Through Hell and Back: The Story of the First Female Amputee Firefighter

April 10, 2021Joshua Skovlund
amanda sullivan, first female amputee firefighter

Amanda Sullivan said she feels like she can finally relax a little but will always be ready to answer the calls from her community. Photo courtesy of Amanda Sullivan.

She was tired of the wheelchair, tired of the pain, tired of the headaches from the brain injuries, tired of the countless surgeries and indignities that came from being in two traffic accidents in two months. Mostly, she was tired of being a burden to family and friends.

That’s what Amanda Sullivan was thinking as she swallowed the first few sleeping pills of a full bottle. But one thought stopped her: If she went through with this, her mom would be the one to find her body. 

“Who’s going to find my body? It’s going to be my mom,” Sullivan said. “But she also won’t have the burden of having to literally have me chained to her with this super heavy chair, and the super heavy burden of taking care of me. And I started realizing, all right, like, I just, it’s not that I want to die. I just don’t want to live with this pain.”

But she decided she would.

Amanda Sullivan
“This was at one of those street fairs my mom would push me around after my doctor’s appointments. This man saw us from afar and hurried over to come say hello. He gave me a bunch of tips on how his family helps deal with nerve pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.,” said Amanda Sullivan. “I was so excited to see someone who was out and about, because I was starting to feel sad that I was so different from everyone else running from one thing to the next. This man was definitely an angel in disguise. I asked him if he had ever done ‘a crutchie high-five’ before. He had never heard of such a thing. I felt a surge of positive energy, hope, and light fill my soul the second our crutches touched. My mom saw it in my face. So, she took a bunch of pictures to remember it by.” Photo courtesy of Amanda Sullivan.

Ten years later, Sullivan has been a professional adaptive athlete for Spartan Races. She’s run 100 road races, including three marathons.

Due to pandemic restrictions, she graduated from a fire academy but didn’t have a graduation ceremony. She passed her final exam on Dec. 19 and became what she believes is the first woman amputee to become a firefighter. 

Amanda Sullivan has been through hell and back to earn her new career. But she’s been overcoming hardship her whole life.

Sullivan grew up with two brothers, Ryan and Teddy, and an older sister, Kelley, just outside of New York City, on the New Jersey side. Her family enjoyed the lifestyle of her father’s Wall Street job, but that changed when he lost his career to addictions. As her family struggled, Sullivan says, she faced periods of sexual abuse from other adults in her life. As control over her life seemed to spiral away, she made a deal with God. 

“It actually started [when I was] pretty young. But I remember when I was in like second grade, making a pact with God,” she says. “‘Listen, if you can get me out of this situation and make this not happen to me anymore, I will do everything in my power to make sure no little kid like me has to cry themselves to sleep at night.’”

Her prayers were answered when the makeup of her home underwent a reshuffle. Sullivan’s grandmother moved in. For the rest of her childhood, her mother, Marianna, and grandmother instilled a sense of mission that encouraged her to take matters into her own hands.

She played as many team sports as possible and became a good athlete. Her father went to rehab and reached sobriety, but her parents were separated, so she made it a goal of getting on traveling teams so that he could attend her games. 

She attended Villanova University, just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she worked in community outreach programs and graduated with degrees in Spanish and sociology.

Next, she moved to Guatemala and then Mexico, running an orphanage with Catholic missionaries, and taught Spanish in villages that still spoke Mayan. Later on, she transitioned from missionary work to working as a humanitarian aid worker. While working with these children, she realized that many had scars all over their body, which, she realized, came from years of abuse. This flushed out Sullivan’s own traumatic memories. But her time with the kids forced her to confront and begin to overcome those memories.

Amanda Sullivan
Amanda Sullivan on a mission trip to Central America. Photo courtesy of Amanda Sullivan.

In February 2009, Sullivan was home for an extended winter holiday, fundraising for an orphanage, when she was in a car wreck. Sullivan tore several ligaments, broke her nose, and sprained multiple portions of her spine. Doctors diagnosed her with a traumatic brain injury and ordered six weeks of bed rest before physical therapy. Despite the pain, she still figured she’d be up and walking to open the orphanage. 

Six weeks later, she parked her car near her physical therapy office for her first appointment and began walking across the street. An elderly driver leaving a cardiologist appointment, who was having a bad reaction to medicine he’d just taken because of the alcohol he drank earlier in the day, lost control of his car and struck Sullivan. 

Sullivan has no memory of what followed, but witnesses saw her nearly get pulled under the car after the impact. She ended up on the hood. Witnesses would tell her that the driver’s wife attempted to pick her up and shove her into the back seat of their car. One of the witnesses later recalled in court that the woman was telling Sullivan she would give her money if she would just come with them and not call the cops. The man sped away after bystanders grabbed his wife to prevent her from fleeing the scene. 

Amanda Sullivan
Amanda Sullivan’s left leg after her second accident, left. She would randomly get migraines followed by bleeding from her ears, nose, or sometimes both, after her accident. Photos courtesy of Amanda Sullivan.

