Mona Patel, 41, thought her life was pretty much planned out. Growing up in an East Indian family in San Antonio, TX, most people she knew had entered into arranged marriages chosen by their parents at a young age.
Hoping to obtain a college degree first, Patel graduated high school early and headed off to California Polytechnic State University at 16. But after two terms into college, Patel’s hopes were shattered. Walking across campus, she was hit by a drunk driver.
Initially, doctors amputated only half of her foot, but after 20 surgeries over seven years, she elected for a below-the-knee amputation in 1997 when she was 25. The accident was difficult for health reasons, but also because of the cultural consequences. “I wondered what people would think, how men would view me, and my parents worried no one would ever want to marry me,” she says.
Despite their fears, Patel got engaged in 1994 at age 23 to the son of close family friends, who saw her like a daughter—but not a daughter-in-law, as she soon found out. When her fiancé told his parents they were engaged, they immediately disowned him, afraid that her disability would be a burden to their family. The couple still married and had two daughters, now ages nine and 11, but ended up divorcing in 2011 for other reasons.
But the experience with her in-laws had wrought permanent damage. "I felt ashamed and less of a woman,” Patel says. “We all struggle with self-image issues, but those issues inevitably magnify when your body is physically scarred.”
Healing Through Exercise
Repairing her shattered self-image wasn’t an easy process. Patel first turned to fitness, although she hadn't been active before the accident. After her amputation, she worked out three days a week with a personal trainer and went to rehab. And though she's kept up her exercise since, Patel has really stepped her workouts up a notch in the past few years, and at 41, she’s never been in better shape.
In 2008, Patel started running with the help of her prosthetist, who fits prosthetic limbs, and would videotape her gait at a track, tweaking her prosthesis to make it more comfortable. Patel also focused on strengthening the right side of her body (with the prosthesis) and her core.
Her hard work paid off: Patel completed the San Antonio Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon in 2009. Today, she sticks to 5K or 10K distances due to osteoporosis in her right hip, which likely came about from favoring her sound side. “I need to be careful about stress fractures, because I want to be able to stay healthy and walking for my girls,” she explains.