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Melissa Sullivan: An Inspiration

Melissa Sullivan has had her right leg cut back twice, endured more than 30 surgeries on the limb and only two weeks ago learned she will never walk again.

Instead of curling into a little ball, however, the mother of two has set her sights on becoming a surf sports sensation.

“I want to attack it all — the swim, the ski, the board,” the Highland Park woman says of a goal befitting a woman made of grit.

“A ski will have to be adapted, I’m not going to be able to kneel on a board, but that’s OK because I’m not competing against able-bodied athletes. I’m competing against myself.

“Am I going to come last? Absolutely but just to get out there and show others anything is possible would be amazing.”

Since a seemingly routine break of her ankle in 2008, Sullivan has racked up a list of physical and emotional hardships that would have buried even the strongest of characters.

That fracture, which occurred in a Step class, was the first of three breaks in nine months.

“I came out of bandages and kept falling over because my ankle would dislocate,” the 43-year-old real estate trainer recalls.

“The surgeon said he needed to fuse my ankle but when I came out of plaster, he had put my foot five degrees out of place. He essentially apologised and said he’d correct it but ended up putting my foot in exactly the same spot.”

The onset of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome — aka “suicide syndrome” — added to her nightmare.

“I couldn’t even bear to have a sock or sheet on my foot,” she explains. “It was excruciating and it needed to be dealt with so, on 27 July 2011, I had my amputation.

“It was tough. I was 38 and had to go into a nursing home for rehab. I was struggling with phantom pain (from the missing limb) and became quite depressed.”

As well as her own medical crisis, she was a mother to an autistic son who was tube fed until he was eight and a daughter with kidney disease.

“I pretty much had to still do it all — school runs, lunch preps,” she says.

“I also put on a lot of weight.”

Over time Melissa also decided to attend a come-and-try day at a canoeing club.

A state rugby player in her youth, she was a natural and soon found herself soaring up the canoeing, kayaking and Va’a outrigging ranks. She moved from hometown Adelaide to the Gold Coast in 2014 to train with the national team and won gold later that year at the Va’a world championships.

Along the way she also had another amputation.

“I was having major nerve problems in the lower part of my stump and it was also too short for a decent prosthetic fit,” she explains. “The decision was made to have a ‘through-knee’ amputation.”

With one eye on the 2016 Paralympics, she paired with legendary kayaker Clint Robinson as her coach but there would be no glory, a shoulder reconstruction putting paid to her Rio dream.

“I’m well and truly over having surgery,” she smiles.

Her most recent operation came a fortnight ago. A previously surgically fitted device that provides constant pain relief from her phantom limb was no longer compatible with wearing a prosthetic.

“I could remove the device and continue to walk or have pain relief — I chose to be comfortable.”

Barely out of the operating theatre, she is now counting down the weeks until her body will allow her to attack her latest goal with the support of Kurrawa Surf Life Saving Club.

“Having my leg amputated was probably the most empowering moment of my life,” she says as former coach and now partner Fred Tanner listens in. “If I went downhill, what life lessons was I giving my children.

“To them I’m just mum but I know I’m more than that. I have this belief that we only live once and I want to be remembered — and I want to be happy.”


Phantom pain: “It’s hard for people to understand but I can actually feel pain from my (amputated) foot, my toes being pulled back, my toenails being ripped off, my skin bubbling and being burnt.”

Surf sports: “It would just be my luck that a shark will attack me and take my left leg (loud laughter).”

Finding canoeing: “I needed to do something because I was going insane. The water was therapeutic for me. When I was on the water I didn’t have my husband’s or children’s demands. It was all about me. The water was an escape.”

Whingers: “I don’t have the right to say ‘Suck it up, look at me’ because their pain or stress is relative to them. Not everyone has the ability to approach situations like I do.”

Partner Fred Tanner: “When Mel sets her mind to something, you don’t have to motivate her. You’ve just got to set the bar high and the hardest part is keeping her in check because it’s all or nothing.”

Article originally published by Dwayne Grant, Gold Coast Bulletin.

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