Megan's story - Custom AFO

Megan Giglia

Stroke survivor Megan Giglia - Rio 2016 Paralympic Champion.

In January 2013, the then 27-year-old from Stratford-upon-Avon suffered a stroke leaving her with right side paralysis along with various neurological issues and an uncertain future. Now, just over four years on, Megan is a para-cyclist who has won gold medals, set new world records and became a Paralympic champion at Rio 2016.

Megan was taken to Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital following a brain haemorrhage, which is more commonly known as a stroke. At the hospital, she had CT scans, a lumber puncture and other tests including an attempt to coil the aneurysm through the groin. The results found that she had blood in her spinal fluid and unusual blood vessels. As a result Megan had to endure a craniotomy, which involved a part of her skull being removed and three clips inserted to seal the site of the bleed.

Megan spent three weeks in intensive care and due to the stroke was left with paralysis in her right side. She had lost feeling in her right leg and didn’t have movement in her arm. The stroke left her with three forms of epilepsy and neurofatigue. “This affects my balance and coordination, I also get sensory overload and when it’s severe I lose the use I have gained in my right side for periods of time. There have been times when I would lose my surroundings,” says Megan.

Megan has always been into sports; before her stroke she was a fitness coach so she naturally gravitated towards sport to help her recover. “I started cycling as a form of physio but I found that it also helped me with my emotions,” Megan explains. "Going from a very active lifestyle to then having near to no movement was hard to deal with. After the stroke I was down and angry. Sport is a fantastic way to just put everything on hold and get those negative feelings out.”

Due to Megan’s paralysis, she has a condition known as drop foot, which is the inability to raise the foot when walking due to a weakness in or paralysis of the dorsiflexor muscles in the leg and the foot.

Megan got in touch with the Stoke Association to see how they could support her with her sporting ambition as a paracyclist and they put her in touch with Ottobock. Megan attended Ottobock’s facility in Minworth where she was fitted for a custom-made cycling ankle-foot orthosis (AFO).

‟I initially had a soft splint but my ankle would roll and I would usually end up with a strained ankle. With my new brace I am stabilised and I feel like I am stronger and can go faster. The new AFO is connected to my cycling shoe enabling all power to go straight through the pedal. This ensures the pressure is evenly distributed and so there is no wasted energy, which is essential when competing as every bit of effort counts,” explains Megan.

Megan also suggests that a good relationship with your clinic is important. Describing her experience with Ottobock she says, ‟My leg changes dependant on the training schedule and season goals. I am gaining muscle mass constantly and the leg shape changes all the time; so it can be difficult to get something that is supportive and is also comfortable. With the guys at Ottobock I don’t have to worry about that. I found that the communication I have with the technicians and clinicians is spot-on. We understand one another and they are happy to make adjustments when I need them. Without this relationship, I would expect my training could possibly be compromised. Kevin, my Orthotist, not only explains what he plans but also shows me the process, which is great as I am a visual learner.”

Kevin Green, Head of Business Unit – Orthotics at Minworth said, “Megan is a true inspiration and we hope her story inspires others to not get discouraged and keep up their rehabilitation. She has shown just how far determination and a positive outlook can take you.

“Megan’s orthosis has been custom-made from carbon fibre and moulded to fit her to provide the stability and strength she needs when riding.

“It’s fantastic to see how it has helped Megan with her performance and we were delighted to see her succeed at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.”

“What’s great is with the AFO I don’t have to think as much about my leg and it allows me to concentrate on my cycling. For the most part my leg is flaccid but it can all of a sudden go rigid, for instance if I put too much power through it when I am cycling or I spin my legs really fast, so the support my AFO provides really helps,” explains Megan.

Megan now lives in Manchester and trains at the National Cycling Centre. “When I’m training I monitor my body; this information gets uploaded to my coach and we devise a training plan as a starting point. If I get tired during training, we then lessen the load. I have learnt that it doesn’t work if I just power through as I am prone to getting seizures. I now know the signs, such as I get irritable, hungry and start withdrawing, so we tailor my training to what my body is telling me.”

Megan’s outlook is truly inspiring and if anything also rather sensible. “I want to know that I have used my life positively and that I am getting the most out of life. You have to make life an opportunity. We don’t have a choice as to what happens but we have a choice as to what we do with our life. I think the quote by Carl Gustav Jung, ‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become’ really does sum it up,” says Megan.

Reflecting on what got her to where she is now Megan recounts, “At first the doctors told me that I would be in a wheelchair but I refused to let that be my fate. It is amazing what you can achieve; you just have to put your mind to it. But know it takes time, so you will need patience and a willingness to learn. It is also important to love yourself in order for you to be in a good place. For anyone who has had a stroke or had a life altering experience, know that there is hope and that it is important to try. You might not be aiming for an elite level like I did, but try whatever it is you want to accomplish and believe in yourself.”

Megan continues, “I dedicate my races to someone who is going through a tough time. I do this because I hope it gives them a feeling of positivity and hope. I keep a picture of the person to remind me of that; I need that extra edge as I feel like it makes it worthwhile”.

Speaking about her future, Megan says, “The Rio 2016 Paralympics were my sole focus but if i get some more spare time I would like to try other activities such as mountain climbing or wall climbing. I used to be a wall-climbing instructor so it would be nice to get back to doing that. I also used to horse ride and I did try not long after my stroke, but as I didn’t have movement in my right side and couldn't sit upright properly. I ended up slipping off the side of the horse which deterred me. I now have better balance so I think it’s time to try it again.”