Maja Kazazic and Rosie: Inspiring Others With Story of Hope, Perseverance
June 2017 Issue
In 1993, when Maja Kazazic turned 16, she had no idea she'd be leaving her family and her war-torn home during the height of the Bosnian genocide. That year, however, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in a courtyard where she and five friends were sitting, the course of her life was forever changed. Her friends were killed instantly, and she was severely injured. Her legs were shattered, and her face and arm were peppered with shrapnel.
Kazazic was cared for in a makeshift basement hospital that lacked medical supplies and antibiotics. Her left leg became infected, and little by little, without the benefit of anesthesia, infected flesh was cut from her leg until she eventually underwent a transtibial amputation.
"This went on for two or three months and I was on the brink of death," Kazazic says. "I wasn't eating, and I felt the end was near for me."
From that makeshift hospital, she made the decision to leave her father, who was also injured, and her mother and brother for an opportunity to go to the United States to get the medical care she desperately needed.
"It was very difficult, and I knew there would be no way of communicating with them when I got there— but I knew I had to go to survive," she says.
From Bosnia, Kazazic traveled via Croatia and Germany to reach the United States, and underwent countless surgeries on her road to recovery.
"At some point, I stopped counting surgeries in the hundreds," she says.
She eventually moved to Maryland where she met the first of many prosthetists. The first appointment was disappointing as she learned that months of inactivity had left her knee immobile, which made fitting her for a prosthesis nearly impossible.
"I was devastated, but I told him to come back the next day and I would be able to move my knee," she says. "Literally all I did for hours was move my knee and push past the pain.
" When the prosthetist returned two days later, he was surprised to find that Kazazic could move her knee. It was one of many events that would show her will and determination.
"From the time I lost my leg, I'd think about a conversation I had with my dad in that hospital in Bosnia right after the injury," Kazazic says. "I asked him if I would ever be able to run again, and he said, ‘You are going to come back here, you are going to be walking down a street in the neighborhood and amaze everyone—and imagine when they are all looking at you, and you just start running.' That was the driving vision I kept in my mind. I wanted to come back to Bosnia, and I wanted to run."
Learning to Walk Again
Kazazic was soon fitted with her first prosthetic leg, but walking did not come easily.
"I had totally forgotten how to do it. Walking is something we take for granted," she says.
Kazazic, who now also wears an orthosis on her right leg, walked with a limp on her prosthetic side until she started high school and joined the marching band playing drums. She says the rhythm helped her learn to walk again.
"It was the same steps, guided by a drum beat, and the uniform helped me to see that my legs were moving and where my arms should be," Kazazic says. "Going back to that cadence helps me even now when I lose my balance."
She soon began playing tennis and other sports, but her prosthesis caused her significant pain. "That was living for me. I was doing everything, but doing everything with pain."
As people in Kazazic's town of Cumberland, Maryland, learned of her story, a group called Veterans for Peace launched a campaign to help her.
"The whole town got together and volunteered time, money, and effort to make me whole again," Kazazic says. "I stayed at the hospital for free, a surgeon agreed to do surgeries for free, and all of my food and meals were donated. And an accountant in the town allowed me to stay at his office, which he wasn't using at the time."
In 1995, Kazazic was able to bring her parents to the United States, and they moved into a home of their own. During that time, she took a job at McDonald's and walked to and from work each day and spent full shifts standing. Although improvements had been made, her prosthesis still caused a great deal of pain.
Kazazic says every prosthetist she visited told her that her injury was too difficult or that her residual limb was too short to secure a better fit than what she had.
"I refused to settle for that.... I still wanted to run," she says. "I kept looking and changing prosthetic companies because I wasn't going to live with pain."
Inspired by Winter
After finishing college in Pennsylvania, where she earned a degree that eventually helped her launch a career in web development and e-commerce, Kazazic moved to Florida. When she was feeling particularly down about her circumstances, she would visit the aquarium where the now-famous Winter the bottlenose dolphin lives.
"One day I was sitting there and I watched Winter's trainer, Abby, put on her prosthetic tail and Winter started swimming," Kazazic recalls. "I was like, ‘Wait, who makes Winter's tail? I want to talk to those people.'"
