26 Sept 2022

Nikki Bradley taking small steps on the way to climbing her mountain

Inspirational Donegal woman Nikki Bradley underwent rotationplasty surgery five weeks ago. Now back at home in Milford, she tells her story

Nikki Bradley taking small steps on her way to climbing her mountain

Nikki Bradley is assessed by Johnny Loughrey of No Barriers Foundation this week and (inset) Nikki in hospital in Birmingham.

Nikki Bradley hasn’t changed the screensaver on her laptop since October 2019.

The image of Mount Kilimanjaro serves as a goal and an inspiration for the 36-year-old.

The adaptive adventurer and cancer survivor returned to her home in Milford two weeks ago after undergoing rotationplasty surgery.

The nine-hour procedure, performed five weeks ago at The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, involved removing the middle part of her right leg with the lower leg reattached at the thigh - but rotated 180 degrees.

Essentially, her ankle will act as her knee once a prosthetic is fitted.

Nikki Bradley back home in Milford

“It will make more sense in a few months when I get the prosthetic,” she explains.

“The whole point of it is to make use of a prosthetic limb. The foot points in a different direction now to allow it function in a different way. When I get fitted with a custom-made prosthetic, it will fit my leg to a tee. So, that means the fit that now looks so strange to people will disappear entirely. That’s why my rehab over the coming months is so important.”

Despite having had two hip replacements, Nikki - who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, when she was 16 years old - has completed some staggering feats in her life.

She abseiled off Fanad Lighthouse and climbed the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland.

There was the Fan Dance, a 24km march on the highest peak of Brecon Beacons in Wales. She completed a 4 Peak Challenge that saw her climb Carrantoohil, Croagh Patrick, Slieve Donard and Errigal back-to-back - inside 32 hours.

Kilimanjaro was planned before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“Kilimanjaro is the one goal that I haven’t yet managed,” she says. “It was on the list pre-pandemic. It was postponed three times and then I was on the list for surgery. The need to do it still hasn’t gone away.

“It has been the screensaver on my laptop since and it’s not coming off until I do it. It could have killed me to do it before, but maybe now I’ll do it with a prosthetic. I’lll still be on the crutches, but maybe it’ll be easier.”

She was in Moshi, the Tanzanian town at Kilimanjaro’s base, while volunteering in Africa.

There was no desire to climb, even then as she looked across at the 5,895m mountain.

Then, her intrigue piqued.

Two German woman, not long off the mountain, were necking a cold beer in a hut nearby.

“I was sort of awestruck,” Nikki says. “There was part of me just like: ‘What have they experienced? What are they talking about?’

“I gave them a few minutes to chill and I went over, tapped them on the shoulder and asked: ‘How do you feel right now?’ They both just broke into the biggest smile. This is so corny, but if they can do it, so can I.”

The immediate challenges are rather more modest, but no less inspiration for someone who has been on such a whirlwind, emotionally and physically.

“Even just to get up Muckish again,” she says. “I want to get back to a group there and get back up again.”

Nikki Bradley in hospital in Birmingham

Nikki was was under the care of Professor Lee Jeys and since returning home she has been working closely with physiotherapist Johnny Loughrey and the No Barriers Foundation - of whom she is now a patient as well as an ambassador.

The Letterkenny-based No Barriers is equipped with specialist neurological equipment allowing anyone with a disability to train by targeting mobility, strength and physical fitness regardless of their current baseline.

“Cabin fever has been setting in and I’m so excited to see the physio. The first time I’ve left the house since I came back.

“What Johnny and No Barriers do is absolutely incredible. I never thought that I’d be one of their clients. They have been liaising with my physios in Birmingham and that has taken a huge weight off me. I’m just the patient now.”

Last August, Nikki announced that she would have rotationplasty surgery.

It was a decision she took after careful consideration.

A 3D printed hip seemed like the best option. The risk of infection was high, though. Her previous hip surgeries meant that the risk was so high. A possible infection could have promoted a full amputation.

“Roationplasty didn’t sound so scary then,” Nikki says.

“I turned it down at first with a flat no. I was adamant that it wasn’t for me.”

Shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Nikki began having disc issues in her neck and back. She travelled to Dublin for a steroid injection, but the remedy was effective for only three months at a time.

“The pain was stemming from my hip, so unless I got that fixed I couldn’t get my back fixed,” she says. “We could have kicked the can down the road, but then I might not have been well enough to get it. So, we decided on now when I’m youngish and the pain was manageable.”

Decision time was difficult. Nikki wrestled with the options.

This was different.

Previously, Nikki had an operation to remove a tumour. There were two hip replacements. A fall resulting in a broken femur necessitated more surgery.

“They were emergency cases,” she points out. “This one was my biggest surgery. For me to have to decide on that, it was petrifying.”

Sharing her journey on social media has proved an enlightening and inspiring journey for her followers.

There were questions, some of them awkward.

“I acknowledged the weirdness. It was like: ‘Let’s acknowledge it together and let’s get through it together. May page isn’t for people who are easily offended and I don’t tolerate comments from people who are offended by the whole world. The whole point of it was, let’s weird it out together.

“I decided to share my story on Instagram because it is such an unusual thing to share. You rarely see these types of procedures shared from a patient’s perspective, no positive stories or blogs. I have the platform and I knew what was appropriate to share.”

She is home now and is noticing big improvements over the last few days.

Severe nerve pain, she described as ‘unbelievable’ is abating. The support of her family and her fiancé, Ian Parke, has been invaluable

“I’m a little bit away from being fine, but as long as I can see progress it’s good,” she says.

“It makes a huge difference being home. It was like the pain decreased straight away when I came home to my family and my friends and my animals too.

“The only person who sees the benefits is me so I have to do what I’m supposed to. It’s such a delicate wound, I can feel it instantly if I move the wrong way.”

The ‘unbearable’ pain is becoming bearable.

She still has a mountain to climb.

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