When musician Shona Brownlee had a fall at the end of her military training she didn’t think much of it – but after years of chronic pain she made a life-changing decision which unexpectedly took her to this year’s Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
Shona had been passionate about the French horn since childhood.
“Music is all I ever wanted to do,” she says. “My evenings and weekends were taken up with orchestra practices and concerts.”
Shona, from Livingston in Scotland, studied music at the highest level, first at Birmingham Conservatoire and then Arizona State University in America.
But life as a freelance musician was tough. Orchestral players are often only paid for the one or two rehearsals before a concert and then the performance itself. And it was unpredictable.
She knew of friends who had joined the RAF as musicians, for stability.
“I’d always thought the military wasn’t for me. But when I went to visit them and sat in on a couple of rehearsals you realise that the job is exactly the same as a civilian musician.
“You’re in a uniform, but you get the rehearsals, you get the concerts, the travel and world class bands.”
Shona applied to the RAF and was accepted as an aircraftwoman. Even with a focus on music she still had to meet the same entry requirements as all of the other recruits and complete basic training before she got to play.
There were a few lifestyle changes too. As well as fitness tests and early starts “we marched everywhere,” Shona smiles. “You have to march between whatever lessons you’ve got,” from service knowledge to weapon handling.
As Shona approached the end of basic training, she let herself imagine what her musical career would be like.
And then she fell.
“It was a simple accident,” she says of the fall from a ledge into a loading bay, and she thought nothing of it. Her ankle was sore, but she presumed it was sprained and would be fine soon enough.
She pushed herself to finish training and joined the band, but “band drill” – more marching – was out. She could barely walk.
Shona was referred to the famous Headley Court Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre and diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome which causes severe persistent and disabling pain. She tried various treatments from intensive rehabilitation to surgery.
“Nothing worked,” she says. “I was stuck on crutches with a leg that didn’t work.”
Shona continued to work with the RAF band, but on those occasions when she had to perform and march at the same time – one of its key components – she had to sit-out. It was frustrating and she hoped that one day a treatment would work.
After six years, without success, Shona’s medical team called her into a meeting: “There was nothing more that could be done,” they told her.
But Shona knew that wasn’t quite true.
Over the years, she had made friends with wounded veterans.
“Double or triple amputees who were so much more functional than I was because they were on prosthetics,” she says.
And she recalled a quip a friend had made years before – “you should have it chopped off”.
Shona knew he hadn’t been entirely joking, he himself had elected to have a leg amputation.
“At the time, I was a bit horrified and thought ‘I’d rather have a wonky leg than no leg’, but as time goes on, you think ‘that’s not such a bad thing’.”
Shona began to research the possibility and when she decided it was for her, she mentioned it to her medical team at Headley Court.
They took “a bit of convincing,” she says and spent a long time discussing all the pros and cons with her, including how she may be left with phantom limb pain. There was also the chance it might not work or she might not get on with a prosthetic.
Shona was willing to take the risk.
“After six years on crutches it seemed almost like there wasn’t a decision to make because my leg wasn’t working,” she says. “I had nothing to lose.
“I elected to have my leg amputated below the knee.”
Shona says coming to the decision herself helped her come to terms with the life-changing operation, even if she had to convince others.
But even with this conviction, on the day of the operation, she felt nervous. She had no idea if it would work and leave her pain free.
When Shona came around from the anaesthetic, she looked down.
“There was just a weird little bump where my leg should have been, but I do remember thinking ‘it doesn’t hurt, that’s a good sign’.”
Shona spent a week in hospital followed by six weeks using a wheelchair to ensure the stump healed before she got fitted for her prosthetic leg.
“I found it easier to adapt to than I was expecting,” she says. “It felt strange at first,” and she had to learn to take care to avoid blisters and sores. “But within a couple of months it felt normal.”
She was even able to march with the RAF band for the first time.
While Shona underwent rehab she spotted an advert for the RAF’s Battle Back programme which provides sport and adventure to injured and sick service people as part of their rehabilitation.
It was advertising a ski trip to Bavaria.
Shona signed-up. “It was going to be a nice little 10-day jolly, but that was the beginning of my skiing career,” she says.
Shona tried a sit-ski – an encased seat mounted on a single ski. Two handheld outriggers are used for balance and direction control.
“It was terrifying, but I really enjoyed it,” she says. “It’s a little like riding a bike. At first it’s quite wobbly but once you’ve found your balance point and your centre of gravity then it’s Ok.
“I wouldn’t say I picked it up particularly easily. I remember a lot of times being upside down, sliding down the hill head first, ending up in ditches.”
Despite the crashes, someone spotted Shona’s potential and introduced her to the Armed Forces Para-Snowsport Team (AFPST) which provides ski opportunities to injured service people as well as coaching and equipment.
The organisation also supported Para-nordic skier Scott Meenagh and snowboarder Owen Pick at this year’s Paralympic Games.
Between rehab and work, Shona started training properly and, with the support of the AFPST began to compete under the classification – LW12-2 – for athletes with amputations of the lower limbs.
Over the last 12 months, Shona’s career has taken off – first she made the British team, then competed in her first World Cup event and made the podium twice.
This week she made her debut at the Winter Paralympics. Although she fell in her first event – the super combined which includes a downhill and slalom event – and did not finish, she will compete in the giant slalom on Friday and the slalom on Sunday.
“It just snowballed,” she says.
Shona is now part of the RAF’s elite athlete scheme which allows service people to take time out from their assigned jobs and train full-time. She was also named RAF Sportswoman of the Year 2021.
It has been a golden time, but as much as Shona would love a gold medal, Beijing 2022 has been more about the experience.
“I feel like this is my warm-up,” she says. “Learn from it and then build on it in another cycle.
“But the eventual goal? I will still go back to the band and be a musician again.”
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