The same day we read Dana Lawson’s day-of-amputation story at her blog, Trail Tales, we asked her if we could share it with Amplitude‘s audience. We hadn’t heard another one quite like it, and we bet you haven’t either.

A marine biologist and passionate educator, Lawson has spent the last 20+ years fighting a rare form of cancer. Her right leg became a casualty of that battle in 2008, the year after she established her first nonprofit venture, Nature’s Academy (which leads outdoor adventure trips to promote K-12 STEM education). In 2019 she established a second nonprofit, Unbounded Horizons, an outdoor healing program for survivors of domestic abuse and other forms of trauma.

Now living on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Lawson is training for a marathon in early June. She plans to run the 26.2 miles on her SideStix, with the modest goal of reaching the finish line “without a helicopter having to come out to find me.” You can follow Lawson’s exploits at her blog and on Instagram @hoppyhikerpnw.

“What happened to your leg?”

I can see the look on their faces. I know when one of my fellow humans just cannot resist asking that darn question.

To keep things entertaining for myself, I vary my responses from the truth—which is cancer—to the fantastical, like a massive tussle with a shark. But if they only knew the whole truth about what really happened to my leg. . . . .

Did you know that after they cut your body parts off, they incinerate them? I didn’t, until I asked my medical team where my leg would go after being amputated. Imagine my surprise when they told me they had a special cooker on site just for the body parts. What a totally unceremonious sendoff for this beautiful limb that had been attached to me for 35 years.

I could not accept this dark fate for my leg. I wanted it to have a proper burial, if you will. My leg was riddled with desmoid tumors; that is why we were amputating it, after all. I was diagnosed at 26 with aggressive fibromatosis, a very rare type of cancer. Only one to two people in every million worldwide receive this diagnosis. Because I am a scientist, I immediately began to wonder why we were going to waste such valuable cancer tissue that could be used for research.

And so the phone calls began.

I reached out to my cancer organization, the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation, and told them: “I have this great idea. I want to donate my leg to research!” Turns out there were three hospitals willing to take my desmoid tissues, but my leg was going to be removed in Florida and the hospitals were scattered all over the country. So how does one get amputated body parts to hospitals out of state?

Via FedEx, of course. They ship everything everywhere!

This package would require some special handling, though. Live tissue (even the newly amputated kind) needs to be kept frozen with dry ice while in transit. But since I was going to be zonked out from anesthesia and newly missing my leg after surgery, I wouldn’t be in any condition to pack up the specimens and send them on their way. So my surgeon made a deal with me: He offered to ship the leg parts to the different hospitals if I would supply the dry ice. You know, the standard stuff you are told to bring to your leg amputation day.

So, in the wee hours of the morning, I arrived at the University of Florida Hospital for my pre-op check-in, toting my sublimating cooler of dry ice. I carried this cooler full of steaming ice into the waiting room and took my seat among all the other patients waiting to go under the knife for their procedures. None of us knew what any of the others were there for, but we were all anxious . . . . until the lid fell off the cooler, and vapor poured out like a magical cloud. Everyone in the entire room forgot about their troubles. They were mystified, and they really wanted to know what the hell I was doing with that cooler on my way into surgery. So I told them.

I shared that after nine years of trying to save my leg from cancer, the time had come to liberate myself from the tumors and the deadweight of my nonfunctional limb. I told them of the marathons I planned to run and the glorious life I would lead once I was free from my cancer. And I told them that I could not permit my leg to be sacrificed to an onsite incinerator when there was so much more that could be done with this precious piece of my anatomy.

I swear you could hear a pin drop in that room—every mouth agape, jaws on the floor. My fellow patients could not believe I had the foresight to consider donating my amputated leg to research. And they sure as hell could not fathom the strength it took for me to bring my own cooler and dry ice for shipping purposes.

In that moment, all of their fears washed away, and we bonded over this strange container and its steaming contents. When my name was called and it was my turn to head in and get ready for surgery, I picked up my cooler, turned to my compatriots in the waiting room, shrugged my shoulders, and called out: “Dead Leg Walking!”

The entire room erupted in applause and cheers.

So that’s what really happened to my leg. More dramatic than a massive tussle with a shark? Maybe not. But truth is usually stranger, and more interesting, than fiction.