By Kim Constantinesco
An ocean wave can cause two entirely different reactions. To a new swimmer, the wave can be a problem, but to a surfer, the wave can be pure pleasure.
In our daily lives, we can either splash and panic, or we can stand up and surf. We can resist life’s problems, or we can use them to propel us to where we need to go.
Danielle Burt is a surfer, but she’s not just any surfer. She’s the first female above the knee amputee surfer. After a motorcycle accident took one of Burt’s legs, she learned not only how to ride the wave she has been given, but to inject hope into others’ lives along the way.
Lungs Over Leg
A lover of board sports and speed, Burt, 30, was cruising down a sunny San Diego road on her motorcycle in 2004 when a deceptive turn in the road caused her to lose control of her bike while going 40 MPH.
Upon hitting the brakes while trying to lay the bike down, she was thrown 25 feet into the air and 45 feet down the mountain side. In and out of consciousness, Burt could hear all of hear ribs snapping when emergency workers placed her on the backboard. Things were bad. Real bad.
Burt fractured her neck (non-displaced at C6), broke all of her ribs and her left humerus, ruptured her spleen, had collapsed lungs, and had a smashed tibia and fibula on her right leg. She coded twice and then there was the 12 hours in the operating room.
Unsure of her prognosis and with unstable vitals, doctors put Burt into a medically-induced coma for five weeks, where she fought for her life.
“During that time, they tried to clean out my right leg because there was a big open wound, but I couldn’t handle it. My vitals kept plummeting as soon as they tried,” Burt said. “It got to the point where I developed acute respiratory distress syndrome in my lungs. My body was trying to fix my leg instead of my lungs.’
Burt developed gangrene in her knee, and that’s when doctors decided to amputate her leg. As soon as the limb was removed, her body could direct its healing resources toward making her core healthy.
She bounced back almost immediately after amputation. However, when she came out of the coma, she had no idea that her leg was gone.
“The fact that I was in a coma for over a month, all my muscles were gone, so I couldn’t sit up and look at my body,” Burt said. “Once I found out my leg was gone, I felt like it was the end of the world. This was 11 years ago, so at that time, being an adaptive athlete wasn’t well known. I thought that my life was over.”
Back on Board
Burt grew up near Long Beach Island, New Jersey, riding her skateboard and bodyboard. No one in her family participated in extreme sports, nor did any of her friends, but once she got her first pink skateboard at an early age, she used it as a source of transportation and freedom.
Now without a leg, how would she ever get back on a board?
After being transferred to San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital’s rehabilitation program for an intense month of inpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, Burt finally got cleared to return to her San Diego area home.
While in outpatient rehabilitation, Challenged Athletes Foundation came in to talk with her about life after injury.
“That was helpful. I learned that I could be athletic in some sense of the word,” Burt said.
While they encouraged her to participate in triathlons and other endurance events, Burt had trouble finding her place there since running and biking were never her thing. Then she heard from Amy Purdy and Adaptive Action Sports, who invited her to tour the U.S. on a skateboard tour.
So, Burt started skateboarding again, and in doing so, she became the first female above the knee amputee skateboarder. During the winter, she competed with Purdy on a snowboarding tour as well.
“Amy had a vision and made it a reality. She followed her passion of snowboarding after the losing both of her legs,” Burt said. “How can you not be motivated by that?”
Burt was never a surfer before her accident, but growing up near the Jersey Shore, she yearned to get back in the water, so she started bodyboarding again about three years after her accident.
She made some new friends who were surfers and they encouraged her to give the sport a shot. There were no surf-specific prosthetic legs at the time, however, so she had to work with her prosthetist to develop a leg that would allow her to surf.
Then she got linked up with the Navy Medical Center, who put on a surf clinic. That’s where she met Alcino Pirata, an adaptive surfer from Brazil, who made her realize that an above the knee amputee can stand up and surf.
Burt started by catching waves on a surf board, but not actually standing up. Once she got the modified leg, she popped up right away.
“It was kind of scary because it’s dead weight and you don’t know what could happen as far as it getting caught on something, or if it falls off, but I’ve never had any issues with that,” Burt said.
Burt gravitated toward surfing and retired from skateboarding. She surfs every week and competes on a regular basis. One of her most recent competitions was the International Surfing Association’s Adaptive World Surfing Championships, where she placed first among women and 16th overall.
When not in the water or on a board of some kind, Burt is a doctor of physical therapy in acute inpatient care at Sharp Memorial, the very facility where she worked to get her life back.
“It humbles me, and makes me slow down and realize how grateful I am to be in this situation,” Burt said. “I lost my leg and that was the darkest time of my life, but then looking at it 11 years later, it has given me so much. It has given me surfing; it has given me a career.”
Beyond propelling her surfboard, Burt is steering people toward hope.
“When you go through something like this, finding something or someone to give you hope is extremely important,” Burt said.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can always learn to surf. Always.