The answer to that question was Hanger, Austin, Texas, and it was at a Hanger Clinic that Kazazic would get a WintersGel™ liner and a new prosthetic socket that were game changers for her.
"A week later I was in a new socket, and ten days later I was running," she says.
The skin saver and liner combine to work as a custom liner, expanding and contracting as necessary to allow her leg to breathe. "For me that is what made a huge difference," she says. "If you have a good socket and good liner, you can put a piece of wood at the bottom— that's really what it comes down to. If your socket and liner are bad, it doesn't matter what prosthesis you have."
With a comfortable prosthetic solution in place, Kazazic returned her focus to running. She learned of a Hanger running clinic and attended. There, she met Paralympic gold medalist Brian Frasure, CP, who has a left transtibial amputation, and began learning to run again.
"I was able to run my first 5K in 2009, and once I had done that, I felt like I was complete," Kazazic says.
Psychological Impact of Trauma
While things seemed to be as good for Kazazic as they'd been since that terrible day in Bosnia, she began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "I was afraid of wind. I was claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time," she says. "I was afraid to fall asleep. I was afraid to eat—it was really extreme."
Kazazic did not understand why she was having this setback now that everything was going well in her life. It wasn't until a physician explained PTSD to her that she understood that it's when things calm down and a person feels safe that PTSD can strike.
"That made sense to me because I had just had one of my last surgeries; I was running; I had my own house; I had started my own company—I could relax. And then all of the [past] 15 years flooded over me," she says.
Last year, while at an appointment with Christopher Toelle, CO, at Hanger Clinic"s Sarasota, Florida, patient care facility, she discussed getting a dog to help with her PTSD.
"As I was talking to Chris, he said, ‘There is this dog I want you to check out that I think would be great for you,' and he gave me a link to check her out."
Kazazic says she knew that the dog, Rosie, was as perfect for her as Toelle thought she would be. "She's a Great Dane, which I had always wanted, and then when I went to the link to check her out, I realized that she was missing a leg, and I said to myself, ‘This is my dog!'" A week later, Rosie was hers.
Toelle had learned about Rosie through the Big Heart for Big Dogs Rescue. Rosie had to have her rear right leg amputated as the result of an injury sustained when she was three-and-a-half months old when her mother accidentally stepped on her.
"Their foundation reached out to Pete DiPaolo, one of our CPOs in Fort Myers, Florida, for a solution that would allow them to avoid putting Rosie down," Toelle says. "Because she is such a big dog, losing a limb can be unrecoverable."
"We both see Chris so we go together, and whenever we go, there are children there with amputations, and they love Rosie. Seeing her makes them feel good," Kazazic says.
Kazazic's PTSD symptoms have abated as well. "Rosie has made an unbelievable impact in my daily living," she says.
Like Kazazic, two-year-old Rosie doesn't let her amputation slow her down. Rosie is now on her 13th prosthesis, and the next step for her is a custom silicone liner that will better protect her skin so she can wear her prosthesis for longer periods.
As for Kazazic, she is currently using a transtibial prosthesis with a shock-absorbing foot. On her right leg, she wears a silicone ankle-foot orthosis.
"This has been her best solution yet," Toelle says. "Maja doesn't let much slow her down and she never complains, so we're always just looking at the ever-developing technology and anything that can help her stay active and protect her skin."
Kazazic and Rosie have given hope and inspiration to countless people with limb loss, and visit with those struggling with the adjustment and with depression.
"I am a certified peer counselor, but I don't think I can help as much as Rosie can," Kazazic says. "She is so comfortable on her prosthetic and it doesn't stop her at all. I especially love it when we meet other disabled or amputee children that get to see Rosie as an inspiration."
Kazazic says she and Rosie aim to prove to people that limitations only exist in their minds, but she also understands that a proper prosthetic solution is crucial.
"Not having a limb shouldn't stop you from doing what you want to do, but the first thing is comfort," she says. "Before you start climbing mountains or running marathons, you have to have the right solution that allows you to wake up and then forget your leg until it's time to take it off at the end of the day."
Tara McMeekin is a writer and editor based in Parker, Colorado.