Friday, September 05, 2008

Survivor Fiona Callanan faces her own tsunami challenge by helping others

Survivor Fiona Callanan continues to make a difference by focusing on helping tsunami amputee victims by climbing mountains with her bike. She is raising funds to help the Cambodia Trust organization bring prosthetics to tsunami stricken locations.

For pictures of the work that Fiona is doing with Cambodia Trust - go here.

Mountains to climb
A victim of the 2004 tsunami is on a drive to help less fortunate amputees, writes Katie Lau
Published September 3, 2008

To see the link of this article, written by Katie Lau of the Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, go here: MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB

At first glance, Fiona Callanan’s wardrobe seems typical of an active professional, crammed with suits, skirts, jeans and sportswear. But closer inspection reveals items others are unlikely to have: prosthetic limbs of various styles and materials to suit different occasions.

“I’ve got four in here. One for the gym and cycling, one for running, one for going to the beach in. Of course, I want to look good too, so there’s one for skirts and high heels,” she says, giggling.

The British solicitor’s interest in prostheses is more than a matter of appearances. Callanan, 31, who lost her right leg as a result of injuries she suffered when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck southern Thailand on Boxing Day 2004, wants to help less fortunate amputees receive the kind of care she did.

She was taken initially to a spartan hospital in the Thai beach resort of Krabi where she was holidaying, and was struck by the contrasting fates of the rich and poor as she awaited an airlift to a better facility.

(picture: Fiona Callanan takes on the Andes next week to raise more funds for amputees. And (below) Callanan (front) training in England with friends Sam and Sarah Spinney in preparation for 2006’s Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor Wat challenge. Photos credit: Samantha Sin/Fiona Callanan)

“I hadn’t realised how lucky I was to be born in a rich country. Before my parents and friends found me, I was on my own and there was a Thai guy in the bed next to me … I couldn’t sit up and see him, but I knew his skull was broken because he got smashed against some rocks,” she says. “And I thought, what’s wrong with me compared to him? I’m being flown to Bangkok and he’s left there to die just because I’m rich and he’s poor, basically. We’re both human beings. It’s very hard to get over the inequality.” According to survivors’ accounts, many died of infected limbs during the first four days after the tsunami because health personnel were swamped by the scale of the disaster and supplies of medicine and fresh water quickly ran out.

Many foreigners like Callanan were lucky to have received medical attention in time after being quickly flown out, says US businessman Rick von Feldt, who keeps a blog of tsunami survivor stories.

Keen to redress the balance, Callanan and a friend, Sarah Spinney, signed up two years ago to cycle from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex – a journey of more than 500km – in aid of the Cambodia Trust. The pair raised £28,000 (HK$390,000) for the British charity, which trains specialists in conflictstruck nations to fit prosthetic limbs and braces at its rehabilitation centres.

“This was the biggest amount of money ever raised for us by a volunteer. It’s staggering,” says Carson Harte, executive director of the trust.

“It’s really difficult to raise funds for our rehabilitation centres as they’re perceived to be less sustainable. A landmine survivor needs a new artificial limb every one to two years, every six months for a growing child. Therefore, the centres need ongoing support to keep going, and this isn’t so attractive to big donors.”

Von Feldt, the businessmanblogger, laments that although a prosthetic limb or brace can make the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency, many people in poor countries cannot benefit. “You don’t see prosthetics on people in places like Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Most have no idea that such a thing is available,” he says. “Prosthetics are seen as too costly and impossible to find.” But as Callanan discovered on her visit to Cambodia, disabled people fitted with prostheses don’t necessarily regain their confidence, dignity and self-sufficiency. Many amputees were given free legs, but left them at home to beg in the streets, she says. “It’s really sad.” Grateful to have been able to resume an active life with hi-tech prostheses, she has continued to campaign for the welfare of amputees in poor countries after moving to Hong Kong three months ago with husband Simon Thorsby, an accountant.

