Unlimited: Nikki Ellerbe insists amputation won’t slow her down

Osteosarcoma took her right leg, not her spirit
New amputee support group meets Sunday at 3 p.m. in East Rockingham

By Kevin Spradlin

* Video – Nikki explains her prosthesis

Nikki Ellerbe does not, in fact, always have a smile on her face.

She does smile about 99 percent of the time, as visitors to Rocking Trends Consignment Boutique in downtown Rockingham would attest. But once each day, normally, in the mornings. the 43-year-old Rockingham woman permits herself a moment of self-pitiful reflection.

Nikki Ellerbe

Nikki Ellerbe

“I allow myself 15 minutes to scream, yell and cry,” Ellerbe said. “Then I get up.”

Ellerbe is a diabetic. She’s prone to blood clots. And after years of chemotherapy, her heart valves have been damaged.

“Even saying all that, I still don’t let it bother me. Just because a person, or a doctor says something, doesn’t mean you have to take that answer. Because I didn’t. They said I wasn’t going to be able to do this, to do that. I proved them wrong.”

The Marlboro County (S.C.) native grew up an athlete, but she was often injured, on crutches and undergoing knee surgeries. At age 20, she prepared for a total knee replacement.

She woke up from the operation.

“I said, ‘is it done’? He said, ‘I didn’t do it.’ I knew then,” Ellerbe said, “there was something wrong.”

‘Young people die’

That was 1993. She had returned home from the hospital. Her doctor called and said to come back. Immediately. The diagnosis: osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma is a childhood cancer — Ellerbe said the doctor told her she’d probably had it for years.

“They explained everything,” she said. “How the chemo process works …”

At this point, Ellerbe said, “it still hasn’t sunk in yet. They went ahead and admitted me (to the hospital).”

Ellerbe endured four months of chemotherapy. It was, she said, killer her.

“How long do I have to live,” Ellerbe said she asked at the time. “Young people die. When you hear the c-word, what do you think? That’s a death sentence, especially in the first part of the ’90s.”

In 1996, doctors found the cancer had spread to her lungs. An operation removed the bottom portions of both lungs.

“I had a full week of rest from that,” she said, “until I started back chemo.”

A year later, Ellerbe said she made a decision.

“I can’t do chemo anymore,” she said, “so I pretty much made the decision upon myself to stop it. All the cancer was gone. It was just time to stop. I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like it was killing me. My skin was turning yellow.”

In 2006, Ellerbe realized something wasn’t right. She underwent a major operation to help save her leg. It put a lot of metal in her.

“I was able to turn my ankle the whole way around,” Ellerbe said. “I thought it was cool.”

In March 2008, her doctor told her that wasn’t a good sign.

The doctor said she had two options: “I could put a metal rod in your leg. Or amputate.”

Ellerbe didn’t flinch. She was all for amputation. She feared a metal rod would limit her physical movement.

Ellerbe underwent a knee disarticulation on Oct. 16, 2008. Unlike above-knee or below-knee amputations, the operation left her patella and femur untouched.

“Three days later, I was ready to get out of the hospital,” Ellerbe said.

She left, leaving Dr. Jeffrey Kneisl and the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte in her rearview mirror. “I didn’t know I was supposed to go to rehab for six months.”

Instead, Ellerbe returned home and resumed, as much as possible, her normal routine. Standing, cooking, cleaning. She was in pain, but it was tolerable. After six weeks, she returned to Kneisl’s office for a check-up.

“How was rehab,” Kneisl asked.

It was the day before Thanksgiving. The doctor said Ellerbe should use a walker, then crutches and for a long period of time, a cane.

“I took off running,” Ellerbe said, having the video to prove it. “I didn’t know any better.”

Strength of a family

Ellerbe grew up the youngest in a large, extended family. She had 13 uncles and two aunts, and her mother had adopted her brothers and sisters.

“I’m the baby,” “she said. “Mom raised 17 of us. I always got pushed around a lot by boys. I had to fight a lot.”

Post-surgery, though, Ellerbe was depressed.

“I felt like I couldn’t go any further down,” she said. “I just wanted to be pampered and babied. They wouldn’t let me do that. They wouldn’t let me get sad or depressed.”

Instead, Ellerbe focused on maintaining her thletic pedigree. She wants to play softball again. She also wants to train for a triathlon. Did you know, she asked, there are facilities in Atlanta, ga., that offer a variety of competitions for amputees? Cycling. Running. Swimming. Basketball. And oh yes, softball.

There’s support for that

Starting Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Hive Recreation Center, 107 Mill Road in East Rockingham, Ellerbe is starting a LOVE — Living Onward Voicing Encouragement — amputee support group. It’s for people who are going through life missing parts of one or more limbs. Those interested in attending should call Ellerbe at 910-719-2069. The plan is for the group to meet on the third Sunday of each month at the same location.

“We all do have different stories,” Ellerbe said. “At the end of the day, we do have to take our prostheses off. I think saying that is … when you have your bad moments, there’s … we all have that phantom pain.”

Her husband, Ray, insists that through Nikki struggles on certain occasions, she is not at a disadvantage. They can laugh about it now. The hard part is, mostly, history. The message was simple, Ray said. Nikki, you’re not handicapped.

“You not handicapped ’cause you still got your lip,” he joked. “That handicapped thing, to me, is out the door.”

The support group is for family members, too. Ray said it’s important for family members to recognize there’s a special challenge for them, too.

“You have to learn ‘no.’ If you don’t … and you get up and do everything (for the amputee), that’s where the handicap comes in,” Ray said.

Ellerbe is getting to be an old hat at speaking in front of a group. Doctors at the Hanger Clinic in Charlotte asked her to begin participating, then leading, group discussions with other amputees, including those who lost their limbs in an instant, such as in vehicle accidents.

“I had time to prepare myself,” she said. “I don’t’ feel like I should just stop. Depression … it will get you to the point where you don’t want to live anymore. To me, I don’t feel like that. I have strong family support. I don’t let anybody tell me any different. I don’t have time to wallow in my pity.”

Ellerbe has a relatively new reason to stay upbeat. Her 4-year-old granddaughter, Kenya. She keeps her grandmother going. She helps with insulin shots. She’s completely comfortable with her Mimi having only one real full leg. In fact, Kenya tries desperately to fit in with her — to the point she even has her own set of crutches.

Kenya’s mother is Tashzna Bostic, of Hamlet. Bostic’s husband, Alvin, is headed overseas. With the family. Alvin is a dental hygienist in the Army and has been ordered to serve a tour in Germany.

Nikki Ellerbe said she plans to visit Germany late in winter. Her flight takes off on Feb. 2 for a 45-day trip. And there’s a fair chance she’ll get some running in while she’s there.

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