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.
Patel’s current fitness obsession is CrossFit. Just a month after her first WOD, she agreed to participate in SealFit, a grueling, 13-hour fundraiser event that paired 15 adaptive athletes with 15 CEOs for a workout by a team of Navy SEALs.
Though she was about 15 pounds heavier at that time, in just three months of training for the event, Patel transformed her body. “The event was 13 hours of craziness—the SEALs took away our prosthetics and had us do fitness challenges. It was intense, but a lot of fun.”
In the end, the experience solidified her passion for CrossFit. “I’ll do it for the rest of my life,” Patel says. “In just 15 to 20 minutes, you’re panting like a dog, without having to spend an hour at the gym.”
Patel says her boyfriend now, a police officer, is a major source of motivation. “He always tells me, ‘You have to have your next goal,’” Patel says.
One impressive goal he helped her achieve is training for and hiking the 30-mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which they completed together in June. “Besides the half-marathon, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
And Patel already has her next fitness feat lined up: Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in December 2015. She's in the process of raising $100,000 to organize a expedition of amputees, a physician, a therapist, a prosthetist, a journalist, and a videographer to make the trek. “One amputee is a 13-year-old boy. If we can reach the summit, I know it’s going to change his life,” Patel says.
Whether she’s climbing mountains or completing a WOD, Patel is an inspirational figure in the San Antonio community. She’s the founder of the San Antionio Amputee Support Group, has conducted hundreds of peer-to-peer meetings to instill hope in new amputees, and has even led statewide legislative efforts to pass a bill for better insurance coverage for prosthetics. This year, she started a non-profit which raises money to provide indigent amputees without insurance with prosthetic limbs, basic home modifications (like wheelchair ramps or wider doorways), car mods (like hand controls for a bilateral amputee or wheelchair lifts), and trips to educational conferences.
Giving back has helped her too. “As I got deeper into philanthropic work, I focused even more on letting go of my insecurities so I could continue to be a role model,” Patel says.
In April 2013 Patel traveled to Boston to visit victims of the marathon bombing. “I knew I would be working with females, so I picked out my clothes and shoes carefully,” she says. “It was so important for me to show that losing a limb does not mean you have to dress frumpy and wear tennis shoes the rest of your life.” After seeing her walk into their hospital rooms full of confidence, many patients told her it was exactly what they needed to see to know they’ll be okay.
For anyone struggling with a disability, Patel says to focus on rebuilding yourself, physically and emotionally. “Weed out the negative people in your life, and surround yourself with positive, supporting people,” she says.
And while it has been a work in progress, Patel says she no longer struggles with self-image issues, and she now celebrates her achievements, despite of (or rather because of) her disability. “I used to wear a cosmetic cover over the prosthesis, but I don’t anymore,” she says. “I wear shorts and knee lengths skirts now. I want to show that I’m so proud of who I am, disability and all.”
For more information about Patel's nonprofit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org