Val Johnson's tribute to brave son Josef

PUBLISHED: 13:11 22 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:02 20 February 2013

Val Johnson's tribute to brave son Josef

Val Johnson's tribute to brave son Josef

Shropshire writer, artist and mother Val Johnson has drawn on her young son's real life experience to write a book about child amputees

The day thatchanged everything

Shropshire writer, artist and mother Val Johnson has drawn on her young sons real life experience to write a book about child amputees

After years of contemplating and planning, my burning desire to write and illustrate a semi-biographical childrens book has finally come to fruition and this is my story.

It began 10 years ago, having recently moved to Coton near Whitchurch, ironically to give my son a better life. The day of Josefs accident is as clear now as the day it happened. It was a bright sunny Sunday morning and Joe, a sprightly four-year-old, came running into our bedroom as usual wanting a cuddle and his breakfast, I can remember him jumping up and down wanting us to get up. We were off to a party that day and had friends staying with us the following day, so we had lots to do getting prepared for that.

I was in the garden and after several hours of frantic cleaning, I shouted, time for a shower Joe, but thought I would just finish sweeping the path. Why, why, why did I do that? The next thing I heard was a scream that still feels like a kick in the stomach today as I think about it. Josef had run down the garden and slipped on the grass in front of the sit-on lawn mower, crashing into the blades and cutting away part of his foot.

What happened next felt like watching a film, with events spinning in slow motion. An ambulance was called and our neighbours helped by running to various points en route to guide it in. We live in a very rural position and there were no clear landmarks. Joes dad and I just held him and put a bag of peas on his injured foot, we didnt know what else to do. e was rushed to Shrewsbury Hospital and I remember talking to him all the way about how he could have the biggest chocolate cake in the world for his birthday. It kept him, and me, focused on something other than the accident. He had an operation immediately to clean up the wound and next day he was transferred to the North Staffordshire Hospital for further treatment.

For the next six weeks I didnt go home, staying at Josefs bedside. The impact on the family was overwhelming, it is so hard for a parent to see a child in such pain and having to confront so many terrifying ordeals. Life would never be the same again. Away from him I cried and cried so I could be strong when I was with him. Fortunately my husband Wayne and I are very supportive of each other, giving reassurance in our low moments, of which, there were many.

Doctors decided they would attempt reconstructive surgery, as only Josefs heel bone had been taken off. It was a major operation and a muscle was taken from his back to form a new heel. Less than a week later it was clear that the operation was unsuccessful, the skin was cold and not healing because of the tiny blood vessels getting blocked.

I knew what was coming but having to sign a form giving permission to amputate my sons foot was not easy and I sat looking at that piece of paper for half an hour before I picked up the pen. I had all kinds of silly thoughts about how I could donate my foot to him, I so wanted to take his place.

Looking back it was the best way forward, it prevented Josef having to undergo many years of surgery as the doctors also realised that the foot was more severely damaged than they had first thought. This way we could look to the future and, in a strange way, it was a relief.

To help Josef with his recovery I made up lots of adventure stories about a penguin that had lost its flipper because of a shark attack. By taking the emphasis off Joe and applying it to a toy I felt it helped to lessen the anguish he was feeling. I got him a toy penguin and customised it so it had a prosthetic flipper and scars. He was always eager to listen to these stories and asked to hear them over and over again. I decided to write them down as I thought they were an important part of his life and should not be forgotten. I used them to try and explain about phantom pains and other things he was going through in a child-friendly way.

