EVANSTON — Just shy of one year ago, Tara Spero’s life changed forever. On Feb. 15, 2018, she suffered an accidental gunshot wound that resulted in the loss of her left leg just below the knee. A story that appeared in the Herald at that time detailed the harrowing ordeal and its immediate aftermath.
Now, almost a year later, Spero is still learning to live with the new “normal” that is her reality. Immediately following the accident last year she had undergone four surgeries; first to try to repair her leg and then to remove it when it became clear efforts to save it had been unsuccessful.
She has now undergone a total of 14 surgeries on her leg, some to revise the amputation to help with fitting a prosthesis and others for severe infections of her stump. Spero said there are likely more surgeries in her future for continued revisions to create a new socket for a titanium knee brace. Currently, there is no cartilage in her knee, leaving bone grinding on bone, which causes problems in fitting a prosthesis properly.
Extremely active prior to her accident, Spero continues to stay active and returned to the gym in September. However, there are definitely challenges involved. There are numerous types of protheses for amputees to use depending on individual needs. A basic prosthesis isn’t adequate for the type of high-impact activities, like running and other types of exercise, that Spero regularly participated in previously and wants to continue. Not only can a prosthesis crack due to pressure, but those cracks can spread and cause uneven wear and too much friction on the stump, leading to blisters and an infection risk.
For Spero, giving up her active lifestyle simply isn’t an option. Not only is being active and physically fit a huge part of her identity, but an inability to exercise or being wheelchair bound carries other health risks. Her first prosthesis cracked after only three months of use. She has a prosthesis currently that allows her to participate in some exercise other than running; however, her insurance won’t cover the approximately $18,000 price tag and she has to pay for it out of pocket within about six weeks or return the leg.
In addition to the challenges relating to her prosthesis and exercise, everyday activities also present obstacles. Even taking a shower is a process because most prostheses aren’t waterproof, so they have to be removed first. There are shower legs available, but, again, most insurance won’t cover the costs.
People might think it sounds relatively simple to remove the leg; however, Spero said it takes about 10 minutes to take off or put on. “Even getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom is a 30-minute ordeal,” she said.
To help her return to some of the activities she loves, Spero’s dad and some family friends are working on building her a specialty saddle so she can again ride horses, complete with a special sleeve to carry her leg with her. “When there’s no feeling in your foot or ankle, you can’t put your foot in a stirrup,” she said. While many amputees have feeling in the knee, Spero does not, due to the extensive damage that occurred with the injury itself and with the surgical attempts to place a rod and save her leg.
The feeling she does have, however, is severe phantom pain. She said sometimes that pain is so excruciating and intense she has to pull up a pant leg to actually see her leg is gone. “Sometimes I have to see it to convince my mind that it’s not real,” said Spero, “because it feels so real and it gets in your head so deep.”
Pain is unfortunately an ever-present part of her life now. “I’m in pain every single day but I refuse to take opiates,” she said. “I deal with the pain and try to ignore it. Some days are better than others.”
Her children help to keep her motivated, she said. “I want my kids to see strength, determination and will. If I can be anything for my kids, it’s an example.” She is back working part-time and even went hunting last fall with a special permit that allowed her to hunt from the truck. Though she shot from the vehicle, she insisted on getting down to the deer and gutting it herself. “It was important to me to do that,” she said.
Asked how she feels about guns following the accident, Spero said she and her family are still avid shooters and gun owners. Her kids have all been out shooting since then, as she said it’s important her kids know, “Just because something tragic happened to me doesn’t mean it will happen to them.”
As for the gun involved in her accident – her husband’s shotgun – she said they no longer keep it in their home. She did, however, make it a point to fire that gun. “I have fairly severe PTSD from this, so I wanted to try to get over that fear and went and shot it. I bawled. I just cried and cried,” she said.
Spero’s friends and family have been huge supports. Her dad, Dan, whom she credits with saving her life on the day of the accident, regularly travels to Salt Lake City with her for medical appointments. She said doing so has helped him heal from the trauma of that experience as well.
Her friends continue to rally around her now, including good friend Marsha Simpson, who is organizing fundraisers to help with the costs of her prosthesis and other ongoing medical expenses. The multiple surgeries and hospital stays, combined with the costs involved with traveling to Utah every week for doctor visits, present a huge financial burden that doesn’t even include the costs of the prosthesis.
Simpson said, “Tara would give you the shirt off her back without even thinking twice. She’d give it to you even if it was her last shirt and she didn’t know you. This was a terrible, life-changing accident. . . She’s trying to be strong and is too proud to ask for help. She’s a beautiful part of my life and if I can help her fight her way back to a healthy state of mind, I will.”
Currently, Simpson has helped organize a paint party fundraiser on the evening of Monday, Feb. 11, at the Bear Ponds Pavilion, as well as a raffle fundraiser with prizes including Flex Fitness memberships, movie passes, local business gift certificates, a four-wheeler, guns and more. Simpson said she is hoping to secure a cow or pig for the raffle as well, and anyone wishing to donate something can contact her or Kim at Flex Fitness, both of whom are also selling raffle tickets.
Spero said she is touched and grateful for the support. Although there are some grants available from prosthesis manufacturers, she said she has not been successful in her attempts to receive one of them and most are not for the type of active lifestyle she hopes to lead.
As Spero continues to fight on, she offered some words of wisdom she said she has learned through this ordeal. “We’re not defined by things that happen to us, but are defined by how we recover from them,” she said, adding with a smile, “There’s no better leg than the one you’re born with. Try to keep it.”