Mary McQuarrie battled multiple organ failures, an amputated leg and her husband leaving her
Murphy gnaws on a bone as Seamus and Dibley wrestle each other to the ground. Cricket barks, egging the two on. Boomer and Sassy sit on their fluffy blankets watching the show with tired eyes, they have seen this before.
Then there is Mary. She sits in her chair and wheels around, nicking doorframes and walls as she plays with her six loving dogs.
Mary McQuarrie is constantly reminded of the traumatic day she lost her right leg. She now uses a copper prosthesis to walk, but finds it tiring and uses a wheelchair to get around her house. She said it is difficult to keep her balance at times with the prosthetic leg because if she has an object in her right hand, she must pick up an object of similar size and weight in her left hand to stay afoot.
From two legs to one
A year before McQuarrie lost her leg, her foot swelled giving her “elephantitis” as she calls it. She said doctors attributed this symptom to her diabetes, because she had previously nicked her foot on chicken wire while tending her sweet peas. She went to the Rockyview General Hospital and had it looked at. They hooked her up to a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line and eventually the swelling went down.
In March 2011, she said her husband left for work in Indonesia as a pilot. She emailed him saying she had high fevers that caused violent shaking.
“I laid here for three weeks waiting for my husband and I heard nothing. I emailed my sister-in-law and said, ‘I need help’ and I heard nothing,” she said.
Out of the blue a neighbour came by, took one look at her and said they were going to the hospital. Twelve hours later she had endured multiple organ failures and her right leg just below the knee had been chopped off. Doctors amputated her right leg because the Septis infection was spreading at a rapid rate that had she kept her leg, it would have eventually spread to her heart. McQuarrie was in the hospital a total of 10 weeks.
She had three goals, to escape the musculoskeletal unit in Carewest, get her driver’s license back and walk her dogs by herself
The early years
McQuarrie lived with her grandparents, mother, father, older sister and two younger brothers on a farm just north of Calgary in the settlement of Madden. She said she was daddy’s little girl, but then daddy disappeared and she never saw him again.
She grew up speaking five languages. Her parents are Ukrainian, and had to learn German when they escaped the Ukraine. Her grandmother came from Poland and her father’s clients were Italian. She also learnt French in school.
One of McQuarrie’s friends told her, “Mary can tell you off so well that you look forward to the trip.”
Photo by Jenica Foster
From the age of 10 till she was 18 years old McQuarrie lived in foster care. She said she remembers it being a scary time in her life and has thus chosen not to go into great detail. She said she wasn’t allowed to see her mother because of what happened at home, but managed to see her anyways behind their backs.
“I was always torn between the two worlds,” she said.
At 17, McQuarrie had a son with her first husband. She currently has an estranged relationship with her son.
After delving into motherhood, McQuarrie became a co-ordinator for co-op housing and later went into property management.
Confusion and a lack of support
Currently, home encompasses her birds, six dogs and an abundance of overflowing brown boxes filling every room. She said she has not been in her living room since she was spring cleaning before she went to the hospital. There is a collection of Swarovski crystals, old Canon cameras, pillows and collectables from travels abroad. Other rooms feature her husband’s boat models and clothes.
She said this was a man who spoiled her rotten. During 21 years of marriage, she said he never raised his voice to her and never criticized her.
But then she said he was gone. “It was demoralizing to me when I woke up and he was not there,” McQuarrie said.
After months of complete silence, McQuarrie said she finally heard from her husband.
“For 18 months I hung like a piñata. I didn’t know if I was coming, going, leaving or staying. Everybody wanted to know what happened, ask him,” she said. Mary’s husband did not reply to an email request asking for comment.
She said going through this has caused her to become disillusioned with people. She said people would say, “If you need anything just give me a call.” Now she tells them that if they don’t mean it, they shouldn’t say it.
On top of a lack of spousal support, McQuarrie said she could not even hire kids to help her out around the house for $20 an hour.
After spending almost two months at the Rockyview hospital, McQuarrie was transferred to a long-term care facility. She became a part of the musculoskeletal unit of Carewest. Here is where the scheming began. She formed a pack with three other ladies: one had smashed her arm needing six surgeries to get it straightened out, another had a left amputation to McQuarrie’s right leg, and the last one had her leg amputated all the way up to the top of her thigh. The pack formed missions, she said, making the staff very nervous. One mission involved the hunt for a lemon meringue pie.
“Us diabetics, they do not give you any treats. So she (McQuarrie’s pack mate) was supposed to be my lookout, but she chickened out and let me go into enemy territory.”
Other mischievous acts included hiding, moving a seat and sitting in each other’s beds to fool the staff. She said they never did anything illegal, just silly things to keep them occupied.
“You just put one step in front of the other,” said Shirley Heschl, one of McQuarrie’s pack mates. “The pain is enough to send anybody to their bed and take their drugs. But we can live it with them.”
Carewest sits on the bank of the Glenmore Reservoir. McQuarrie said there was this path that dipped down and came back up the other side. She said she loved the thrill of a good rollercoaster and would gain enough speed on her wheelchair to make it three quarters of the way up the far side of the path.
“Of course I would get hell every time I did it, but they would not give me a helmet.”
McQuarrie still talks with her pack mates on a regular basis. “Auntie Shirley” Heschl phones McQuarrie every day to chat.
“She’s been there for me when I needed to talk,” Heschl said. “When I was in my room crying, when I was done. It was just being there.”
With friendly support McQuarrie was able to recover. She had told the doctors that the day she put on her prosthetic leg, was the day she would walk out the door. And she did.
“I was their star pupil. Now if they could have only put duct tape over my mouth I would have been perfect for them.”
Learning to drive again
McQuarrie said having her license taken away from her was the worst part of the whole process because she felt helpless. She was both living alone and because of the lack of support she received, ultimately felt alone.
Photo by Jenica Foster
She had to install a left-foot accelerator in her vehicle to be able to drive again. She said the problem was that no one seemed to know where to find it. She phoned gas stations and dealerships and faced the same response, “What? Never heard of it.”
Finally, she found one at Shoppers Home Health Care. From there she contacted Karen Falk, chief driving instructor and president of Safety in Motion Inc., for driving lessons.
Falk met McQuarrie on Nov. 29, 2011 for one lesson. She said, “In the hospital she was just panicking because she never expected to have her leg amputated. So she’s got all this, ‘Oh my God’ stuff happening to her and we got out there, we got things clarified, and I was able to say, ‘Hey you’re excellent at this. You know what you’re doing.’”
McQuarrie had not driven for 17 months. After her lesson with Falk she booked her road test. McQuarrie was re-licensed in the third week of Dec. 2011.
“I got this message from Mary after her test: ‘Yahoo! I’m on the road!’ Doesn’t that sound like Mary?”
From here on out
McQuarrie said, “I don’t fantasize about murdering my husband anymore.” She said she wants to sort out her marriage and needs finality to go forward.
She said she hopes a handyman is in her future to help her do the things that she cannot around the house. Even though she said because of her financial situation she might have to give up her house or go back to work.
As for her sense of adventure, McQuarrie said she would love to try driving a standard car with a left-foot accelerator like they have in Europe.
Her prosthetic leg will keep challenging her for the rest of her life, but McQuarrie will continue to see humour and laugh amidst the pain.