After the second accident, Sullivan awoke in a hospital bed again, with another brain injury, more broken bones, including her facial bones and skull, and other severe injuries. Within days she realized her work in Central America was over. She spent the next three years recovering, grappled with the loss of much of her former athlete’s strength and mobility.

It was then that the thought of her mom stopped her from taking the pills. And together, the two of them started to climb out. Sullivan got to know her mom better than she ever had before as Marianna helped her get to medical appointments, wheeling her up or down stairs, helping her adjust to life in a wheelchair. Marianna’s strength inspired her, and one day she had built up enough strength to take her first couple of steps on a treadmill. 

She moved forward with a vengeance. Pushed by friends she knew in recovery, she walked her first 5K in eight grueling hours during the 2012 Tunnel to Towers, an annual event in memory of New York firefighter Stephen Siller. She’s now completed over 100 road races, including three full marathons. In 2013, she started doing Spartan Races and quickly built up a large group of racing friends, many of whom were amputees. In December 2013, she became the first female adaptive athlete awarded the Spartan Trifecta Medal and soon joined the Spartan Pro team.

Then, in 2015, things all seemed to crash down again. Marianna was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and doctors said she had a month to live. Around the same time, Sullivan went through a divorce. Still, as she trained for the NYC Marathon, Sullivan and her family continued to care for her mother. She considered stopping, but Marianna staunchly encouraged her to keep training. 

“She had cancer in her pancreas, she had three tumors in her spine, and two unrelated masses in her heart,” Sullivan remembers. But still, Marianna inspired her. “One of my mom’s favorite things that she would always say […] whenever people would just go on and on and on about lunch things that my mom would always just like, wait a little bit. And then she’d say, ‘But besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how is the play?’”

Sullivan and her siblings took care of Marianna until her death in March 2018. Marianna had beaten the doctors’ estimate, showing the same indomitable spirit as her daughter. 

“My mom showed me how to rise out of the ashes of heartbreak and despair. She taught me how to never allow anyone to narrow, nor degrade my soul, enough to make me hate them. I’m grateful for all of it, even if the biggest lessons are sometimes the most painful.”

She ran another Spartan Race, but the pain made her think the condition of one of her legs had deteriorated. Doctors agreed and said amputation was now necessary.

Amanda Sullivan, first female amputee firefighter
Amanda Sullivan holding up her running prosthetic leg after getting her new firefighter leg. Photo courtesy of Amanda Sullivan.

“They told me it’s essentially dead below your knee right now, like you have no circulation. Like, hello, it’s like black and purple,” Sullivan said. “I thought this was normal for my races. I don’t know. You know, when something is so bad for so long, you just get used to it is kind of what was happening. Like, I just thought I had poor circulation. I did have poor circulation. But I also had a lot of other problems.”

In what felt like a flash, she’d lost her marriage, her mother, and now her leg. She decided it was time to turn a corner: She chose to pursue becoming a first responder. Sullivan had been saved by first responders after her accidents and she had grown close to the family of Stephen Siller, from the Tunnel to Towers Race.

It all pointed her toward firefighting.  

She was worried about taking on the rigors of a fire academy but soon found examples of other amputee firefighters. However, they were all men. Still, she contacted the Manville Fire Department chief, Joe Barilla, and asked: Am I crazy, or do you think I can do this?

Barilla met Sullivan and immediately felt her drive to live. 

“This woman can easily have a book or even a movie made about her life,” Barilla told Coffee or Die Magazine. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Amanda Sullivan, first female amputee firefighter
Maizie, an 8-year-old amputee, felt so inspired by Amanda Sullivan’s accomplishments that she dressed up as her for Halloween. Photos courtesy of Amanda Sullivan.

Barilla set Sullivan up for success at the academy by teaching her different aspects of firefighting and how to physically prepare for the tests. She was signed off and selected by the city to be sent to the fire academy as a probationary firefighter in June 2020. The only caveat was that she needed a specialized prosthetic leg for the job. Tom Dalsey, from Pro-Fit, reached out to her and offered to help. Dalsey had previously made prosthetics for a firefighter in southern New Jersey. She received her new firefighter leg in time to get a little practice with it the night before the practical test, which is taken in 65 pounds of firefighter gear. If you fail the test, you get two chances to retake it.

“I passed every time on the first take,” Sullivan said. “So then I graduated and I was so excited — just so relieved. Like, oh thank God, it’s finished.”

Barilla, who is currently an engineer at the Manville Fire Department after fulfilling his two-year rotation as fire chief, said that he believes Sullivan will inspire a whole new generation of people to become firefighters.

“It struck me as brave because, No. 1, with the amputation, you know, there’s always questions about [the] individual’s physical abilities,” Barilla said. ”And then being a woman in a field that’s pretty much dominated by males, it takes a bit of guts to go in there, want to participate, and want to be a firefighter.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to clarify that Sullivan believes she is the first woman amputee to qualify as a firefighter. At least one other woman firefighter has become an amputee during their career as a firefighter. Arlene Cohen, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, firefighter, became an amputee in 2009 and returned to duty. Cohen took 7th in para snowboarding at the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Read Next: Special Operations Veteran, Elite Athlete Patty Collins on Life After Losing Her Leg

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.

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