and it almost knocked her confidence completely.
“That could have been the beginning of the end of me going outside.”
Looking back, Nikki says she needed to experience that panic to make her realise that accepting her body after the amputation wasn’t going to be plain sailing. Meeting up with friends, going out in public, travelling in a car and dressing for work would all become physical and mental challenges.
She soon learned that the reality for lower limb amputees is that falling is almost guaranteed, and it’s how you carry on that matters.
She recalls: “My first fall, that was horrendous, I broke my ankle. I was out for a meal with my cousin and the floor had a greasy residue, I went to test it with my crutch and it slipped from under me. I was howling in pain. I never felt so vulnerable. I’m still affected by it, even though I’ve had stumbles and slips before, I couldn’t save myself this time.
“There is no getting away from the embarrassment you feel, but because I have been dealing with stumbles and falls for so long I had strategies in place. I had to make sure I don’t close the world for myself.
“If you allow yourself to hide away it’s going to have a detrimental effect on everything you do.”
She learned the same lesson during her first hydrotherapy session post-surgery. Seeing herself in the mirror wearing a swimsuit was daunting enough, but she had to summon all the inner strength she could to step out to the poolside.
“There were men and women walking around the pool and all I could think of was they would see me and my leg back to front. Everything was on show.
“The first day I broke down in the changing room. After that, I decided that I wasn’t going to let how I looked stand in the way of treatment. By the end of the week, I didn’t give it a second thought. I put on my swimsuit and stepped out.
“There is an inner strength in all of us, when we are at our most self-conscious, we have to take these steps to get past our fears.”
The amputation was a necessary procedure for Nikki after 20 years of hip surgeries. The pain was spreading and gradually robbing her of any quality of life.
She received her prosthesis in November and fondly thinks of it as her new sidekick.
“It felt fitting to name it Saoirse, meaning freedom, as this feels like the beginning of the next phase of my life,” she said.
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Nikki, who is a motivational speaker, has never let her disability hold her back from achieving amazing feats. She has been a permanent crutch user since 2012, but in that time she climbed glaciers in Iceland, abseiled off Fanad Lighthouse in north Donegal and completed the infamous Fan Dance 24km march across the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
Her challenges have been part of her ‘Fighting Fit For Ewing’s’ campaign, where she shows cancer survivors that, despite setbacks, there are ways to keep doing what you love.
Post-surgery, Nikki has not only had to adapt to new physical challenges but the mental changes.
“I’m not going to pretend I am at any stage of acceptance, but research and connecting with other rotationplasty patients online have helped enormously,” she said.
“By sharing my story on social media I eased my friends into the shock of seeing me for the first time. I don’t want other girls to look up rotationplasty and see the images I saw. I want them to see my story and someone who is relatable.”
Nikki’s loss of confidence came literally overnight, but hair, beauty and fashion have helped her feel like herself again.
“I was able to wear maxi dresses in the summer, which covered my foot. I think that brought back my femininity and that was a positive thing, along with getting my hair extensions back in. That sounds superficial, but when I had to take them out for the surgery, it took away a part of me.
“The small things all add up. We all have our armour that plays a big part in our individuality. Hair and makeup were part of my routine and my femininity. I was reemerging at the same time as everyone else post-Covid and I know many other women lost that feeling of sexiness too. I felt I was part of that united front of women rediscovering their femininity after two years of being at home.”
Nikki is still learning how to express herself through fashion. Throwing on a pair of jeans is not an option any more. The usually preppy look she wore for motivational talks is a challenge with the extra tissue on her hip.
Nikki recently enlisted the help of McElhinneys of Ballybofey for a journey of exploration with their autumn/winter collections. A recent photoshoot at the store was an empowering step forward for Nikki, with stylist Sarah Scott curating a selection of looks styled with comfort and confidence in mind. Nikki sampled both bold and feminine dresses Kevan Jon, Exquise and suits from Cayro.
“It is exciting to explore fashion again with my body the way it is now. I know that I need to accept how I am because although my body is enhanced with the prosthetic, I remain an amputee.
“The thing that I am insecure about is very obvious but I know that everyone has flaws that they hone in on.
“If I had let my insecurities get the better of me I would have missed out on all of my opportunities. Yes I look different now, but different doesn’t have to be bad.”
Follow Nikki’s journey on www.instagram.com/nikki_bradley_speaks