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The Incredible Portrait Of An Artist Who Had Four Amputations

Something wasn’t right on Libby’s holiday.

Feeling 'off-colour', she went to bed hoping to shake it. But things only got worse. She woke up shaking uncontrollably.

Libby Stanley and her husband Gordon went to the local hospital in Mandurah, Western Australia, where the doctor wasn’t able to pinpoint that she had meningococcal disease, as the early symptoms were too general. It was a matter of hours later that she would be taken to Perth with the characteristic rash, and the next 10 days would be a nightmare.

“I was 10 days in an induced coma and my kidney shut down, all my vital organs started to shut down,” Stanley said.

Her arms and legs then began to turn black from the ends, as the blood left the limbs and the skin was left to die. This is called sepsis.

Stanley suffered sepsis, leading to parts of all four limbs being amputated. (Image: Declan Bowring)

It was mid-April when Stanley began showing signs of meningococcal disease. By the end of June, the surgeons had amputated her left leg below the knee, most of her right foot, most of her right forearm and the fingers on her left hand.

She now faced with difficulty doing just about everything, but the most devastating thing was the damage to her identity.

Stanley was an artist and a children’s book illustrator -- and she no longer had her artist hands.

Her life-like, highly-detailed paintings are a quintessential part of her books, including The Deliverance of the Dancing Bears which received an honour book prize from the Children’s Book Council of Australia in 1995.

Losing her right hand and the fingers of her left hand meant continuing to paint in her fine, detailed style was impossible. (Image: Declan Bowring)
Even though her style has changed drastically, her creative drive is strong as ever. (Image: Declan Bowring)

Stanley can no longer replicate the fine illustrations that adorn the pages of Dancing Bears. But that hasn’t stopped her desire to keep painting.

In fact the surgeons who performed the operation of removing her arm and fingers had this in mind.

“The surgeons came to see me immediately … and said we know you're an artist, and we’d like you to start working with that hand as soon as you possibly can in some way or other so that you're using your left hand,” Stanley recalled.

“Your brain is going to have to be rewired to be a left-handed person.”

This was the other challenge with taking up illustration again. Not only was she without a full set of hands, but she had lost her dominant right hand. But Stanley was amazed at how quickly she picked up being left-handed, saying it has been the least of her problems.

While still in hospital, Stanley began retraining her brain how to draw without fingers, and left-handed. (Image: Declan Bowring) 
Her early sketches were much looser and free-flowing; her style is now much more expressive. (Image: Declan Bowring)

“The biggest problem is the physical act of trying to manipulate brushes and cope with taking tops off tubes of paint.”

Using her short stumps where her full fingers used to be, her brushing style is like holding a paintbrush upside down which creates what she happily admits is a departure from the look of her previous works.

“It's looser now, more expressive,” Stanley said.

“My style has changed and I'm working hard at allowing it to change, I’m working hard at feeling content when things are not exact or perfect in the painting.”

Opening tubes of paint is one of her biggest struggles. (Image: Declan Bowring)
Having to relearn her craft was an essential part of maintaining her identity as an artist. (Image: Declan Bowring)
Stanley uses her left hand to hold the paintbrush upside down in a closed fist, creating a much different aesthetic. (Image: Declan Bowring)

“I’ve started with small paintings like this one but I'm hoping to get larger and maybe even use my hand more than the brush so really become more expressive and large-scale.”

Stanley is able to stabilise pallets and grab paint tubes using a prosthetic arm on her right arm. The myoelectric arm opens and closes the fingers by activating the muscles remaining in her partly-amputated right forearm.

“The only thing we need to be able to pick up is signals, and separated signals, so she’s not getting cross-talk between two electrodes so the prosthesis knows whether she’s trying to open and close it,” said Cameron Ward of APC Prosthetics, who made the arm.

Her myolectric hand is able to open and close by picking up electric signals in her arm muscles. (Image: Declan Bowring)
She also uses prosthetics on both legs. (Image: Declan Bowring)

Occupational therapist Melissa Leong, who trained Stanley to use the arm, said the arm made a significant change in her life especially doing day-to-day tasks that required a strong grip.

“The myoelectric prosthesis gave her more independence putting it off and on on her own,” said Leong.

“She didn’t have to rely on other people to put it on and I think she liked the grip strength of it.”

Stanley’s story of bouncing back from the trauma of meningococcal disease and four amputations is exactly what Ward loves about his job.

“That’s our whole goal -- trying to get them back to doing as many things as they used to do prior to whatever reason they had their amputation. It’s great that she can get back to painting and drawing.”

Stanley's new style is loose and expressive. (Image: Declan Bowring)
She now plans to create more large-scale works using her hand as opposed to a brush. (Image: Declan Bowring)

But for Stanley, the key to coming back from the worst chapter of her life was to find the thing you love and not take no for an answer.

“She’s one of the rare people who can find something within herself to make her life better after such a devastating thing happened,” said rehabilitation physician Dr Jasmine Gilchrist, who worked on Stanley’s recovery.

“Everyone comes to rehab initially after this sort of thing quite broken.

For Stanley, the key to coming back from the worst chapter of her life was to find the thing she loved and not take no for an answer. (Image: Declan Bowring)

“But very early on she did show her spirit and did things like a book launch in our ward, had lots of friends and family over to support her and was very social and got to know all the patients.”

“She has shown remarkable spirit, I think it comes from her creative nature where she’s got back to the things she likes to do and she’s still pushing,” Gilchrist staid.

Stanley is certainly showing her spirit by continuing to paint, but is also keen to get back to children’s book writing, a memoir, and even driving a car.

"You look at the rest of your life and I guess you could sit in a dark hole and weep, or you could say 'I can't do some of the things I used to be able to do, but I can probably still do some of them, and there will be other things I can find out about,'" she said.

"You can sit in a dark hole and weep", or you can continue to do the things you love, despite the challenges. (Image: Declan Bowring)

“I don't think you realise that you have as much resilience as you do until something really really challenging happens and you have to draw upon it.

“The important thing is to be a good advocate for yourself, to not take no for an answer, to go out there and search for answers, search for ways you can overcome your difficulties.”