In March 2013, Taushima “Shima” Nixon’s car died at an intersection in Greenville, North Carolina, where she was an undergraduate student studying to become a nurse.
“I knew it was the battery,” says Nixon, who was 21 years old. “The lights, the radio, everything, just cut off.”
When she got out of the car to check the BMW’s battery, which was located in the trunk, she was struck from behind by another car and pinned between the vehicles.
That’s the last thing Nixon remembers until she woke up in the hospital three days later, unable to move or talk. “I had tubes in my mouth,” she remembers.
She says she started to touch parts of her body, and when she got to her left leg, it was gone. Her right leg felt so heavy it was impossible to lift it off the bed. That’s when she says she knew she had an external fixator attached to her lower right leg, where she had a compound, open fracture of her tibia and fibula.
“I also had a sacrum fracture and lots of scarring on my face and arms, but I was alive, so I was really grateful for that,” she says.
Nixon had already had a transfemoral amputation of her left leg, but physicians were trying to save her badly damaged right leg. She went home that May using a wheelchair and continued to have out-patient therapy, relearning to do almost everything while navigating her wheelchair.
Nixon’s other injuries healed over time, but she was still unable to put pressure on her right leg to walk. In addition to the broken bones, her right leg had also sustained severe nerve and artery damage, enough that blood flow to her lower leg had been compromised. The pain, she says, was all encompassing. “It was so intense I can’t even describe it,” she says.
A Difficult Decision
Physicians considered several options to save Nixon’s right leg, including bone graft surgery. When she developed a staph infection, though, she made the tough decision to have a transtibial Ertl amputation in July 2013.
Despite the dark place Nixon says she found herself in during recovery, one of the best things that happened to her was meeting Eddie Powell II, MD, an orthopedic trauma surgeon. “Dr. Powell was so impactful in my life then because he was the first Black surgeon I had ever met,” Nixon says. “He’s been really important to my journey because he allowed me to see someone of the same culture as me, so I felt like he understood me and gave me a feeling of safety and comfort.”
With unwavering faith and support from family, friends, and her team of medical professionals, Nixon eventually recovered and regained her mobility. She returned to college and finished her undergraduate degree in recreational therapy in 2019 and worked for two years at a correctional facility before she decided she had to do more—she wanted to give something back for all the help and support she had received.
“I knew I wanted to be a prosthetist. I wanted to help other people like me and people with different abilities,” she says. “Because of the amazing prosthetists that I have had as an amputee, I wanted to help others in the same way I’ve been helped. But I’ve never had a prosthetist who was a female, and I’ve never had a prosthetist who is African American.”
In 2021, she received an inaugural Hanger Foundation Diversity scholarship to support her studies at Alabama State University (ASU). Nixon says she loved attending ASU because of the support she received from her classmates and instructors, particularly Scott Bretl, CPO, who has been the director of the Master of Science in Prosthetics & Orthotics (MSPO) program for six years. “He’s like the busiest man in the world, but whenever his door was open, I felt like I could go in, sit down, and talk. He’s always been so supportive and welcoming of me,” she says.
Yes She Can
Nixon’s prosthetist is Todd Clay, CPO, area clinic manager for Hanger Clinic, Alabama. The two met in September 2022 while Nixon was enrolled in the MSPO program. She was completing her rotation hours through Clay’s office. “She reached out to me shortly after and asked me if I would be willing to work with her on her next transfemoral socket,” he says.
Nixon has tried several types of transtibial and transfemoral systems, Clay says, but has had the same setup now for about a year. Her transtibial prosthesis uses vacuum technology with a custom silicone liner and a WillowWood vacuum pump. For her transfemoral side, she uses a suction socket with a custom silicone liner and a BOA closure system. She uses an Ottobock C-Leg 4 microprocessor knee and Ottobock Taleo carbon feet for both prostheses. Due to volume fluctuation and an increased activity level (Nixon recently started running), vacuum and suction with the BOA closure allow for the most adjustability, Clay says.
Since sleeves for her sockets can be drab, Nixon creates her own, often using old pairs of leggings. “I just want something nice and fancy,” she says.
Nixon’s winning, indomitable attitude, and a wide, inviting smile seem to say yes to everything she wants to do.
Yes, she could recover from her injuries. Yes, she could graduate from college and graduate school. Yes, she could start an orthotics residency at Ortho Pro Associates, Miami, now a Hanger clinic, which she did in June.
The Hanger diversity scholarship also offers recipients mentorship.
“Of course, I wanted a female and someone who was African American, and of course I wanted someone who was an amputee,” Nixon says. “However, I didn’t realize at the time there weren’t any in the field who were all three.”
Nixon did find a mentor in Adrienne Hill, CPO, one of the few women of color in O&P.
“She has been the biggest supporter of me because she understands,” Nixon says. “She’s been through school; she’s practiced in the field for over 15 years. She knows a lot of people, and has put me in rooms I never thought or imagined I’d go in. This is who I am looking at that I want to be like.”
Nixon took another step closer when she graduated from ASU in May, making history as the first Black woman with bilateral limb loss to become an O&P clinician.
A Model for Future Clinicians
Nixon offers a unique profile to the field, Bretl says. “I have been constantly impressed at her willingness to shoulder and embrace that responsibility,” he says. “She is always filled with gratitude for the opportunities she has been given, and fully takes advantage of them, and she is very passionate about making things better for those that come after her. She has always been ready to contribute to our program in its strengths as well as its areas for growth.”
Nixon, who as the only student in her class with amputations, also never minded being the patient model.
Happily being a torchbearer, and knowing that it is a fatiguing role to play, is one thing that makes her unique, Bretl says. “She offers such an inviting and genuine personality that undoubtably makes young people of color look up to her and regard her personal and professional journey with awe.”
Clay says that while it may seem obvious that Nixon will be a successful clinician because her understanding of personal trauma, the water runs deeper. “While this certainly will help with many of her future patients, her compassion and willingness to listen will play a much more important role,” he says. “As prosthetists and orthotists, we have a skill that can be taught—what can’t be taught is how to apply this skill to each individual’s needs and goals. Shima has that quality.”
A Model for Patients With Limb Loss
Nixon says one of the best things about attending ASU and what helped make her educational experience more rewarding was the open-door policy that Bretl maintains.
“The-door-is-always-open culture is a nutshell version of what we aim to provide at ASU,” Bretl says about the rigorous learning experience of its MSPO program. “There is a core focus on knowledge and hard skills, but our curriculum and program pushes students in the development of soft skills as well.”
Everyone enters graduate school with unique needs, including social and emotional ones, so Bretl says it is important that students know that their advisors and instructors are on their team. “I can’t speak for Shima, but entering graduate school as a bilateral amputee can be daunting, and the last thing a student like her needs is to be distracted from her studies due to real or perceived barriers in the development of personal and professional confidence,” he says. “The importance of offering support to a student like Shima, in particular, is especially seen in her ability and commitment to turn and support others.”
Clay repeats one word when describing Nixon, who he rarely sees without her beaming smile. “Shima is a delightful person and a determined patient,” he says. “She has a delightful spirit that shines through the minute you meet her.”
But there’s more to Nixon’s pleasing disposition, Clay says. “Underneath that smile and positive spirit is a determined attitude,” he says. “As a prosthetist, it is helpful to have someone willing to try various socket designs knowing that the end goal is function and comfort; and in Shima’s case, you know she is going to try her best to make something work.”