MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Two months ago, Fox 9 reporter Courtney Godfrey suffered a traumatic injury in a boating accident. Since then, it’s been a difficult journey of progress and perseverance.
“I was just doing what we do every weekend in the summer in Minnesota, and my life changed in an instant,” Courtney said.
It was September 15, 2017. Courtney was boating with family on Christmas Lake, a lake they'd been on hundreds of times before. Only this time, Courtney fell out of the boat on a turn. She remembers her foot hitting something. The propeller on the inboard motor caught her foot.
“I was the one driving and even though it was an accident, that weighs really heavy on me, and it's hard and you replay that image in your head,” said Ryan Novaczyk, Courtney’s husband.
Emergency responders rushed Courtney to Hennepin County Medical Center. Her foot was barely hanging on and unsalvageable. But that wasn't all. Courtney recalls the conversation she had with her surgeon the night before her procedure.
“[The surgeon] said, ‘Here's why I think we need to take more of your leg,’ which was a hard thing for me to hear,” said Courtney.
Just hours after the accident, orthopedic trauma surgeon Dr. Andrew Schmidt and prosthetist Yakov Gradinar delivered the difficult news. Without a heel, the next best place for a prosthetic would be under her knee, which would mean doing a much bigger amputation.
“If you lose the forefoot, you lose that push off and that leverage and you may have a leg you can stand on, but that's literally all you can do is stand on it,” said Schmidt.
The next morning, nearly half of Courtney's leg was gone. In its place, fear and heartbreak.
“The first time they unwrapped my bandages and I saw my leg, we all just cried,” said Courtney. “We all just sat around and cried.”
It was a loss, and everyone in that room needed to grieve.
“Ryan says I think about it every minute and you do, but it gets better every day,” she said. “It gets better every day.”
It's especially difficult for Courtney and Ryan. They've only been married a year, and already, they're navigating deep waters.
“An accident happened,” she said. “Accidents happen and we've decided in this house that we're not going to say 'sorry.' We're not going to look back. We're not going to say 'what if.' We took a vow to love each other through thick and through thin.”
“Our wedding song was Ed Sheeran's song about getting older and part of it just – ‘Will you love me when my legs don't work anymore?’ and the answer is yes,” said Ryan.
Healing with positivity
Courtney goes to HCMC regularly for physical therapy. You'd think the memories - still fresh - would be unbearable, but what she remembers the most is the moment she chose light over the dark.
“Nothing in your life can prepare you for this,” she said. “Nothing can tell you how to handle this. I just went to the only place that I know where to go, which is positivity.”
Here is where Courtney's story really begins. Almost immediately, she took her experiences and emotions and poured them into blog posts and social media. As a news reporter, she already had a way with words and the gift of a platform.
“This whole story we're doing right now is not about me,” she said. “It's about other people who are going through the same kind of stuff. People go through way worse than this, and if I can be there for them or if I can be that light saying, ‘You know what? If she can do it, I can do it,’ maybe all of it was worth it.”
And part of getting her message out there meant getting herself back out there. Doing the activities she used to do, only this time, finding the balance between standing out and fitting in.
“The first time I went out to dinner, I was like, ‘OK, I don't want to leave the house,’” she said. “You know, there's no foot there and it's shocking, it's jarring to see. But I've learned to get over that. I'd rather you just say ‘Hey, how's it going?’ Because I'm just like you.”
Finding support from others
Less than two months after losing half of her leg, Courtney is planning her first prosthetic fitting. Her prosthetist tells her she is about a week and a half away from walking. The options and functions for her new prosthesis are countless, but the choice is personal.
“Something I really wanted was I really wanted to not make my foot the star of the show,” she said. “I want to be able to blend in, and so something I really wanted was a cosmetic foot.”
Because for Courtney, getting back to things like traveling the world, reporting in the field again and activities like snowboarding are high on the list. But so is feeling like her spirited, feminine self. That's where Heather Abbott comes in.
Right after the accident, local amputee support group Wiggle Your Toes made a critical connection for Courtney. Heather lost part of her left leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. Since then, she's been a lifeline for dozens of women like Courtney.
“I've had moments where I've had a really bad night and I'm looking for someone to talk to and I call her and say, ‘When is this going to get better?’ and she'll assure me this does get better,” said Courtney. “’When will the pain stop?’ ‘It'll stop.’”
Four years after the bombing, Heather can give Courtney more insight and a look into the future. She’s a woman who can relate, an amputee who's been there, a survivor who's come out on the other side.
In quieter moments at home, the weight of Courtney's journey sets in.
“I have this pile of cards here that I purposely keep unopened for when I need a little boost,” said Courtney. “All these people, for some reason, think I'm very strong. I can't let them all down.”
It's a responsibility few people can understand, and it only makes her more determined, especially at physical therapy, where Courtney is re-learning her body.
“It’s not only where I'm getting stronger, but this is where I'll learn to use my prosthetic, so I don't create further issues down the road,” she said.
Her mind already down the road, Courtney now pushes her body into the recovery.
“I know I'll be back,” she said. “That's never been a doubt in my mind, but this is just helping get there quicker.”
Her physical therapist works primarily with amputees and was drawn to Courtney's positivity right out of the gate.
“It helps you and [other amputees],” said Sally, her physical therapist. “There aren't strong support groups, and I find some of the best support comes in the clinics. [It] makes you appreciate little things simple things - standing up, taking a walk.”
Just 59 days after Courtney's accident, she's ready to take her first steps in her new prosthetic, but her high expectations are quickly grounded. There's still some discomfort.
“This is not as enjoyable as I imagined it,” she said. “I'm so thrown off because it doesn't feel like a leg.”
The learning curve is steeper than she imagined.
“You have it in your mind, this fantasy of what it's going to be like, and that you're going to hop up and walk and it's going to be great and I'm going to clean my kitchen and I'm going to vacuum, and maybe I'll go out for drinks with my friends. But what I’m feeling right now is it's going to be a while,” she said.
An hour goes by. And another. And steadily, Courtney's confidence and tenacity builds.
“I want it so bad that I let go of the bar because I just want it,” she said.
She's pushing her body and her resolve to the absolute limit. And then, a reluctant release. Courtney breaks down in tears. Ryan comforts her, but she assures him she's OK.
“I'm happy, I'm happy to be walking,” she said. “They're happy tears. Tell the world they're happy tears.”
That is Courtney's journey thus far. Perfectly summed up by her in one poignant moment. Success. Setbacks. Perseverance. Optimism. And a plan to pay it all forward.
“I was lucky,” she said. “I had people there. I had resources. I had friends I had family. Not everybody has that, but maybe I can be that for somebody. Maybe I can be the person that comes into their hospital room and says ‘This is the life you can live if you choose this path.’”
Because when you do find the light and start letting go, that leap of faith doesn't seem as far.
“Who knows what's next for me, but I know it's big,” said Courtney. “And I can't wait. I can't wait.”