Real Life

Six-year-old Duskie’s blade of glory

With a special limb to fast-track her progress, there’s no stopping her now!
Photos: Carmen Bird

Running across the finish line of her primary school cross-country course, six-year-old Duskie Coulter was beaming with pride at her achievement.

A rite of passage for most children in New Zealand, the event was even more special for Duskie, whose right leg was amputated below the knee at 11 months old.

Until recently, she couldn’t keep up with friends due to limitations with her prosthetic leg.

However, a secondary activity limb blade, funded by the Starship Foundation and Barfoot & Thompson, enabled the Kiwi kid to keep pace with her peers. Duskie delights in no longer missing out!

“She can do most things and has huge strengths in other areas to make up for what she can’t do physically,” shares mum Danielle, 30. “But it was hard as a parent to know she was being left behind and not able to do anything about it.”

The other kids think Duskie’s blade is “cool-as”.

Danielle explains that the prosthetic blade is designed with grips and springs specifically for physical activity. Duskie can now run and jump, which isn’t possible with her primary prosthetic. Moreover, it’s waterproof, bringing newfound joy to beach visits for the Auckland family.

“It’s so good for the little things that make a big difference to her, like skipping at school − and the other kids think it looks really cool,” says her mum.

Danielle thrilled to hear an unexpected story about Duskie from another mother at her school. “She said, ‘My son has been coming home every day talking about this cool-as girl with a cool-as leg who can run really fast at cross-country.’ It was amazing for me to hear that.”

Thinking back, Danielle and her husband JD, 32 − who are also parents to four-year-old daughter Flynn − tell the Weekly they first learned their baby’s leg wasn’t developing as expected at the 20-week pregnancy scan.

“It’s a weird atmosphere walking in with the excitement of seeing your baby for the first time, but also a little bit of worry,” recalls JD. “They started at the top and went through. They said, ‘Head looks great, arms look great, heart looks great’ and at the very last thing was her right leg, where something wasn’t right.”

Two weeks later, a report revealed their baby had tibial hemimelia. The condition meant she was missing part or all of her shin bone.

The only way is up for this go-getter girl.

After Duskie’s “empowering birth”, adjusting to life with a newborn was challenging. However, the caring couple remained focused and positive.

“She was healthy, and made all the right noises and wiggles,” says JD. “She was our little baby and we decided to worry about the other stuff when we had to.”

Their daughter’s resilience has amazed the pair over the years.

Treatment for tibial hemimelia generally involves either amputation or leg-lengthening. However, in Duskie’s case, surgical removal was the only option. So at 11 months old, she underwent a below-knee amputation procedure.

At 14 months, she received her first prosthetic limb. By 15 months old, with the help of regular physiotherapy, she started to walk. Se was impressively keeping up with the physical developmental milestones for any child of her age.

Danielle laughs as she remembers, “We used to bribe her with raisins all around the hall at physio. We needed her to try and walk from one raisin to another.”

As she grew rapidly, Duskie received a new prosthetic leg every seven to eight months. The little girl was thriving. “It’s very cute to look back on her first tiny legs,” says her mum. Then at age three, Duskie began to struggle with movement and pain.

“It turns out her stump was growing out sideways rather than straight down,” explains Danielle.

Two more operations followed, in which metal growth plates were inserted and adjusted to realign the leg.

With her cast after below-knee amputation surgery at 11 months.

At times, it has been traumatic for Duskie. Her mum says their outgoing and determined daughter has the best personality to face anything.

“We’ve talked to her about it her whole life,” says Danielle. “She’s such a confident girl and so good at explaining when kids ask what’s wrong with her.”

Now, with the help of her secondary activity limb, Duskie’s parents know she’ll be able to achieve anything that she sets her mind to.

“If she wants to, she can learn to use her blade to run really fast or to play netball or anything,” says a proud Danielle.

“When Duskie started school, I asked her what her favourite thing was about herself and she said it’s her stump. She’s just such a cool kid.”

To find out more about Starship Foundation and how you can help, visit starship.org.nz.

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