Lisa Calan (29) lost both her legs when a political rally she attended in Diyarbakir was bombed by ISIS. Now, two years later, she walks again.
‘Wait a second, first stand still!’ physiotherapist Bridget Dean says to Lisa Calan. But it is clear for all to see in the therapy room of this hospital in Sydney, Australia, that Lisa doesn’t want to stand still, she wants to walk. So there she goes between two bars, her facial expression switching from one emotion to the other. Determination. Excitement. Cautious happiness. She walks but seems wary of cheering too early.
Lisa Calan (29) is a film director from Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey. She became well known in her home country after she lost both her legs when ISIS bombed a political rally she was attending in Diyarbakir on 5 June 2015, two days before the Turkish general elections. It was a rally of the People’s Democratic Party, (HDP), the leftist party that emerged from the Kurdish political movement in Turkey.
Sitting on her bed in a Sydney hospital on the day before she walks again for the first time, Calan remembers that she consciously decided not to faint on the spot, afraid she would never wake up again. She says: ‘We were standing by a tea stall when it happened. I didn’t fully realize what was going on, but I did see both my legs were gone. At first, I refused to be taken to hospital without my legs. Later I heard that nothing was left of them. They were shattered to pieces and burned.’
Ever since she has been determined to walk again. She connects that determination to her political convictions and to the geographic region and the family she grew up in. ‘In Kurdistan, we always live in a war zone. And in a war zone, you have to be strong, especially as a woman, since women and children suffer the most from wars. So I wanted to continue with my life after I lost my ability to walk, but it turned out to be very difficult. You can’t really concentrate on anything when you are always distracted by your physical situation.’
In Germany, she tried the traditional ‘socket’ method to walk again, in which the prostheses are attached to tight fitting tubes around the residual limbs. It didn’t work. Then she heard of implants. The technique has been in use for some thirty years, but the newest variation, developed by Sydney-based orthopaedic surgeon Associate Professor Munjid Al Muderis, makes use of a titanium implant with a porous coating, which enables full integration of the bone and the implant, making the result very solid.
Last a lifetime
Surgeon Munjid Al Muderis carried out the operation to put the titanium implants into the remains of Lisa’s upper leg bones. The bones were hollowed out and the implant was driven in, as tightly as possible. After the rod and bone merge, the implants last a lifetime.
The story of Munjid Al Muderis is remarkable in itself. He grew up and studied medicine in Baghdad, the capital city of his home country Iraq, but left the country as a refugee in 1999, during the rule of dictator Saddam Hussein. He arrived in his new home country on a small boat and was able to soon pick up his profession again and was further educated in Australia and several European countries. Osseointegration has become one of his specialities now.
This November is an extra busy month for him, as he tries to help as many patients as possible so that he can leave Australia for three weeks in December to go to Baghdad, where as many as ninety operations are scheduled, all on people who lost limbs because of the wars that have raged their country for years. ‘Australia is my home now. Iraq didn’t give me anything. Still, I can’t cut my ties with the Middle-East. The people there may be very nationalist but I think that originates from weakness and a need to hold on to something.’ He talks fiercely about nationalism, saying he considers every human being on the planet a migrant and nationalism having no place anywhere in the world. ‘We are all humans and deserve to be treated as such’, he says. ‘I hope my contributions in the Middle-East can make people less nationalist and more passionate.’
To make the Middle-Eastern picture complete, the second orthopaedic surgeon involved in the treatment of Lisa Calan is Solon Rosenblatt, a Jew from the United States who was born as the child of a diplomat in Turkey’s capital Ankara and grew up mostly in Israel. Rosenblatt and Al Muderis decided together not to charge Lisa for the treatment she needed. Rosenblatt: ‘For us, it is a political statement to help Lisa. The circumstances of her amputation are special, joining a political rally and ending up losing her legs. It was ISIS that planted the bomb in Diyarbakir and Dr Munjid and I both hate ISIS deeply. By helping Lisa, we can do something to counter the consequences of ISIS.’
