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Amputee taekwondo instructor teaches students to never give up
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Lydia Meek works on kicking with students Sept. 13 at Ava White Academy and Tutorials in Gainesville. Meek has been practicing taekwondo for 12 years and has continued teaching even after recently having part of her leg amputated. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Lydia Meek will not be held back.

Meek, 43, has been practicing taekwondo for 12 years and had part of her leg amputated about two months ago. Now the Gainesville woman is back to teaching taekwondo and teaching others never to give up.

She and her husband, Tim, teach the Korean martial arts form — which uses kicks and punches but no weapons — at the Ava White Academy on Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville. They previously operated successful gyms.

The school caters to many special-needs children who the Meeks say have been “battered” in regular schools. The children often are low on confidence when they start working with the couple, but the school is a safe environment.

“We can teach them you don’t give up,” Lydia said. “Through our program we can look at them and say, ‘Hey, look at us. He has a pacemaker. I have a prosthetic leg. You never give up. We’re here — we’re going to keep going, and that’s what we expect of you.’ And you know what, they start to change.”

Meek’s journey with her leg injury began a little more than five years ago while living in El Paso, Texas. She had purchased a scooter and was driving it home when she was involved in an accident.

Tim and one of their sons was in their truck following when the accident happened. They said an 18-wheeler passed Lydia, and since her scooter was so light, the airflow following it caused her to crash. That day she lost two toes, which were surgically removed.

Lydia worked through the pain of that amputation. She eventually had five surgeries in a period of 18 months, and at her last doctor’s appointment in El Paso, was told she needed a full amputation.

Lydia didn’t like the idea and decided to get a second opinion. In the meantime, she and her family moved to Gainesville, where she was born and raised. She wanted to enjoy the natural environment of North Georgia and its red clay with both of her feet while she had them.

“I kind of knew this was coming,” Lydia said. “I had some sort of indication at least, anyway, so I had some time to mentally prepare for it. But in the meantime, my foot was failing, the ankle was failing, there was a lot of pain involved, a lot of wobbly walking and I got to a point where I was just like I’m done.”

That point came earlier this year when her ankle blew out. She went into the local emergency room and came out with referrals to area doctors who would hopefully help her with the amputation.

“My worst fear was that someone was going to want to fix it again, or fix the ankle, when I knew that wasn’t going to work because I was never going to be able to put weight on the outside of my foot again,” Lydia said.

On June 15, 10 days after her initial meeting with Dr. Joe Johnson at Athens Orthopedic Clinic, the amputation was done.

“It’s hard when you know you come to a point in your thinking where you know that taking half of your leg is better than living with that half of your leg,” Lydia said. “It’s hard to get to that point where you say ‘cut it off.’”

After the surgery, friends and family said she looked happier. The pain afterward wasn’t as bad as the pain she had living with her injured foot.

“So the surgery was painful but not as painful as I thought it was going to be,” Lydia said.

She has been working with Shamrock Prosthetics since before her amputation and credits their proactive approach to helping her recover so quickly.

“The way we are as martial artists is if you prepare well your outcome is going to be better. And they had prepared well,” he said. “The surgeon and prosthesis were in communication when she had two legs. They designed exactly where to make this cut for the best possible outcome.”

Before her surgery, she met with the prosthetics company to talk about what activities she participated in and wanted to continue with after her surgery. They were able to put together a prosthetic catered to Lydia and her lifestyle.

“They’re so progressive with their approach, and that’s what’s enabled me, I think, to get up and walk 55 days after surgery,” she said. “That and maybe my attitude — I’m not going to be held down for very long.”

While she can’t do a lot of kicks, Lydia hasn’t given up; she embraces her situation and doesn’t consider it a handicap. With the help of her husband, she has spruced up the prosthetic, which takes about 15 minutes to put on, with toenails painted pink and an ankle bracelet.

Teaching is a little different for Lydia these days. She has to be especially conscious of where she’s stepping because if she steps on someone with her prosthetic leg, she won’t feel it and could cause injury. She does a lot more verbal teaching than she used to. She also used to kick her students when they were sparring but doesn’t do that now, though they still kick her.

“It’s very different, everything’s different, but I’ve just gotta roll with it and try to adapt and overcome and this is my new life and so this is my new way,” Lydia said.

Lydia got into taekwondo 12 years ago when she started taking women’s kick-boxing classes and her love for the sport grew. She credits martial arts with her recovery. She hasn’t fallen since the amputation; not even a trip to the beach could topple her.

“I’ve come close a lot of times and I attribute that to martial arts, and a lot of this healing, getting up and doing things quickly is martial arts, my training,” she said.

Because of martial arts her body was in great shape physically before the surgery and the sport taught her patience.

“Just to rethink things and not freak out, it just taught me to kind of center myself and take it easy and I’ve been very compliant,” she said.

Her training, which involves visualization of the final outcome, also helped her prepare for the surgery and recovery.

“Because if you can’t see it you can’t do it, and through my heart thing, I was told that I had six months to live,” said Tim who has a heart condition that requires special care.

“I use a lot of those techniques and really, just my mind is strong, more than anything and that came from having a strong body,” Lydia said. “This journey is no joke, we don’t mess around. I don’t want to say it’s been easy, because it hasn’t been easy. There’s days when I cry because I couldn’t do something or because I hurt.”