LIFE WITHOUT MY ARM

Ashley Jones has been through more in her young life than the average 16-year-old. Two years ago, she lost her father suddenly when he died from a heart attack.  Then, just three months later, Ashley was involved in a serious ATV accident that left her without her right arm.

It was June 2016. The family was in Steamboat Springs, a ski resort in the mountains of Colorado only a short distance from their home.  They were staying with some family friends in their cabin, enjoying a much needed getaway. The family had always enjoyed the outdoor life, camping and hiking in the mountains near their home.  

This day was like any other spent in the outdoors.  It was close to the end of the day, and they decided to take one more loop of the mountain on ATVs.  Ashley’s older brother went on a motorcycle, her twin sister was on a four wheeler, and Ashley and her six year-old brother were in a four wheel Polaris, an ATV with a roll cage, with a family friend at the wheel.  “We looped up to the highest point on the mountain” says Ashley, “We were the last vehicle to take the loop.  My driver hit the gas a bit too hard and the gravel was muddy so the ATV flipped.”

“He was strong enough to lift

the ATV off the ground so I

could pull my arm free.”

Ashley’s younger brother was sitting behind the driver and escaped unharmed, but Ashley had reached her right arm out in an attempt to catch herself as the ATV flipped over, and her arm had dragged along the gravel and was now caught between the roll cage and the ground, with the full weight of the vehicle on top of it. “I was so lucky my older brother was there.” Ashley recalls. “He was strong enough to lift the ATV off the ground so I could pull my arm free.”

Ashley’s arm was badly damaged and she was losing a lot of blood. She didn’t know it at the time, but her main artery was one of the only things still intact. Had it severed she would have very likely died. She had to walk half a mile down the mountain, holding her arm, until someone could reach her. An ambulance came and then Ashley had to wait another three hours for a helicopter to be able to get to her and take her to Denver Children’s Hospital. “It was a miracle how the helicopter came in, because where we were it had to come straight down and straight back up, and there was absolutely no wiggle room. I was very lucky.” Ashley explains.

Ashley’s memory of the hours and days after the accident is a little hazy, but she recalls being in the hospital and being asked to move her fingers and being unable to do so.  “That’s when I knew that something was going to happen.” 

Amazingly, given the force of the accident, Ashley had no head trauma or internal injuries, but doctors told her family that even if they could stitch her arm back together, she wouldn’t be able to use it, and that an infection may set in that would kill her.  So the decision was taken to amputate Ashley’s right arm.

“Ashley, we’re going to get through this. It’s going to be OK.”

Ashley woke up in her hospital bed at 2am and saw for the first time that her arm was gone. “When I woke up I remember it feeling like a dream.” Ashley recalls. “I looked at my mom and said ‘Mom, what do I do? Where do I go from here?’ and my mom just looked at me and said ‘Ashley, we’re going to get through this. It’s going to be OK.’”

In the year and a half that has passed since her accident, Ashley and her family have focused on doing just that.  Getting through, day by day. “It’s been a journey for my whole family. My twin sister has been an amazing help for me and so have my mom and my two brothers. They’ve just surrounded me with such love and so has my community here in Denver and my school.”

In the early days, Ashley was mainly focused on just dealing with the pain from the amputation.  After that, she was given physical therapy and occupational therapy.  The physical therapy was to help her with her back and her shoulder which were painful after the surgery, and the occupational therapy was to help her to relearn everyday tasks.

One of the biggest hurdles she

had to overcome was learning

how to write again.

Ashley was right-handed before her accident, so she has had to learn to do everything in a new way.  From doing her hair, to tying her shoes, and cutting her steak. One of the biggest hurdles she had to overcome was learning how to write again. “I started on a whiteboard and I wrote and wrote and wrote.” Ashley explains.  “I also did a lot of coloring to just learn the motion of my left hand.” 

A lot of writing is pure muscle memory so as she was relearning, Ashley found herself making spelling errors in simple words.  It was deeply frustrating.  Initially it looked as though a kindergartner was writing.  But Ashley persisted.  She worked hard each day, and after eight long months of hard work training her left hand, she was finally able to write with that hand as legibly as she had with her right one.

You just have to stay calm

and not give up.

But it wasn’t just in learning to write that Ashley had to be tenacious. Everything she had previous done with her right hand now had to be relearned using her left.  “It’s a learning curve and you just have to stay calm and not give up.  It can be really frustrating but you have to just keep trying and trying until you get it, and that’s just how this whole process has been.” 

Ashley is determined that the accident won’t stop her from achieving any of her dreams. “The accident happened to me and yes, I’m a different person because of it, but it hasn’t stopped any of my goals or aspirations for my future.  One of my main goals is just to keep doing what I love and not to let it stop me from doing anything I might have done with two arms.”

