At a time in her life when she should have been running around the schoolyard with her friends and squeezing in as many sporting activities as possible at the weekend, Jessica Quinn was spending her days at Starship children’s hospital in Auckland.
At just nine years old, the young girl was given a devastating diagnosis. She had osteosarcoma – a form of cancer that starts in the bone – in her right thigh and the only way to stop the deadly disease in its tracks was amputation.
Then, just as the sports- mad Kiwi and her family were coming to terms with the enormity of the situation, they found themselves thrust into the world of pioneering medicine – Jessica was to become one of the first people in New Zealand to undergo a ground-breaking operation, which saw surgeons remove her thigh and then reattach the lower half of her leg to her hip.
The gruelling 14-hour surgery, which was necessary to allow Jess to be fitted with a lower leg rather than a full leg prosthetic, was a success –but the impact on her life was huge. She missed 18 months of school and when she was finally able to return, she found herself growing increasingly self-conscious.
“As a kid, you don’t really understand the gravity of something like this,” the now 23-year-old tells Woman’s Day. “It wasn’t until I went to high school that I started to understand the impact.
“I lost a lot of confidence in my teenage years. I would never let myself wear anything short, or even put on open-toed shoes or sandals.”
As a result of the surgery, Jessica’s right thigh was much smaller than the other. She spent hours trying to conceal the difference, even wrapping clothes around her smaller leg to try to bulk it up.
When she was 14, her dad Jim emailed Sir Richard Taylor, the Oscar-winning Creative Director of world-famous special-effects company Weta Workshop, hoping he could do something to help – and he did!
“I flew down to Wellington where Weta created a unique foam prosthetic thigh for me,” smiles Jessica. “Soon after that, I remember sitting around with my girlfriends and they were like, ‘Put some shorts on – it’s only us.’ So I did and I haven’t looked back since!”
These days, Jess has three different prosthetic legs that she’s more than happy to flaunt – a leg for everyday activies, a swimming leg for the beach and pool, and a special blade for running and exercise. The design graduate says all of them play a part in helping her maintain a normal life.
“I was really athletic as a kid, and I managed to get to the gym and go boxing after surgery, but I was always told that running probably wouldn’t be a goer.
“Then I thought, ‘Screw it! I’m going to order a running blade anyway. What’s the worst that can happen?’ Right now, I can only run up and down the studio, but I’m hoping by the end of the year to be able to run 10km.”
It’s not the only thing Jess is hoping to achieve this year. July will see the launch of her own website, limbitless.co.nz. Her mission? To teach teens and young people that it’s OK to be different.
“It took me a long time to reach the point where now, even if I could go back and change it all, I genuinely wouldn’t. Obviously I don’t know what I would have turned out like if this had never happened, but I’m really grateful for the awareness it’s given me.”
While Jess has attracted more than 56,000 followers on Instagram already and has even partnered with Kellogg’s for their #Ownit campaign, she hopes her message will travel further still and will allow her to collaborate with other big companies to help change the way they market their products.
“As long as we are using unrealistic images to advertise, people will always feel disheartened,” says Jess. “It needs to come from the brands. I want them to be authentic and use real people in their ads. “We all get caught up in the constant desire for perfection. It completely consumes us when, really, it’s simple – as long as you know who you are and what makes you happy, it doesn’t matter how others see you.
“Confidence is the most exquisite form of beauty. It wasn’t until I found the courage to let go of the thing I couldn’t change about myself that I became happy in my own skin.”