“Every time you’re sick, you feel like you want to die, and that’s how I felt: ‘Oh my God, I feel like I’m dying.’ But in your right mind, you’re really not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m dying.’”
This is how Amy Purdy describes the sensation of her body shutting down while her head said, “It’s just the flu.” She was 19, working as a massage therapist at Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Venetian, when bacterial meningitis attacked her system, leaving her on life support just 24 hours after she’d first felt feverish and eventually claiming her spleen, kidney function and both legs below the knees. Some people would wake from that doctor-induced coma feeling sorry for themselves. Purdy asked when she could get back on her snowboard.
In the 14 years since, the native Las Vegan has become an actress, speaker and professional boarder, partially responsible for adaptive snowboarding’s inclusion in the 2014 Paralympic Games for the first time. We caught up with Purdy, who learned to snowboard at Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort, as she prepared for the Sochi Games.
Did you consider snowboarding as a career before you got sick?
At that time, there weren’t many female snowboarders. I was one of the few girls on a snowboard, and whenever snowboard competitions would come through the area—Brian Head or Lee Canyon or Mammoth—I would go with my guy friends and compete. It was always a really small group of girls competing, maybe three of us. I just knew that I was so passionate about snowboarding, and I wanted it to be a part of my life forever. The day after I graduated high school I went to Salt Lake City and became a massage therapist, and the whole point was that I could travel the world, snowboard and have this job that would travel with me. It was not just a passion of mine; it was a huge part of who I was.
Let’s go back to the day you contracted bacterial meningitis. Did you know immediately how serious it was?
The day I got sick started just like any other day. I woke up feeling great, like I had energy and was ready to go to work. Typically at work I could do five to seven back-to-back massages without being tired and still go to the gym afterwards and have plenty of energy. But this day was pretty different; after my third massage I was exhausted. … I went home from work early, and that night I had a temperature of 101 and typical flu-like symptoms. The next morning my temperature broke, but instead of feeling better, I started to just feel worse. It’s hard to explain, but nothing’s really telling you that this is anything different than the flu. Within 24 hours of that very first flu symptom I had at work, I was in the hospital on life support. I was given less than a 2 percent chance of living. I was put into an induced coma. They didn’t think I’d make it through the night.
Did the doctors know what was wrong?
They had no idea what I had. That’s the problem with bacterial meningitis, it progresses really fast. You think you have the flu, and they say within 15 hours it’s severely deadly—for sure within the first 24 hours—but even the first 15 hours. I always say, you think you have the flu for 14 hours, and then it’s not until that last hour that you suddenly you realize that you’re dying. Your whole body is shutting down completely. I was in severe kidney failure when I entered the hospital. My white blood count was through the roof, so they knew I had a blood infection, they just didn’t know what it was. It took five days to figure out that it was bacterial meningitis, because that’s how long it takes the culture to process, so they kind of just supported me. Over the course of three months or so I ended up losing my spleen, I lost all of my kidney function, I lost both of my legs below the knees. That was from going into septic shock, since your body pulls blood from your extremities to save your organs.
When you found out you were losing your legs below the knee, did you think about whether you’d snowboard again?
That was the first thought that I had when I woke up from the coma. I’m really grateful that I had snowboarding, because I always say snowboarding saved my life. It’s what I had to work toward and what kept me moving forward. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to look back. This was the situation: I’m 19 years old; I now don’t have legs, but I want to snowboard. I didn’t know how, I just knew I would do it again from the minute I woke up from that coma.
What was the process of getting back on the board?
It was a challenge. I visualized it so much because I knew what it was supposed to feel like. I got back up on the snowboard about seven months after the whole ordeal started, but I was still very sick. I was 83 pounds; I was in full kidney failure; I was on dialysis. But I’d never missed a season of snowboarding, and I didn’t want to miss a season of snowboarding then, so I made it a goal that with my new legs I would get up on a snowboard that year and just see what it felt like. I had to obviously learn to walk to a degree and get comfortable to a degree in my legs leading up to that point where I felt comfortable enough to snowboard. It was a process. It felt completely different than I ever could’ve imagined. My ankles didn’t bend because prosthetic ankles don’t have movement in them. My knees wouldn’t bend. I just remember feeling like this stick man riding down the mountain, like my body just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. It was incredibly discouraging, but it was also really motivating, because I just thought, “What do I need to do to make this work for me?”
How did you make it work?
I ended up Frankensteining a pair of feet where I took different ankles and added them to different feet and wood and duct tape and whatever I could use, and to tell you the truth, it’s not that far off. I ended up using different components and different feet, but if you saw my feet, they’re not high-tech at all. They’re high-tech materials because of the titanium and carbon fiber in there, but it is all just jimmy-rigged to work. There still are not any feet on the market for snowboarding. I’m working with some companies on that, but it’s going to be a process. It’s going to take time to really perfect the snowboard foot.
You’re getting ready for Sochi Paralympics and obviously riding at a very high level. When you snowboard now, does it feel the same as it felt before?
No. There’s an aspect of it that does, when you have adrenalin and you’re going and you’re doing something you’ve practiced so hard, you kind of go on autopilot. So then it is just like snowboarding—I don’t think about my legs. But the process of getting there, my legs are such a big part of that. For example, tomorrow I’ll be on snow for the first time this season, and I had to get new legs made that are more comfortable. I have new feet that have a little more ankle flexion. I have a handful of different things going on that I have to go back to the beginning and kind of relearn a little bit how to snowboard with this new equipment. So, snowboarding, even though I’m riding at the level I’m riding at right now, my legs are always a part of how well I’m going to ride. It’s not just like it’s get on my board and go. I mean, I do and I will, but the first month of every season is just a process of getting used to my new equipment, and having prosthetics is just a whole other layer of equipment, as well as my snowboard and boots and bindings and all of that. When I’m competing, I’m not thinking about my legs at all. I’m just going and going for it, and it’s kinda like all the preparation and all the work you do beforehand just lead up to that moment.
Have you connected with other adaptive snowboarders?
I started a nonprofit organization with my boyfriend, Daniel Gale, called Adaptive Action Sports. At the time, there were just zero resources for people like myself who had prosthetic legs and wanted to snowboard. There were tons of people with disabilities skiing, and of course, at that time skiing was in the Paralympics. We started thinking, why are more people with disabilities not snowboarding and why are these kids with disabilities being taught to ski versus having an option to learn to snowboard? And we realized at that moment that there was just nobody doing it. There was no organization promoting, teaching snowboarding, helping with legs and all of that, so we decided to create one and started putting on camps for youth and young adults and wounded vets with disabilities to get involved in snowboarding and to help support this community and help it grow. More and more people got involved and the competition started getting tougher. And from there we started doing World Cup competitions and all of that led to it being a Paralympic sport. One of our main goals was to get snowboarding into the Paralympic Games, so our organization had a significant piece in getting it there, which is great.
What does the field look like for Sochi?
My biggest competitor is Vivian Natel. She’s from the Netherlands, and she is one of my closest friends. She was a pro rider for years before she lost her leg. She and I have known each other for so many years and pushed so hard to get snowboarding into the Paralympics, we’re like a team on that. It’s funny because she’s my biggest competitor, but she’s also the first person I’ll be celebrating with in Sochi.