MUM-OF-FOUR JOANNE, 43 LOST TWO DAUGHTERS AND SUFFERED THIRD DEGREE BURNS TO HER LEGS AFTER A HORRIFIC HOUSE FIRE IN 1993.
AFTER YEARS OF STAYING AT HOME AND FEELING LOW, JOANNE DREAMED OF GETTING BACK TO HER FAVOURITE HOBBY – DANCING.
SO SHE ORDERED DOCS TO CHOP OFF HER LEGS AND NOW RAVES HER WORRIES AWAY UNTIL 7AM IN A BLINGED-UP DISCO WHEELCHAIR…
Waking up to the smell of smoke and heat rising up through the floor is one of my most haunting memories.
As soon as the first wisp of smoke brushed past my nostrils nearly twenty years ago I was out of bed and running around the house trying to grab my children and rush them outside to safety.
I raced downstairs where my eldest child, Martin was, and ushered him outside.
“Run, run,” I yelled. “Get to safety.”
I turned around and ran back upstairs to grab my youngest, Hannah.
The fire was spreading and the house was quickly overcome with smoke and flames.
The polystyrene tiles on the were raging.
I couldn’t get back downstairs.
I screamed out of the window to my neighbour who had come to look after Martin.
“Where’s Skyanne? Where’s Amy? Where’re my girls?”
I thought my two girls, only two and three years old, had made it out with Martin, but I couldn’t see them.
“They’re out,” shouted my neighbour. “They’re in the ambulance.”
Relieved, but beginning to fear for my own safety, I carefully dropped Hannah through the window and into his arms, and then, sensing the flames burning my legs, jumped out after her.
At the hospital, as I lay on the bed, I begged the doctor to let me see my girls.
“Where are they? Where are my babies?”
But he just cocked his head and looked at me.
“Hannah’s OK, Joanne. But I’m so sorry. The other girls… they never made it out.”
The last thing I remember, other than the utter silence, was being restrained before being sedated.
For three months I was in and out of surgery.
My legs had burnt so badly that they looked like two pieces of cooked ham – they were so swollen.
They took skin grafts and donor samples from my upper body to replace the skin that had burnt from the tips of my toes to my buttocks.
I looked like a patchwork quilt but I didn’t care. The pain of the surgery was nothing compared to the loss of Skyanne and Amy.
On the morning of the fire the girls had been playing in the living room and had been trapped by the flames.
I was devastated. Along with my legs, my life just fell apart. I spiralled into depression brought on by grief and physical pain.
Forced to move away from my beloved home and the place my beautiful babies passed away, I became reclusive and miserable.
I barely left the house, only to take the kids to school, and I lost my appetite for food, and for life.
I decided I couldn’t live if I wasn’t close to my baby girls, so I soon moved back into the house that had been gutted by the fire.
I felt good to back with them. I never could bare a funeral – it was too final. This way, they would always be around and I could always be there for them.
Soon after, I met Graham, 48. He was there for me after the fire and helped me with the children.
Eventually, we got married and had twins, Zac and Jake together.
But I still struggled to get my life back together.
The loss of my legs had robbed me of my independence.
“I can’t go on like this,” I confided to Graham.
“My toes look just like claws. No matter how many times they operate, I’m still in agony.”
He looked at me knowing what I had in mind, and just nodded gravely.
A month later after telling doctors to ‘just cut ‘em off’ they amputated all my toes.
For the next 13 years I struggled to get by, haunted by the guilt and the memory of Skyanne and Amy.
The pain never truly went away and neither did the depression.
As I watched the twins get older, I felt nothing but desperation as I watched my children’s friend’s parents playing with them made me resent my life even more.
“I can’t go on like this, Graham,” I said.
“It hurts every time I walk and I feel like I’m missing the best years of their lives.”
Again, he gave me a solemn nod. But this time he told me: “You’ve got to prepare them for it.
“The kids won’t take it is easily as me. They might freak out.”
So after the first operation to remove one of my legs, I stuck a sock on the end of the stump and drew a face on it.
“Now this is Mr Stumpy,” I said with a grin. “Mr Stumpy is going to be good for mummy, because Mr Stumpy is going to help mummy get a new leg.”
After an unnerving delay, Zac said: “Cool.”
And that was that.
When I had my other leg off a year later, I did the same thing, and as they had seen me get a prosthetic leg the first time around, they were even happier about it.
Due to being suddenly disabled, I found myself at the mercy of carers.
But I never did like people coming into my home on a daily basis and so pretty soon stopped them coming altogether, although I did stay friends with one of them.
That’s when I found Paul’s Place – a centre for adults with learning and physical difficulties.
It opened my eyes to what other people were suffering with and made me realise that I had to get on with my life and put the past behind me.
But my eagerness to get my life back on track ironically made me worse off.
Ignoring the doctor’s advice to take it slow, I started walking on my prosthetic legs too early and it had a very bad effect on my stumps, so much so that they had to cut them back again.
“You really need to sit down this time, Jo,” said the surgeon.
“I’m not going in a wheelchair,” I said stubbornly.
“If you don’t sit down once and for all you’ll have no legs and no bum left!”
So after a bit of a push, I finally agreed to have a wheelchair.
At first I hated it – being stuck in a chair 24/7, unable to walk, to run, to stand up at the sink or look in the bathroom mirror.
But then one day, When Graham was at work and the kids were at school, I stuck some reggae on CD player.
I started rolling around the house dancing in my chair to the beat and remembering the days before the fire when I used to dance with Amy and Skyanne, and how I used to bop in my younger days.
Then I suddenly realised that I could do some moves, and I started twisting and turning on the wheels and boogieing in my chair.
I loved it and I felt so alive.
Soon after, my friend took me to a nightclub where they played trance music.
I started dancing again and bouncing about in my chair, trying to keep up with the rising beat.
“Look at me go!” I shouted over the music.
I danced all night long, raving my socks off until the sun finally came up at 6am.
By the time I got home I was positively exhausted, but I suddenly had a new lease of life. I felt like a new woman.
“Good night?” said Graham as he snacked on his breakfast.
“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” I said wheeling myself off to bed with the biggest smile on my face.
After that night I was hooked and I was raving every weekend.
I even fitted my ‘wheels’ with lights that flashed to the best of the music.
I’ve got 400 now and even have them on my pillow and on the back of the chair.
The wheel lights beat to alternative beats so I’m always in rhythm and I keep up with doing tricks in my chair like spins, kicks and 360s on two wheels.
I’ve become a proper pill-popping, buzzin’, all-night raver – without the pills, of course; I’ve taken enough painkillers to last me a life time.
When you’ve got a disability, everyday life can be hard – but dancing takes away all of the stress.
When I’m dancing, all my worries and bad memories melt away.
I can walk on my prosthetic legs, but I find it easier to move on the dance floor in my wheelchair.
So I bought special light which flash in time to the beat on Ebay and my friend helped me bling it up with pink fur and sparkles.
It even has my nickname – Mojo – on the back.
My friends started calling me Mojo years ago because I was always moaning but the fire put everything into perspective for me and I live life to the max now and only ever see the positives.
I love any kind of music that has a good beat but particularly dubstep.
I was worried that people in the clubs would treat me differently – but most of them are just mesmerised by the wheelchair!
I often go raving with my 19-year-old daughter – but she’s a lightweight. She wants to go home at 3am but I stay out til the sun comes up!”
No one can keep up with me anymore. My mojo’s come back and it’s not going.
Not even when I become a grandma – which won’t be long now…