Meet Port Angeles, Washington resident Dana Lawson, 48, – a tenacious pioneer of hope and inspiration, committed to positive change through education. Founder and executive director of Nature’s Academy, a nonprofit STEM and nature education organization, and Founder and CEO of The Lawson Alliance, SPC, Dana grew up immersed in nature in the beautiful landscape of the New Jersey shore, Vermont, and Maine. She graduated cum laude with a double major in environmental studies and biology from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1995. Dana moved to the Florida Keys where she began her outdoor education career, teaching students about the marine environment. Dana encountered a major stumbling block when she was diagnosed in 1999 with a rare cancer which caused desmoids tumors to grow in her right leg. For more information on Dana, visit her site.
I can see the look on their faces and know when one of my fellow humans just cannot resist asking that darn question. To keep things entertaining for myself, I vary my responses from the truth, which is cancer, to the fantastical, like a massive tussle with a shark. If they only knew the whole truth about what REALLY happened to my leg.
Did you know once they cut your body parts off – they incinerate them! I asked my team where my leg would go after being amputated. Imagine my surprise when they told me they had a special cooker on site just for the body parts. OH MY how totally unceremonious for this beautiful limb that had been attached to me for 35 years. I could not accept this dark fate for my leg, I wanted it to have a proper burial, if you will – and honestly started thinking to myself "Now hold one second." My leg is RIDDLED with desmoid tumors – I mean that is why we are amputating it after all. I was diagnosed at 26 with a very, VERY rare type of cancer – aggressive fibromatosis – where only one or two people in every million worldwide receive this diagnosis. I am also scientist – so immediately I began to wonder why we were going to waste such valuable cancer tissue that could be used for research.
And so, the phone calls began. I reached out to my cancer organization The Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation and told them, “I have this great idea! I want to donate my leg to research!” No one had ever offered this before so we had to do a little bit of LEG WORK (HA HA!) to figure out the next steps.
Turns out there were three hospitals willing to take my desmoid tissues but, my leg was in Florida. So, how does one get the body part to the hospitals out of state? Via FedEx of course – they ship everything!
This package required some special handling though – because it contained live tissue it needed to be kept frozen via dry ice while in transit. So, my surgeon made a deal with me. Because I was going to be zonked out from anesthesia (AND newly missing my leg) he offered to ship the leg parts to the different hospitals – but requested that I bring the dry ice to the surgery. You know, standard stuff you are told to bring to your leg amputation day!
So, true to my word, in the wee hours of the morning, I arrived at the University of Florida hospital for my pre-op check in. With my sublimating cooler of dry ice! I carried this cooler full of “steaming” ice into the pre-op waiting room, took my seat, and looked around at all of my fellow patients waiting to go under the knife for their procedures.
None of them knew what any of us were there for, but we were all anxious. Until the lid fell off the cooler, the dry ice “steam” poured out like a magical cloud and the entire room forgot about their troubles. They were mystified by what was in the cooler. They REALLY wanted to know what the hell I was doing with that cooler. So I told them.
I shared that after nine years of trying to save my leg from cancer, the time had come to liberate myself from the tumors and the deadweight of my nonfunctional limb. I told them of the marathons I had planned to run and the glorious life I would lead once I was free from my cancer. And, I told them that I could not permit my leg to be sacrificed to an onsite incinerator when there was so much more that could be done with this precious piece of my anatomy.
I swear you could hear a pin drop in that room. Every mouth gaping open, jaws on the floor. My fellow surgery patients could not BELIEVE that I had the foresight to consider donating my amputated leg to research. And they sure as hell could not fathom the strength it took for me to bring my own cooler and dry ice for shipping purposes. In that moment, all of their fears washed away as we bonded over this cooler full of “steaming” ice.
And then, they called my name. It was my turn. So I stood up, held my head high, and knew that these were my last steps on my own two legs. Carrying my cooler, I turned to my compatriots in the waiting room, shrugged my shoulders, and called back to them “Dead Leg Walking!” The entire room erupted in applause and cheers.
And that, my friends, is what a happened to my leg.