Bouncing Back: Returning to School After Limb Loss

Courtesy Gioanna Romano.

At age 15, Gioanna Romano was walking into a store when a car jumped the curb and crushed her against the building. “I broke everything from the waist down,” says Romano, now 29. “I became a left leg above-knee amputee, but they were able to save my right leg by doing skin grafts.”

After many surgeries and months in the hospital, Romano started high school with two years of homebound instruction, finally returning in person as a junior. “I wasn’t used to walking in crowded spaces,” she says. “It was nerve-wracking. I was the only disabled person in my class, and I was very self-conscious. It didn’t help that we had a uniform, and the girls had to wear skirts.”

Gioanna looked to college as a new beginning. “My parents encouraged me to live on campus, get that experience, and learn some independence,” she says. “I wanted that, too. My goal was to go to college and get the full experience.”

In Romano’s own words, here’s how she did it. 

FIRST STEPS: I contacted the housing manager about my disability to find out what accommodations I could get. Technically, the freshman dorm wasn’t wheelchair accessible. There were five or six steps to get to my wing. They offered me a room in the sophomore suites, which were accessible, but I wanted to live with my freshman class. [We decided] I would share a bathroom with the RA, and I contacted her ahead of time to let her know I was bringing a shower chair. 

WHAT I DID RIGHT: I chose Bryn Athyn College because it was a small campus and close to home. I could come home if my leg was hurting or if I needed prosthetic changes. But I didn’t shy away from everyone. I participated in campus activities like dances, sports games, and other events, and I shared responsibilities, like cleaning duties in my dorm.

A BUMP IN THE ROAD: It was a small campus, but it was still big for me. When I started, I had a prosthesis on my left leg, a brace on my right leg, and a cane. The distance I had to walk was more than I’d ever done before. And the terrain was different: concrete, carpet, hardwood floor, and steps of different sizes. Timing was one thing, but I’d also be out of breath. The dining hall was like a central hub on campus, so I parked my car there each morning. From there, all the academic buildings were much easier to get to.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Take a tour ahead of time. On the tour, you can ask to see the handicap-accessible dorm rooms. I asked if I could take pictures of the room and bathroom since I was planning on bringing my wheelchair.  All the dorm rooms were spacious enough to store a wheelchair.

Communicate clearly. I told my dormmates, “I take my leg off at night, so if you knock, I might not have it on.” I also talked to my professors when I had to miss class for prosthetic appointments. We agreed I’d get an excuse note and meet with them separately to get caught up. I was comfortable talking about my disability. Everyone was really accepting. 

Be realistic about your needs. When my friends lived on the second or third floor, I could go up there, but not all the time. They were understanding, and we hung out in the common room when I couldn’t go up all the stairs.

Take on challenges. My RA pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and become an RA myself in my junior year. At first, I didn’t think it would be a good fit because of my disability, but I decided to take the leap. It was one of the best decisions I made! 

FINDING A NEW NORMAL: The Office of Disability Resources is fantastic. When a handicap door button in the dining hall didn’t work or when a hill was too steep for my wheelchair, I pointed out these [barriers] to the dean, and she said it really opened her eyes. People think in college you’re on your own, but it’s not true. You have resources available. Be sure to take advantage of them, and remember to advocate for yourself.

THE TAKEAWAY: Be receptive to new opportunities and open to talking about your disability. The only person holding you back is you. Don’t limit yourself!

—Interviewed by Rebecca Levenberg

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