Donna Hopkins underwent surgery to remove fibroids but experienced a blood clot, and other surgical complications, which caused doctors to amputate her left leg. But despite the personal tragedy, the athlete and two-time breast cancer survivor found the courage to set goals from her hospital bed. Relying on her faith in God, family, friends and new found love for rowing, Hopkins turned her life-changing experience into a book about overcoming adversity, Getting to the Other Side of Victory. The autobiography is a story of hope and action to teach people how to hit the reset button, tap into their hidden strengths, and rebuild their lives after crisis and loss.
Today, the active competitor in track and field also runs Hopkins Breast Cancer Inc., an organization that financially helps people battling breast cancer in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and she works with prosthetic companies to help test new prosthetics for the amputation community. Hopkins spoke with Black Enterprise about her journey.
Let’s go back to that moment at the hospital when you learned doctors had to amputate your left leg. What self-limiting beliefs, vulnerabilities, or insecurities did you have about your future?
When I was finally able to understand what happened, so many things were running through my head. I thought about what it would mean for me as an athlete to just work out. I thought about relationships, how people would see me, and mainly how men would look at me, and thinking what man would want me now with part of my left gone. I was anxious, worried, nervous in every aspect of my life, what this all meant looking forward. I thought about getting older with the amputation and concern arose, but through it all, even if I didn’t see the rainbow in my life as I looked to the future, God saw it for me.
When taking off my clothing, I saw my life’s battle scars, but the most revealing was the internal scars that weren’t showing on the surface. The first step was learning to love me all over again and accepting that person. I didn’t want other people treating me any differently, or looking at me any differently, yet I was doing just that. Despite what I looked like, I had to remember that I was still the same person, and a friend reminded me of it. He said that he wasn’t going to treat me any differently despite my amputation because I hadn’t changed behind all that had happened. Little did he know how much those words made me feel good; they did more than any natural medicine could do. It was healing to my spirit and soul.
How long did it take you to bring joy back into your life after the tragedy?
When I was in the hospital, I was already setting a goal on how to get back up on my feet and move forward. In my book Getting to the Other Side of Victory, I talk about happiness and joy and the differences between the two. Happiness comes and goes, you can be happy one minute and sad the next, but if you have joy it’s always there, it will leap up at the most needed moment. So, the joy was never taken from my life; it is the thing that kept me going with every tragedy.
Despite the fact that you’re an amputee, you used rowing to aid in your recovery—yet you don’t know how to swim. What mindset shifts helped you to work through your fears and embrace your new reality?
I was at a turning point in my life. I wasn’t going to allow people to put me in a box anymore and make me think or act like they thought I should after coming through 2010. The only opinion that mattered at this point was God’s.
It was also the competitive person in me. Despite not knowing how to swim, don’t tell me I can’t do something I will prove you wrong. Rowing was good because I didn’t have anything to measure it by. It became a source of therapy, treatment, and renewal to rebuilding. It took me to a place of victory in some areas that I needed.
I went back to what I knew, track and field, and I just missed out on making the Paralympic trials in the 100 by .33 seconds. However, it was a win for me still in so many ways. The amputation didn’t stop me. In fact, it allowed me to look at life and how we waste so many precious hours that we can never get back again by not just living life versus just existing.
I believe, no matter what happens to you, you can find something that inspires you to keep going. It is OK to cry about your circumstances, the devastation, destruction, and adversity, but don’t drown in your tears. Don’t allow them to be the anchor that keeps you from coming up again.