Which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that Calan’s treatment is fully covered financially. The surgeons didn’t ask a fee, but naturally the hospital facilities and the cost of other personnel needed during the surgery were charged, and added to that are the costs of staying in a private clinic to recover and the daily physiotherapy sessions. Also, there are travel costs, and of course the expensive prostheses.
For the first batch of costs, the Kurdish community both in Turkey and in the diaspora has crowdfunded successfully. For the next amount needed, Kurdish communities in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities in Australia are brainstorming about the best ways to collect funds. In Sydney, the sizeable Kurdish community supports Lisa in any way they can: they bring her Kurdish food and keep her company, they accompany her to medical appointments and make sure her first steps since more than two years are recorded on video.
One of the Kurdish women who lives in Sydney and is accompanying Lisa Calan, Nayla Jera, was recording those first steps, and she says it was the first time she had seen Lisa laugh since she arrived in Sydney a couple of weeks ago. But her smiles are hesitant. The day before her first steps, Lisa said: ‘I know this is my last chance to walk again. I am very eager to. You know, I have always been a lively, energetic person and ever since the bombing I have refused to accept the wheelchair. I can only accept it when all my other options are worn out.’
Nevertheless, even though she walks again, Lisa knows that it will be impossible for her to return to the life she had before 5 June 2015. ‘Just as Kurdistan cannot go back again to how it was before that bomb attack. I was not the only victim of the bombing and that day has changed so much for Kurdistan, for everybody’, Lisa said.
She is referring to how the peace process between the AKP government and the PKK unravelled after the elections of 7 June 2015, two days after the Diyarbakir bombing: the HDP managed to get 13% of the votes, robbing the AKP of its majority in parliament, leading to violence flaring up and to renewed elections in November the same year, in which the AKP restored its majority. In the same autumn, in several Kurdish cities, a war started between the Turkish army and the YPS, a youth group connected to the PKK. The historical heart of Lisa’s city, Diyarbakir, was destroyed.
Not a rosy road
Lisa Calan doesn’t really talk about the trauma she experienced in an emotional way, but Dr Solon recalls how she seemed to be re-living the moment just after the bombing, as she struggled to stay conscious. He said: ‘She had a panic attack when the anaesthetist wanted to put her to sleep.’
It triggers a conversation between the two doctors about the trauma and the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that many amputees experience. Dr Solon: ‘Lisa needs to get up and get around. She is not even thirty, I mean, having no legs is not a death sentence, but without prostheses, she cannot get back to filming, to doing what she loves to do.’ Munjid: ‘Wherever Lisa will live, she will be judged by society, looked at differently. She will have to cope with being an amputee, and that’s not a rosy road.’
Lisa herself doesn’t really think about that yet. The day before her first steps, she says she wants to go back to film directing, and maybe she can start scenario writing and doing film reviews. But for now, she has other worries. In the physiotherapy centre, she talks with an American man who has had the same implants as her, also on two legs, for more than a year, and he needed to return to Australia because he kept having pain. Lisa asks him if that is a normal side effect, and whether he has ever had infections. But only time can give Lisa answers: every patient is different, it is not sure how long her recovery will take and if she will have pain or infections.
Later, in the parking lot of the physiotherapy centre where she waits for a hospital taxi to take her back to the recovery house where she is staying, her thoughts turn to another house that she will have to arrange for herself in Diyarbakir, as her parents live on the fourth floor without an elevator and walking up stairs is close to impossible with a prosthesis. She will stay in Sydney till late November for physiotherapy and tackle any possible medical issues that arise, and her doctors think it’s safe to say she’ll be fit to fly and start her new life by then.
But then suddenly Lisa urges her Sydney friend Nayla to not share the video of her first steps on social media yet, or send it to any of her friends or relatives. Her mother doesn’t know she took her first steps today and she doesn’t want to tell her yet. Lisa explains: ‘I don’t want to make my mother too happy yet because I don’t want to disappoint her if anything goes wrong again.’ The late afternoon sun shines on her face. She smiles and admits that, yes maybe it’s not her mother’s dreams that she is afraid of shattering, but her own.