One of those things Ashley loves to do is to play soccer.  Her team this year was the first undefeated team in her high school’s history. Having one arm really affects your balance so Ashley had to work hard to be able to play again.  “Just striking a ball I would fall over because of the momentum.” she explains. She worked hard with her physical therapist to relearn how to balance with her arm missing.  The work involved using weights on the right side of her body and gradually reducing them, and also standing on a mat on one leg with her eyes closed and trying to stay straight. “You just have to do it again and again until it becomes muscle memory.” Ashley says.  She has also had to work on her core, and on whole body strengthening, as that’s where your ability to balance comes from. 

Ashley is incredibly grateful for all the support she has received since the accident. She describes her mom as her rock, and talks about how her twin sister and her brothers have continually been there for her.  “My friends didn’t know what to say or how to act, but they just loved on me and that was the best thing I could ask for.” Ashley says. 

While still in hospital, Ashley got a text from Bethany Hamilton’s manager.  Bethany is a professional surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack in 2003.  She wrote an autobiography, Soul Surfer, which was subsequently made into a movie. “Her manager said that she would like to Skype with me,” Ashley remembers “and we had this great chat.  She told me all about a summer camp she runs called Beautifully Flawed.”  

Beautifully Flawed is a camp for girls who have lost a limb or who were born with congenital issues.  It’s to empower girls and to create a community of people who are living through the same experience. “We go surfing and do art and workouts together,” Ashley explains. “I’ve been going for two summers now, and along with my friends and family who have given me all this love, I also have this great community of amputees who have really become like a second family to me because we’ve all been through a shared experience.”

Ashley describes the accident as having steered her life down a different path to one she ever thought she’d be on.  But even now, less than two years later, she can appreciate all the positive things that have come out of it. “It was hard the first couple of months looking back at the accident, but now I look at the accident as an amazing opportunity to bless other people.” Ashley, a Christian, says.  

“The accident has lead me to a

place where I’m living day by day, 

hour by hour.  Sometimes I stumble and fall, and there are always going

to be some bad days, but overall

I try to stay positive.” 

Ashley has started working with an organization called Project Strong Girl, based in Colorado, that aims to empower young girls.  “I’ve been going into schools and speaking about what I’ve gone through, and everything I’ve had to overcome.  My message is that even though you might look different, it’s not what defines you and it’s not what makes you who you are.  Your inner beauty makes you who you are and that can shine brighter than anything else.”

Ashley lives what she teaches.  “I wear short sleeves and tank tops in public. I’m not ashamed of who I am.” she tells me when I ask her what some of the things are she’s most proud of. Being confident to be herself is something that can give strength to others too.  “People do stare,” she tells me, “but that’s part of my life now. At first I found it really hard because I wasn’t used to being noticed right off the bat. Before, I just looked like a normal person and now I’m someone with limb loss.” 

Sometimes people ask her questions about her arm—particularly small children—but adults find it harder to put into words what they want to say, and Ashley says there are often awkward moments with them. “People do give me a lot of smiles though, which I appreciate!”

“I haven’t given up and I haven’t let this situation overtake my life. Even though I have hard days, I don’t quit.  I keep on, maybe with even more passion than I had before, because I’ve seen how suddenly life can change.”  

Ashley still faces daily challenges.  “I have long, thick hair, and I struggle to do it.” she says. “I figured out how to do a bun and straighten and curl it but I really rely on my sister to put my hair in a ponytail and braid it.” 

Ashley also still regularly comes across new situations that she hasn’t been in since the accident. “When that happens I just have to pause and learn how to do things...differently.” she says. “I’m getting stronger every day and healing well and just trying to overcome the circumstances that come before me.”

Right now Ashley is recovering from a soccer injury, but she can’t wait to get back out there and start playing with her team again. She dreams of being a physical therapist or a trainer for young athletes like herself, but she can also see herself as a motivational speaker. “I personally believe that God gives you circumstances in your life and you should use them as a chance to help others.” she says, before adding that she just needs to wait and see where life takes her.  But one thing’s for sure, whatever life now has in store for Ashley Jones, you can be sure she will meet it with courage, grit, and determination. 

Ashley has a message for other girls who are going through tough times.  “I say that if you can find hope in your circumstances, then that’s when the healing begins, and that’s when you can change what happened to you.”

Ashley has done just that. She has faced adversity, and with the support of her family and community, has found hope. 

She is determined that what she has been through won’t break her. It will only make her stronger.

ABOUT STRONG MAGAZINE

This piece was originally published in STRONG, a new magazine aimed at tween and teenaged girls that seeks to break the mold. While many other publications for this age group focus on celebrities, STRONG focuses on real girls with diverse interests. While other publications focus on body image and fashion, STRONG focuses on keeping a healthy body and mind. STRONG also presents great role models - girls who have overcome adversity and thrived, and women who are breaking glass ceilings in areas previously dominated by men. Visit www.strongmagazineforgirls.com to learn more.