By Kim Constantinesco
There’s no easy way to receive and endure adversity. Most of the time, we can’t prepare ourselves for it. Our culture tells us to ignore it, bat it away, and look to brighter days.
But, what if there’s no other option but to sit in its powerful path?
That was the case for SaraMae Hollandsworth, a 35-year-old former personal trainer from Dallas, Texas, who lost her feet to a harrowing infection that sent her spiraling into septic shock.
A former college runner, Hollandsworth could blaze through 400 meters on the track in 59 seconds. She could tear up a 3.1-mile cross country course in under 20 minutes.
Her feet carried her briskly anywhere she wanted to go. Then, because blood flow was restricted to her limbs during her fight for life, amputation was inevitable.
“I felt like a lamb taking myself to the slaughter,” Hollandsworth said. “It felt so grim and cruel to have to make this choice to loose my feet. It was such a dark moment, but it was also empowering in the sense that I was choosing to move forward.”
And moving forward now means setting her sights on the Paralympic Games.
The Septic Spiral
Hollandsworth grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. She played volleyball and basketball, but like so many born in Oregon, the country’s running mecca, she gravitated toward the sport in grade school.
“There was something about running that I loved,” she said. “I loved that it was all dependent on me, and it was fun.”
She went on to run at Western Oregon University, but quit after some “mental barriers” got in her way.
“I never ran to my full potential and that kind of haunted me,” Hollandsworth said. “When I lost my feet, it was really cruel because it felt like I couldn’t go back and make that right. At the point before I lost my feet, I had just started running again and was going to sign up for some races.”
Also at that point, Hollandsworth was personal training, getting ready for a fitness competition, and studying kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington. At 31 years old, she even considered using the rest of her college eligibility so she could compete at a high level again.
Then life threw her a major curve ball from the lethal mound.
She suddenly started experiencing severe hip and back pain to the point where she was reduced to crawling. A trip to the emergency room for morphine, and an initial diagnosis of sciatica later, Hollandsworth continued to decline.
“About 24 hours later, I turned to my family and said, ‘I think I’m dying,'” she said.
They brought her back to the hospital, where she went straight into organ failure. She had a heart attack, was quickly losing her kidneys, and was put on life support. Because of how sick she was, her body couldn’t handle any diagnostics, so doctors were unable to search for answers other than to say they thought the infection started in her hip and somehow got into her blood stream.
Her blood pressure tanked so in order to keep her alive, the medication given to her kept blood flow localized to her heart, which resulted in a lack of blood flow to her feet and hands.
Six weeks later, she left the hospital and had to relearn how to swallow, hold a spoon, and type on the computer. Her hands recovered, but her feet never did.
A Broken Mind
She returned to Oregon in a wheelchair to recover and attempt various treatments in hopes that one would salvage her feet.
“The amputation was needed and I probably prolonged it longer than was ideal, but it was a calculated risk I took because I needed the peace of mind that I turned over every single stone,” she said. “I needed to know when my head hit the pillow that there was no other option.”
In the meantime, she was her biggest advocate. She reached out to various amputee athletes on social media searching for hope. Convinced that she, too, would somehow make it through such a devastating loss, Hollandsworth scheduled the surgery.
After her amputation, she also had to undergo two hip surgeries.
“As an athlete, you have the mindset of ‘let’s go, let’s tackle everything,’ but I just had to sit and deal,” she said. “I couldn’t work out and I beat myself up for it. I was a trainer; an athlete. It should be easy, right? The problem was, my mind was broken.”
According to Hollandsworth, she had a subconscious goal not to move because in movement, there was grief. It was a mirror to her physical and mental pain.
“If I could just lay in bed and sleep or watch a TV show, I could avoid that pain and that sadness,” she said. “I remember laying on my good side just trying to move my hip without my prosthetic on. I could only get an inch of movement. That was so difficult to swallow. I thought, how am I going to get to the point where I’m walking and squatting and lunging when I can’t even lift my leg, half of which is missing? That’s what held me back for a very long time.”
She didn’t go to physical therapy either. But that was a protective measure.
“They treated me like a broken person,” Hollandsworth said. “I knew at the end of the day that the athlete in me would overcome the physical as long as I kept my mind in a good space. I didn’t need anyone telling me I couldn’t do things.”
From Stepping to Striding
Enter Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), a Dallas-based gym started by former NFL linebacker David Vobora that uncovers human potential and restores hope through movement for adaptive athletes.
Hollandsworth applied for their nine-week “re-define” program, which puts wounded veterans and civilians alike through an intense but heavily supported training regimen.
At the time, she was going to the gym and working out on machines, but she could barely step up on a curb. Running seemed way out of reach, and she still didn’t know how to communicate with her body.
So, she moved back to Dallas and got to work once she was accepted into the ATF program.
“For the first month, I was on the couch when I wasn’t at ATF,” Hollandsworth said. “I was so sore, but it was what I needed. By the second half of the program, I was feeling good.”
Now nine weeks later, she can run and says she feels like she can take herself to the track for some sprinting drills.
Hollandsworth has undoubtedly come a long way, physically and mentally. In fact, now she’s the one offering guidance to those who have recently lost limbs. Her advice?
“People in the beginning try to jump ahead. They think, I want to do this or that and accomplish these things,” Hollandsworth said. “That’s amazing, but I think you also need to sit with yourself and process it. Set those goals, but try not to skip each step that you’re in. So many amputees want to be in the overcoming stage early on, but I think in wanting to be there right away, you can get delayed in getting to that place because you need to go through the process.”
And with the perspective that adversity happens for us, Hollandsworth evolved more than she ever thought possible.
“I always had worth and self-esteem, but in this process, I realized I lacked self love,” she said. “I earned my own respect and love in the process. Before, I was always putting myself in my own shadow. I wasn’t living up to the strength that I had in me. I was trying to live small, be quiet and go unheard. I realize there’s a lot that can be done through me and my experience, so I’m living bigger.”
In the beginning, the pain was so great, she didn’t have words to put to her adversity.
“Now I don’t have words to put to the gratitude,” she said.
And that’s a great way to enter Paralympic training.