Thursday, August 18, 2016

'Without disability I don't know if I'd have discovered my sport'

By Louise Kinross

Erica Scarff, 20, is on her way to Rio next month to race a kayak in the paracanoe event as it makes its debut at the Paralympics. BLOOM talked with Erica about how she found her passion on the water after she had an amputation at age 12 to treat cancer.

BLOOM: What led up to your amputation?

Erica Scarff: I was running at gymnastics and my leg broke. I found out I had cancer and the only way to get rid of the tumour was to remove it. My whole thigh on my right leg was removed. Then my calf was attached backwards, so I had to train my brain to make my ankle function as a knee. At the time I was very involved in gymnastics. I was about to move to competing at the provincial level.

BLOOM: What was the hardest part of adapting to your new body?

Erica Scarff: For me, I was still really sick when I lost my leg so I didn’t have the energy or feel motivated to learn how to walk. Being really sick was the hardest part for me. I had the amputation in September and nine months later I finished chemo and it wasn’t until then I started to feel better. It took a long time for my scar to heal, which meant I couldn’t be fitted for a leg until about April. Also, before I even started walking, I had to train my brain to know my ankle as my knee. At first I couldn’t even move my ankle. My ankle is now functioning where my knee did.

BLOOM: What helped you keep going during this process?

Erica Scarff: I was always looking forward and thinking about what was next for me. I never really thought about the possibility of things going wrong. What helped me was I’m really into science. I wanted to be involved in understanding not just what they were doing, but why they were doing it. So I asked the doctors lots of questions and understood everything and that helped. Of course having my family around was important and my mom was always with me in the hospital.

BLOOM: What was it like when you returned to school with your prosthesis?

Erica Scarff: When I got back to school I noticed a lot of the kids were standoffish and a bit apprehensive. Maybe they just didn’t know what to say to me, so they didn’t say anything. But I still had my good friends. I knew this was something I had to do to save my life, so it didn’t bother me too much.

BLOOM: Is there anything you do that helps people feel more comfortable with your prosthesis?

Erica Scarff: I’m very open with it. If someone asks me a question I can explain it to them. That’s not necessarily something I have to address right away, or that I have to explain, unless someone asks me. I’m pretty comfortable with myself. If I make a joke about it, it helps people see ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.’ Because I can feel comfortable with it, others can feel comfortable with it.

BLOOM: How hard was it to learn how to walk with your prosthesis? I’ve spoken to other people who found it incredibly difficult.

Erica Scarff: It was pretty hard. When I first started walking I couldn’t imagine every being able to walk without holding on to something. It was quite painful and I was still quite swollen from the surgery. Because walking is something that comes so naturally to most people, not having it come easily was hard. Not only was I working with a prosthetic and trying to control it as if it’s my own, but I was dealing with the fact that I’m using my own body in a way that it’s not made to be used – I was using my ankle as my knee. In my brain I had to adapt. Now I don’t even remember what it’s like to walk with two legs. For me, it’s normal.

BLOOM: How did you learn about kayaking?

Erica Scarff: I was at the prosthetics clinic at Bloorview and there was a coach there helping another patient design a leg for paddling. The other patient was a friend I knew from Bloorview. The coach asked me if I wanted to come out and try the sport. I’ve always been an athlete and I wanted to go back into sports after my leg amputation.

BLOOM: What do you love about kayaking?

Erica Scarff:
I love the outdoors, so it’s nice to enjoy the summer on the water. I really like training and the feeling of pushing your body and seeing your improvement. With paddling, it’s a very technical sport. You’re not only pushing yourself physically but it’s a mental thing too, to improve your technique. That technical side of it was really cool, because it was like gymnastics: it was about body awareness and knowing where your body is in space. So even though paddling is quite different for me, in some ways it was similar to gymnastics.

BLOOM: What was it like to become part of the Paralympian community?

Erica Scarff:
At my club there were other para athletes, but it was so cool in 2015 to go to the world championships and see these world-class para athletes and how hard they train. Some people don’t realize that we’re real athletes and really competitive. It’s real sport and a real competition. To see how seriously the other athletes took it – yet we’re still really friendly to each other – was really great.

BLOOM: Have your thoughts about disability changed as a result of having your amputation?

Erica Scarff: Having a disability, I can understand and relate to other people with disabilities more and, even though I would say my disability is considered less severe, I understand what it’s like to struggle with differences within your body.

BLOOM: What are your hopes for the future?

Erica Scarff: I’m in school studying kinesiology and I’d like to be a physiotherapist. Being in sports I have a good understanding of the body and how it moves. But also, being in the hospital and going through a lot of physio myself, it was something I watched. I thought their job looked fun, to be able to help people in that way, and something that I could be good at.

BLOOM: What advice would you give other kids with disabilities?

Erica Scarff: Sometimes I visit kids in the hospital who are going through the same thing I did. I tell them it’s going to be okay, even though when you’re going through it, in the moment, it feels really tough. 

I tell them it’s okay to have a hard time with it and struggle with it and to go through all of your emotions. In the end it’s something new: you’ll be living with your disability and it’s not the end of the world and you’ll adapt. There will be a lot of the same things in your life and then maybe you’ll find some new things. Maybe your disability could even bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Without disability I don’t know if I'd have discovered my sport. So you don’t always have to look at it as a disadvantage.