It’s tough to say what’s more amazing about Angie Heuser – the audacity of her goals or the speed with which she achieves them.
As an amputee, she hit the ski slopes just four months after losing her left leg.
Since her surgery, Angie has also surfed along the beaches of Kauai. She’s snorkeled. She’s ridden scooters around the neighborhood with her son.
And so, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone when she set her sights on running 6.2 miles for the kids of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The 48-year-old wife and mother of two completed the Humana Rock ‘N’ Roll Arizona 10K, traversing the greatest distance since getting her new prosthetic leg less than a year ago. And she did so as a St. Jude Hero, raising funds to support the life-saving research taking place at St. Jude.
After a knee injury sidelined Angie from living her life, she could personally identify with the children who were spending their childhoods in the hospital.
“When I see the children who are battling this, I think of the ones who are sitting in bed. I spent six years lying in bed,” Angie said. “I didn’t go through all of this to play it safe. I can go out and face a fear of falling (during a 10K) when these children and parents face fear every day. It’s all about facing fears and overcoming. I’m living bigger than I’ve ever lived.”
Angie raised her initial goal of $1,000 for the fight against childhood cancer within 24 hours. She doubled her goal within 48 hours and by race day, she had raised more than $5,000, making her a top fundraiser.
"Most are worried if they can even stand up on the prosthetic or not,” said Angie’s physical therapist, Dan Bonaroti. “She attacks whatever challenge comes, and it leads to good things.”
A breaking point
In May of 2013, Angie tore the shock-absorbing cartilage in her left knee.
"I was testing for my second-degree black belt and I literally heard a ‘pop’ in my knee,” she said.
After a handful of surgeries, including multiple knee replacements, Angie still experienced constant swelling and pain. She couldn’t bend her leg, walk her dog or pick up her two sons.
Angie had developed a condition that led to excessive scar tissue developing around the joint in her knee.
She reached a breaking point when a blood clot behind her knee became life threatening. Doctors told her she was a candidate for amputation, but they didn’t advise it because she was still so upbeat and positive, despite her adversity.
“When that happened, something clicked,” Angie said. “That’s when I started the research for surgeons.”
On Dec. 19, 2018, doctors amputated Angie's left leg above the knee. She was free of the swelling and pain that had kept her from living life to the fullest.
Finding the joy
The story of how Angie became an amputee has been shortened over time. She typically says it was due to a karate injury, which comes as a shock to most people.
“They’ll say, ‘Holy cow, you lost your leg in karate?!’” Angie said with a laugh.
It’s that sense of humor and attitude that has gotten Angie through some of the tougher days and embarrassing moments of her journey.
“Most of her successes were accompanied by loud bursts of laughter,” said Angie’s physical therapist Dan. “As she pushes herself, she tends to laugh when she succeeds. [Laughter] always accompanied a big milestone.”
Angie recalled a time when her husband and son put a lampshade on her prosthesis. It resembled the leg lamp from the 1983 comedy “A Christmas Story.” As Angie puts it: “You have to laugh and find joy in it and own it.”
Transparency is Angie’s word to live by in 2020, and she’s already practicing it by sharing stories and videos on social media that show what it’s really like to learn how to walk and run on a prosthetic leg.
“There is a lot of fake. So many people make things look easy. I’m going to tell it how it is,” Angie said. “In some videos I look like a deer who just got birthed. People will tell me, ‘Thanks for being honest. You are going to rock this.’ And it’s reciprocated. I’m empowered by that.”
Making it about something bigger
Each of Angie’s prosthetics are adorned with inspirational art.
Angie’s first included Philippians 4:13. Her second had a woman warrior of Christ. The running blade she wore on race day had the words, “God has a purpose for your pain, a reason for your struggles, and a reward for your faithfulness. Don’t give up.”
At first the messages were just for her, but Angie soon realized they were a “walking promotion for God.”
As she documented her health journey on social media, many people reached out, calling her an inspiration. Angie, a teacher by training, saw the attention as a teachable moment for us all and as a way to give back to St. Jude.
“In a world where there’s so much about ourselves being thrown out in social media, it’s better to put attention on those in need,” Angie said. “When I think about these families and what they go through daily, I divert it. Let’s make this about something bigger.”