The first thing you notice when you enter the Prosthetics Rehabilitation Centre at the Stanmore Hospital in Middlesex is a row of colourful and patterned prosthetic legs. Images of London 2012 Paralympians proudly showing off their blades spring to mind but the day-to-day reality for the women who attend the centre is very different.
“There is still a taboo around women amputees,” says Nicola. “The images on television show a very unique group of people doing incredible things despite their disability but what we don't see are women going about their daily lives- showering, getting dressed, doing the weekly shop.”
The film addresses this by capturing the very real challenges and experiences faced by eight female amputees who attend the hospital's Fitting Room.
Room to talk
The project started when Nicola got chatting to women as they waited to see their prosthetist (the person who fits and repairs their new limb). Just talking and sharing their problems and feelings helped enormously and the Fitting Room Friends Facebook group was born.
“This is a place online where we can all chat and support each other even if we don‟t manage to meet at the hospital,” says Michelle Meltzer. Michelle was unloading her car boot when another car rammed into her - she lost her leg above the knee. “We share really practical tips that help us overcome the daily challenges of being an amputee.”
Sandra Staffiero elected to have her leg amputated following a road traffic accident. Failed surgeries and years of pain and morphine led her to make the decision that would change her life. “I was glad I had the operation but I knew nothing about being an amputee. The reaction from strangers and cruel comments can be so hard to deal with but the support I have got from the Fitting Room friends group has been amazing.”
“These girls just get it,” agrees Jane McLaren. “Your husband and kids can sympathise with you but they don't get it whereas I can say one word to these ladies and they just immediately know what I am talking about.”
With the women having formed lifelong friendships, Nicola floated the idea of capturing these experiences on film. Despite some people having slight reservations about being in front of the camera, Nicola wasn't short of volunteers.
“We wanted to show other amputees that they are not alone,” says Nicola. “We understand the very real concerns that go with life as an amputee - how the hot weather can affect the fit of your leg, the anxiety that goes with trying on shoes, supermarket shopping, or going on holiday.”
A major scene in the film takes place at the swimming pool where we see how the women deal with getting in and out of the pool and swimming with their prosthetic. It's just one of the everyday tasks we see the women tackle on camera.
“Losing your leg changes your life,” says Michelle. “Every day you have to stay the same weight and do your exercises. Some days you can't wear your leg because of blisters and it's very uncomfortable in hot weather. No one tells you about phantom pains where your amputated limb used to be or that your family may struggle to deal with your prosthetic.”
The camera also follows the women inside the Fitting Room as they undergo the difficult process of fitting a new leg - something that has never been shown before. “Fitting a new leg can be a very difficult process,” says Nicola. “It doesn't always work and it can take a long time to get it right.”
So what has the reaction to the film been like? “Amazing!” says Michelle. “Friends who have watched it said, I never
thought of you having to deal with that." I feel like the film can do so much good. It really helps to raise awareness of what life as an amputee is really like.”
“My family are extremely proud of me,” adds Sandra. “This film has helped us all open up and express our feelings about what is often a hidden or taboo part of our lives.”
The group now wants to distribute the film to other limb-fitting centres and help fellow amputees and people preparing for an operation. “This group and the film we've made show what a difference the right support can make,” says Nicola. “The Fitting Room is not a clinic; it is a highly exclusive club. It might not be a club you would choose to join but once a member, you have friends for life.”
Nicola's organisation, Pegleg Productions, received an Awards for All grant of £9,978 for the Fitting Room film project.
THE FITTING ROOM trailer from nicola lane on Vimeo.