It’s so easy to take things for granted when we are in good health. Particularly things we never have to think about – like the ability to walk.
So when a rare and excruciatingly painful foot condition left an active, adventure-loving 27-year-old unable to walk for more than five minutes at a time, it was devastating and turned her world upside down.
Donna Goddard, who lives in London but is originally from Worthing, remembers that the ordeal began when she sprained the ligaments in her foot on a trip away with work. She came home with a limp and it remained sore for the next few months.
While she was recovering, Donna’s dad tragically passed away after a short battle with cancer, which triggered a state of grief and emotional turmoil that she had never experienced before. She thinks the psychological stress of that period is inextricably linked with what happened with her foot.
‘It was a time of immense stress and I kind of just ignored that my foot was hurting,’ Donna said. ‘I was still walking on it and I didn’t really realise I was walking mainly on the outside of my foot, rather than the sole.
‘Then one day, I went for a walk down to the beach and it was suddenly like I was standing on a sharp rock. I had never felt anything like it.
‘After that it just got worse and worse until I was limping everywhere.
‘I went to the doctor where I cried hysterically (losing my dad, plus hating my job plus a limp will make you sad), and he basically told me I was depressed (I was) but that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with my foot.’
Thankfully, Donna is not the type to be dismissed easily, and she pushed her GP until he promised to send her for an MRI.
‘The MRI came back saying I had a neuroma, and they gave me a leaflet about my options – which started with steroid injections, which I had,’ she said. ‘They were fantastic but the effects only lasted a couple of months. Those months were the best my foot has been since it happened, just like back to normal!’
Morton’s neuroma is a condition where a nerve in your foot is irritated or damaged. The symptoms are a shooting, stabbing or burning pain in your foot, or it can feel like a stone is constantly stuck in your shoe. It can be incredibly painful.
Some people have tingling or numbness in their foot, and it often gets worse over time. For some people, even if treatment successfully cures the neuroma, it can come back again.
Donna was already dealing with the sudden loss of her dad and the breakdown of a six-year relationship – now she had a condition that meant she couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes without debilitating pain. All she wanted to do was go out dancing with her friends, exercise and go travelling – the coping strategies that would have helped her through her grief.
She was also running out of treatment options to cure her condition. You’re only allowed to have so many steroid injections, and the beneficial effects wore off quickly.
‘The leaflet from the NHS mentioned cryotherapy, but they don’t offer it,’ says Donna. ‘So, I did loads of research and found a place that did. I went to this new doctor for gait analysis, fancy insoles and eventually paid for the cryotherapy myself – but it went horribly for me.’
The cryotherapy treatment is supposed to cure the neuroma and leave you able to walk again in 48 hours.
‘But I was limping again for months after the procedure due to really bad internal bruising I think,’ explains Donna. ‘It slowly, slowly healed, but never got properly better.’
Donna then went back to the NHS and got referred to a surgeon for the full operation where they cut the nerve out of her foot in its entirety – which left her needing to use a wheelchair for much of her recovery.
The entire ordeal – from first experiencing pain to recovering from the operation -spanned more than three years, and Donna still can’t wear heels, run or walk for long periods of time. She has a permanent loss of feeling in a portion of her foot and on the inside of her second and third toes.
But it is not only the physical element of the condition that Donna has had to recover from. The pain, stress and trauma has also had a significant impact on her mental health.
‘It has been pretty awful,’ Donna tells us. ‘I’ve felt like it’s my fault, and it’s been really trying on my anxiety as I’ve felt constantly afraid of getting the condition in my other foot. I have felt like it is my fault that my foot hasn’t healed properly.’
The psychological impacts of suffering from a physical injury are very rarely discussed. People tend to focus on getting your body better, without considering how a life-limiting condition can impact your self-esteem, confidence and self-worth.
‘It also makes you feel trapped in your own body,’ says Donna. ‘Not being able to walk for more than a few minutes can make you feel really isolated and like you are a burden to everyone.
‘I’m also a really active person and bloody love a walk (I used to walk literally everywhere) so that’s been hard.’
Chronic pain and illnesses can be hard for people to understand. Particularly when the severity fluctuates, or if they are not immediately visible. Donna has found that communicating her pain to other people has been tough, and people haven’t always been fully supportive.
‘People tend to not understand that crippling foot pain means I can’t just go for a walk – I would love to, I just can’t.
‘People telling me “not to worry about it” is the most annoying thing ever, especially when they have no idea. Or when people ask, “oh god isn’t that better yet?!” Which just makes me feel guilty and like a burden – it’s like they’re saying I’m not doing enough to get better.’
But there have also been many positives and many incredibly supportive people in Donna’s life who have helped her to cope, and helped her to adapt her lifestyle to fit with her needs.
‘My mum is amazing and I am lucky to have her, says Donna. ‘My boyfriend was also amazing when I had the big surgery – he came to wheel me around in my wheelchair which meant I could go outside.
‘My friends are incredible and it has taught me that you can ask for help when you need it and most people are happy to help,’ says Donna
She also says that having a long-term foot injury has changed her perspective on life, and taught her that it is OK to slow down – both literally and figuratively.
‘I used to turn up everywhere stressed and like a whirlwind because I’d be so worried about being late I’d rush,’ she explains. ‘But, not being able to rush showed me that it’s OK to not achieve everything all the time. Taking time to get places or being slightly late sometimes is OK.’
More than three years after her foot trouble started, Donna is still feeling the effects on her mental health, but it is something she is learning to live with. She is determined to live her life regardless of the obstacles, and if that has to be at a slightly slower pace – so be it.
‘I’ve got better at just doing things and working out how to cope with it whilst doing them,’ says Donna. ‘I went on a work trip to Australia, which I wasn’t going to do initially because of my foot, but I swallowed my fear and I’m so glad I did.
‘But it makes even the smallest things very stressful as I try to work out how to get places with minimal walking and what impact what I do will have on my foot.
‘I can’t run, for ages I couldn’t jump and I still can’t put a lot of weight on my tiptoes. Just try walking round and imagine that there’s a sharp pain in the middle of your ball of your foot and how much that would impact everything, it’s a lot!’
Donna says the uncertainty around her recovery is the hardest thing. She doesn’t know if her foot will ever be back to normal, if she will ever be able to run or walk for long distances again. She’s working hard to stay positive, but she also knows it’s important to allow herself to have down days too.
‘It’s meant to be better than it is by now, but I have some amazing days and some really really bad days, so it’s just about muddling through,’ she says.
‘Nerve repair is non-linear so you can have ups and downs, and I am able to do lots more than I could even a few months back.
‘I try not to let it stop me doing things (within reason), but some days are tough, especially when it’s bad. I can probably never wear heels again, and I feel like I will never be quite so carefree on my feet.
‘There will always be the spectre of this in my mind – either it could happen in the other foot, or I could develop a stump neuroma in my injured foot which is not really treatable.
‘I would add that I do know of lots of people who successfully had the surgery and are doing really well months or years on from it.’
Donna is holding out hope that she is a slow healer, and that her foot will return to its former glory one day.
Until that day, she is grateful for the people in her life who have the empathy and patience to understand how her foot problem affects her. She is also thankful for her new perspective and ability to appreciate the little things in life.