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Bellingham author Colleen Haggerty recounts life as amputee

For Colleen Haggerty of Bellingham, the winter holidays last until Jan. 3. That day is the anniversary of the car accident 37 years ago in which Haggerty lost a leg.

For many years, the anniversary triggered troubling memories for Haggerty. It wasn’t until after considerable anguish, soul-searching, and her revelatory visit 15 years later with the driver who crashed into her, that Haggerty found peace in her life as an amputee.

Jan. 3 is the day, she grew to realize, that she could have bled to death by the side of the freeway just south of Bellingham, but an off-duty paramedic appeared and applied a tourniquet to her leg, saving her life. She easily could have lost her right leg, too, but doctors in Bellingham saved it.

Those reasons, in part, are why she now marks the day by doing something she enjoys, such as buying a cake, preferably chocolate.

“To me it’s a day of gratitude,” Haggerty said. “For so long I didn’t have that gratitude that I had lived.”

Haggerty‘s newly published memoir, “A Leg To Stand On: An Amputee’s Walk Into Motherhood,” details her experience struggling to cope after suddenly and unexpectedly losing a leg.

Haggerty grew up as the wallflower child in a large, close family in Bellevue. Her father died when she was 13, so she stuck close to her devout mother.

She was in high school when she accompanied her older sister, a college student at Western Washington University, back to Bellingham after winter break. It was a snowy day. When a truck started to merge into their lane, her sister tapped on the brakes. Their car spun out of control, coming to stop on the left shoulder against the guardrail, facing traffic.

Unhurt, they waited for someone to come to their aid, but no one stopped. So Haggerty got out of the car to flag down some help. That’s when a car in the outside lane skidded into her. Her left leg had to be amputated above the knee.

There’s never a good time for such accidents, but being 17 at the time added adolescent angst to the mix for Haggerty. Lying on the ground waiting for the ambulance, she worried that the snow would leave her with black mascara streaks in front of the youthful paramedic.

More deeply, her vision of growing up to have and care for a large, rambunctious family of her own suddenly became a doubtful prospect. Raised in a devout Catholic family, she began to question why God would let something like that happen to her.

As a young woman in her 20s, Haggerty was determined not to let the loss of a leg slow her down. She skied and backpacked. She played amputee soccer. She sky-dived. She made new friends, but she often felt alone, unable to articulate that while she was gung-ho physically, her emotions and thoughts still churned inside.

She initially hesitated to write about the two abortions she had before she later married and had children. Both times she worried she wouldn’t be able to properly care for a child as a young, unwed, amputee mother. In the end, her writing coach convinced her to not hold back about the abortions.

“After writing about them, I thought, ‘This is my journey to motherhood,’” Haggerty said. “It’s only fair to the integrity of the story to include them.”

Haggerty later earned a degree in therapeutic recreation at Western and went into social service work. She and her husband, Mark Robinson, moved to Bellingham nearly a dozen years ago from the Seattle area. They have two children in high school, Luke and Tessa.

In her book, Haggerty recounts how her weight gain during her pregnancies made it more painful to walk. As an amputee, she found it difficult to check on and protect her children as they grew into quick-moving explorers of the world. She took up writing after her children were born to help her reflect on her life’s journey, good and bad.

“I wanted my kids to understand why mommy was yelling,” she said.

In time, she had stories published in four anthologies, including her account of meeting Harvey, the driver who hit her, in Victoria, B.C. She went there ready to lambaste him for what he had done to her life. Instead, she learned that he, in his own way, had been as tormented by the experience as she had been. She came away with understanding, and forgiveness, for his part in the accident.

During author appearances for the anthologies, Haggerty was struck how people thanked her afterward for what she had written, even though they were not amputees. She realized that people experience grief, loss and anger for many reasons, not just physical challenges.

“My package is one of physical disability,” she said. “This book is about how we overcome limitations.”