It was during this time that the seed was planted for me to write and illustrate a book to help other children in similar circumstances. I have a strong belief in the pragmatic approach to sitting down with a child and a picture book to explain things, but I could find nothing to help with what Joe was about to go through. Another reason for the book was because I felt indebted to the nursing staff at North Staffs Hospital for the dedication, expertise and kindness towards both Josef and my family during this harrowing experience and I just wanted to give something back. The timing however was not right, I needed to give my full attention to Josef and his rehabilitation. We had our ups and downs but in general Joe coped very well and as young children do, he just got on with it, having no thought for the future. His leg healed quickly enough and within months he was being fitted for his new leg. I was so proud of him when we wheeled him in to the clinic and he came marching out wearing his new leg which had been fitted from the knee downwards. Everyone in the waiting room clapped him and his smile reached from ear to ear. On the way home he wanted to go straight to a Wacky Warehouse so he could try his new leg out for climbing. From then on Josef participated in lots of sports, I never wanted him to feel he could not do something because of his leg, it just might take a bit longer to master. He took part in competitive swimming, life saving, gymnastics, trampolining, horse riding as well as normal school activities.

As time went by and Josef grew older, I had more time for my art and began researching the book. As far as I am aware, there is not a childrens book dedicated to amputation. I spoke to a charity that was interested in funding the publication and was advised to change the storyline to a real life scenario as the penguin story was a little ambiguous.

It took me about 12 months to come up with illustrations and a text that I was happy with. It had been a struggle reliving events and at times I thought I could not complete it. I remember one day saying to my husband in tears, I just cannot do this, but there was a driving force inside me that made me carry on, I knew if I stopped I would only have to start at a later date. The book itself is aimed at five to nine year olds and shows Josef dealing positively with his disability. The reader experiences the sadness and practicalities that accompany his accident as he rebuilds his life and comes to terms with what has happened.

I believe the book could be used as a springboard to get a child to open up and talk about their fears not just for trauma amputees but could encompass other amputation genres such as meningitis and genetic problems. It is after all a universal problem and the basic text could easily be translated into other languages. I also believe the book could help children of amputee soldiers returning from Afghanistan by improving their understanding of this difficult subject.

I am hoping the book will be bought by hospitals and clinics and left in their play rooms, I know from personal experience that it will help. It could also be used in schools to help educate children regarding disability issues and why some children are different. This book is completely non profit-making and if any charities or hospitals would like to publicise it, perhaps even help fund the printing so the price could be lowered, I would be most grateful.

The illustrations have been exhibited at a gallery in Shrewsbury and one of these was selected for the Liberating Lives competition and exhibited at the Mall Galleries, London. Betty Jackson, the renowned British fashion designer, spoke last year on a Radio 4 interview about her feelings of being a child amputee and on hearing this I approached her and she kindly agreed, after seeing my book, to write the preface. With the joy of completion of the book came the knowledge that the charity interested in funding the publication no longer had the funding available. I tried many childrens agents and although I was getting positive feedback, they did not know how to market the book with what they saw as a limited target audience. My next step was to self-publish on the internet.

Josef is 15 now and a pupil at Ellesmere College. As I always thought, the teenage years have been difficult for him. He has a lot of anger towards his leg but I think he is gradually coming to terms with the past and looking forward to a promising future. Without his support and approval I would not have even started the book but it was never a time for him to look back which is still a painful process, but to look forward to the future.

Since the book has been published I have been working on private portrait commissions usually in a bold contemporary style. I also work in textiles and like to cross the two mediums. I was awarded a BA (Hons) in Fashion and Textiles at the University of Central England and was voted one of the top 10 students in Britain by Drapers Record. As a natural progression from the book, I am looking at starting a project entitled Hope after Conflict. I am so saddened by the tragedies in Afghanistan and regardless of the merits of the war. All I see is the tragic loss of life or horrific injuries of the men who are fighting to protect us. How does a person consent to put themselves in a position where they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice? Their injuries are horrific and life changing and I can only feel total admiration for they way they are tackling their recovery. I want to show they are facing this next battle with the same spirit and strength of character that they showed in battle.

The Day That Changed Everything is available from or through Vals website

Val is staging an exhibition of her art at Rural Space, Pimhill Farm Estate, Harmer Hill, Shrewsbury, SY4 3DY. The preview and meet the artist event for Beauty and the Beasts is on Saturday, May 14 from 2-6pm and the exhibition will run until 28 May.

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