Double Amputee Races Past Limitations
Before she lost both of her legs, Adriele Silva had no interest in running. Now, the 31-year-old sponsored athlete is redefining the limits of possibility in a sport that has long favored the able-bodied.
On Sunday, November 4, the Brazilian runner will bring her unflagging determination to one of the sport’s most prestigious races: the New York City Marathon. When Adriele crosses the finish line in Central Park, she will be the first female bilateral amputee to do so.
But Adriele does not run to set records or earn accolades. She runs because it is difficult. She runs because it is liberating. She runs because she can.
“I have the label of being disabled, but my limitations don’t stop me,” she said. “I can do anything I want.”
It started with a dull ache just below the ribs. When the pain blossomed into a thorn tree in her side, the then-25-year-old checked herself into the hospital. She was given pain killers and sent home.
Adriele woke the next morning feverish with agony. She rushed back to the same hospital, where a nurse on duty realized that the diagnosis—a kidney stone clogging her urinary tract—demanded more than pain pills and a pat on the back.
Within hours, Adriele was plugged full of miscellaneous tubes and lines, and induced into coma. Her body had become septic, a breeding ground for ravenous bacteria, and the doctors had few options.
For 20 days she remained comatose, her body fighting a losing battle against the bacteria. Finally, it became clear: without radical intervention, Adriele would die.
At the end of the twentieth day, the medical team woke the oblivious young woman in the hospital bed to fulfill Brazilian law, which mandates that the doctor must inform a patient before resorting to amputation.
“They woke me up and explained the amputation,” Adriele recalled. “I realized in that moment I was really sick. If I had to have my legs amputated, so be it. The most important thing was to get well.”
When she awoke next, the surgery was complete. Adriele looked under the sheets to find that her body stopped just above the knees. Her legs of 25 years were gone. Only the fresh dressings around the circumference of her thighs were evidence that there had ever been legs at all.
In that moment, however, her body was still fighting the aggressive infection. The newly-amputated woman had no energy for self-pity.
“When I woke up, I realized the infection was still very severe,” she said. “Even though I was amputated, my main concern was to survive. I didn’t even think about my legs until I got out of the hospital. I was in survival mode.”
For 64 days, Adriele battled the infection. When it was declared defeated, the young amputee left the hospital to go learn to live without legs.
“I lost a lot of muscle mass in the hospital,” she said. “I had to learn how to live again.”
Learning to live again
For five months after her release from the hospital, Adriele endured rigorous physical and psychological therapy. Losing her legs meant recovering from damage to both body and spirit. On both counts, she found early healing.
“I knew it was not going to be easy,” she said. “I tried to keep myself positive all the time and focus on positive thoughts.”
In moments when the pain was unbearable and her fears overwhelming, Adriele would think to herself: “If I keep myself positive, if I keep my mind good, I can overcome this.”
Those first five months set the precedent for the years to come. Early on, Adriele made the commitment to full physical and psychological rehabilitation. She devoted herself to activities that had not interested her before the amputation. She took up swimming. She began lifting weights. Crucially, she observed other amputees who were further along in their rehabilitation than she was. They were actually competing in running events, something she now felt herself drawn to.
“Before the amputation, I had no desire to run,” she said. “It was nothing that ever caught my interest. After the amputation, I started getting to be more interested. I wanted to become normal again.”
When the five months of rehabilitation ended, Adriele was ready to walk again. She found a prosthetics clinic, got fitted, and, for the first time in months, took her first steps.
“I had researched what it was like to walk with prosthetics,” Adriele recalled. “I thought it would take a long time, but to my surprise, the process was pretty fast.”
Her five months of rehabilitation had paid off. All the swimming, weight training, and psychological therapy had prepared her for this moment, both physically and mentally. Within just a few sessions at the clinic, Adriele was ready to go home with her legs and continue her recovery.
“In my case, it was easy to walk in prosthetics,” she said. “I was already doing sports, like swimming. I was already motivated and fit.”
Motivated to push boundaries
Though she showed little interest in sports before the surgery, Adriele developed an appetite for them after. Her tireless motivation—the same motivation that delivered her from a two-month bacterial infection, that spurned self-pity, that sought out the swimming pool and the weight room, that reclaimed life with the zeal of one who nearly lost it—pushed her toward obstacle after obstacle.
“It’s a whole new world,” she said. “I see a lot of opportunities and challenges, but I’m going on this ride. I love seeing a new challenge and overcoming it.”
Not even Adriele can say for certain if she is pushed despite her limitation or because of it. Perhaps it is both. As she likes to say, she just wants to feel normal. For her, that includes being the only bilateral amputee in Brazil to run the 100-yard dash, a record she set—and still holds—while wearing walking prosthetics; it includes running the Great Wall of China half marathon; it includes a plan to move north and learn to snowboard, a Paralympics event in which she hopes one day to compete.
Indeed, striving just to be normal has carried Adriele far beyond normalcy. The 31-year-old athlete travels the world, races among the elite, and inspires her growing network of social media admirers (on Instagram alone, she has more than 25,000 followers). Hers is a life without limitations.
The ADRA Connection
Just as she was initially inspired by athletes who were recovering from physical disabilities alongside her, Adriele now seeks to be an inspiration to others, whether or not they wear prosthetics.
“I feel honored to share my experience,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility to encourage and support the people who are following me.”
As an outdoor ambassador for ADRA Connections, the volunteer program of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), Adriele extends that support to a global community.
“I believe in the work that ADRA is doing in supporting communities all over the world,” she said. “Each one of us can make a difference, and I can be part of this, too.”
For some, that message means running a local race to raise support for vulnerable communities through ADRA Connections programs. For others it means joining a two-week service trip to give their time and effort to help developing communities in need. For Adriele, it means strapping on her racing prosthetics and proving to herself and the world that with enough determination, obstacles become opportunities, and limitations disappear.