“I want everyone to be as lucky as me,” Callanan says.

Next week, she will embark on another cycling challenge in support of the Cambodia Trust: a 300km expedition in Peru from the ruins of Machu Picchu in the Andes to a jungle town called Atalaya, supported by 20 able-bodied volunteers.

“We’ll start from 11,000 feet [3,358 metres] high up in the mountains and we’ll be camping as well. So it’s nothing like the last time when we could cycle on flat land and stay in hotels and take showers every day,” she says.

With her ready smile and steady strides up a hiking trail for a photo session, Callanan makes overcoming her handicap seem straightforward but it has been a gruelling road to recovery.

“The first months of rehabilitation were long and arduous, especially when I was on crutches and not allowed to get a prosthetic leg for the first six months because my thigh bone was broken,” she says. “I had to endure so much pain.” Her artificial leg didn’t seem much of an improvement at first. “It takes a lot of time to get used to [the prosthetic] and you have to keep changing the sockets because the muscles in your leg waste away quickly [from the inactivity]. It just gets smaller and changes shape,” she says.

Cycling was Callanan’s way to strengthen her leg muscles. “I was not crazy about cycling, but it was the easiest thing to do at the time. I didn’t run until six months after cycling because it requires too much muscle power,” she says.

The daily ride between home and work provided an effective workout and she was soon able to walk properly without pain. Fired up with a new passion, she began setting off on long cross-country rides in England and Spain, and later went to Taiwan and Indochina. Her greatest hurdle as a below-the-knee amputee was to keep her foot on the pedal.

“It’s the little things, like I can’t stop on the right-hand side and I can’t stand up on pedals to gain momentum when I am on a steep slope. Cycling is not so much about skills but endurance,” she says.

“I just have to look ahead a bit more than other people. I’ve learned that the more you try, the more you can anticipate what would happen on the road. For example, if I get dehydrated, the cramps in my knee would be very painful and I avoid that,” she says. Callanan reckons amputees can do almost anything they set their minds to, given the right equipment and if they exercise some common sense. “I tried water skiing, but my leg kept falling off because the water loosens the grip of the suction part. I might try wakeboarding because I can use my left leg more,” she says. “You just have to accept your limits and be sensible and realistic. If you keep testing yourself and pull off something you think is difficult, it can build up your confidence enormously. You have more faith in yourself. “I don’t see myself as disabled. You just live as normally as you can, and don’t let losing your leg be the only thing you’re known for.” It’s a notion Callanan hopes to promote through her charity bike ride in the Andes, which was inspired by others who have triumphed over adversity, including Mark Inglis, the first double amputee to scale Mount Everest. Inglis is just as impressed by Callanan’s optimism and courage. “The really great thing is that she has discovered that we can change the world with our actions and, even better, she has had the humanity and courage to take the first steps to achieving this,” says Inglis, also a patron of the New Zealand branch of the Cambodia Trust. Callanan’s handicap hasn’t dimmed her enjoyment of life. “I’m still a party girl, and I appreciate it more now,” she says. “I love travelling and seeing new things. I haven’t got time to waste and I don’t want anything to stop me because you never know what’s around the corner.”

For details of Fiona Callanan’s charity bike ride, visit

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At 1:27 PM, Anonymous SEO Firm said...

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

At 7:35 AM, Anonymous Travel Phuket said...

You are one of the luckiest survivor. Many of them, the commoners did not have such opportunities like you due to wealth.

You have beauty in your heart and to overcoming this disaster is an eye-opener with strong challenge.
Very impressive writing too.

At 12:04 AM, Blogger Jamesy Singhy said...

James Singh would like to add you on Skype

Hi Fiona this is James here i got your email address from your friends Lisa and Joe while they were transiting here in Singapore last weekend.I understand from them that you are a amputee who ride a bike ,well i was hoping to get in touch with you on that as i am also an amputee who ride.


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