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A new foothold on life

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Melissa R. Shelmidine just wanted to live a normal life.

“I wanted it done. I practically begged a doctor to do it,” she said.

Miss Shelmidine, a mother of two active, young children, a swimmer and a former high school athlete, is, at the age of 24, learning how to get back up and running after having her left foot amputated.

Miss Shelmidine was born with an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in her foot, an abnormality called arteriovenous malformation. The condition went undetected for most of her childhood, getting progressively more painful and debilitating into her teen years.

“What would happen is it would cut off circulation to parts of my foot. It was so painful,” she said.

The condition left her toes swollen, numb and discolored, lacking blood circulation. She eventually opted to have her big toe amputated, hoping it would relieve some of the pain. Her foot never properly healed.

“I had my toe amputated, but I also had more than a dozen embolizations done to try to minimize the problem,” Miss Shelmidine said. “Nothing was helping. So I met with my doctor and talked about having the foot taken off.”

Ninety percent of people with AVM have it in their brains. Though she suffered through her toes dying due to loss of circulation, she considers herself lucky.

Losing one’s foot seems traumatic and scary; Miss Shelmidine is upbeat about the life that follows her surgery. She talks about the amputation surgery as if it’s a dental cleaning. The surgery itself took less than two hours.

“My children understood the pain that I was in, that I couldn’t run around with them because of the pain in my foot, so they understood when I told them that I was going to be getting a new leg,” she said. “When I was at home recovering, my prosthesis hadn’t come yet and my daughter was a little confused and asked where my new leg was.”

Miss Shelmidine said she does not regret her decision.

“I didn’t have any depression, nothing. It’s been great. I was just so happy to get rid of it,” she said.

She had two months to prepare for the surgery and met with an amputee who had lost part of his leg in an accident. Roger Howard, owner of Howard Orthotics and Prosthetics, introduced the two.

“I felt like I knew what to expect and I knew it would only get better,” she said.

Prior to surgery, Miss Shelmidine was a swim instructor and lifeguard at the Downtown Watertown Family YMCA, where she worked since 2007. Losing part of her leg didn’t stop her from getting back in the pool.

“I had the surgery in December and a few weeks later Brooke (Jamieson, the Watertown Family YMCA aquatics director) called me and said they were doing recertifications and said that we could try it,” Miss Shelmidine said. “I said, ‘Why not?’ and I ended up getting back in the pool and passing my recertification.”

Miss Jamieson said seeing her colleague back in the pool was nothing short of amazing.

“I walked in thinking that I was going to have to help her in the pool or lift her up, but when I walked in she was in there doing laps,” she said. “It was just so awesome.”

The atmosphere at the Downtown Y was invigorating, Miss Shelmidine said. She recently took the position of front desk supervisor and is walking unassisted, “except for long distances, I use just one crutch still, until my permanent prosthesis is here.”

“The people at the Y are so great. My last day here before surgery I cried the entire day. People, both staff and members, came up and hugged me and wished me luck. They were so encouraging.”

Miss Jamieson said the Y is happy to have its former swim instructor back.

“Melissa and I grew up with the Y, we went to preschool together, so I was 100 percent behind her and want her to have a better quality of life,” she said.

Miss Jamieson said “Watertown Family YMCA” is more than a name.

“We really are a family here, we support each other every day,” she said.

Miss Shelmidine said that she’s looking forward to her permanent prosthesis, one that is less bulky and stiff than the one she currently has. Recovery from the approximately 90-minute surgery that took her lower leg has gone quickly and effortlessly.

“There’s one thing you have to remind yourself of, which is that you can’t just get out of bed and take off running, you have to put your leg on first,” Miss Shelmidine said with a smile. “If the kids need something in the middle of the night, just remember to put your leg on first.”

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