With a lifelong love of the arts, Melanie is a filmmaker and actor who also works as an acting coach, yoga instructor and adaptive model.
When a medical emergency led to Melanie needing to have her right arm amputated below the elbow when she was 22 years old, she found making films around disability was something that really helped her process and come to terms with what she had been through. She is now a shining light for disability advocacy within film and television!
We spoke to Melanie to find out more and to ask what she thinks of her Koalaa prosthetic!
Can you tell us a little more about your limb difference?
In 2013, I was working in my dream job at Walt Disney World when I suddenly became very ill. I was diagnosed with Lupus, which is basically a disease that occurs when your body's immune system attacks your own tissues and organs.
I developed two blood clots in the artery of my right arm and having no luck getting rid of them, doctors administered a medication called Heparin. Unfortunately, it turns out I am highly allergic to Heparin – I was like the one in a million to have an adverse reaction to it - and they ended up having to amputate my arm below the elbow.
They told me it is extremely rare to react to it like I did, with the rate of survival being very slim. So I know I'm very lucky to have survived.
How did the amputation impact your life?
After it happened, I moved back home with my parents. It was a huge struggle. I wanted more than anything to have my independence back but at the same time I realised how fortunate I was to be able to come home.
I had just graduated from my undergraduate degree at Rutgers University, where I studied both journalism and theatre. Being a theatre degree major, they really nailed it home to us that when we left school things were going to get even more competitive because everybody wants to be an actor!
I really started questioning things. I already knew it was going to be hard as a non-disabled actor. But how, with my disability, was I going to be able to get back into what I loved so much?
That was when the disability film challenge EasterSeals came into play. I started creating my own short films and stories showing different characters in situations where disability is on display and how the outside reacts to it. It was a really good coping mechanism. Seeing myself on screen again for the first time and coming out of my shell also helped me accept and process what had happened - and that changed my life.
How did you first come across Koalaa?
I first came across Koala on social media and then saw a few friends get one and start posting about it. But it was the content around yoga that really grabbed my attention.
I am a registered yoga teacher and adaptive yoga instructor. When Koalaa shared a video of a class of people using their Koalaas to do yoga, I think I got like 20 direct messages that day asking, ‘What is it?’ and ‘Why aren’t you doing this in the US?. So, I decided to reach out.
What enticed me the most was that in the video everyone was sitting in a circle getting fitted. They were fitted that same day, and within minutes, then all of them were then practising yoga together. That was a game changer for me, because I can't tell you how many months it usually takes from getting fitted for a limb, to it being delivered. It can be at least five months - I don't think I've ever gotten one with a faster turnaround that that.
When I went on to meet with the Koalaa team, they fitted me there and then and it blew my mind.
What have you used your Koalaa for?
I’ve taken it surfing. I wasn't successful in standing up, but I’ve surfed in the past and I’m keen to go more. My dad also has a drum set in the family home, so I’ve tried drumming with it too.
I also love riding my bike so I’m looking forward to trying that again. And of course, I’ve used it for yoga. Happy to report that I had an absolute BLAST!
What do you love about your Koalaa?
What I love about the Koala is that you can adjust your size daily because weight fluctuates. That's the thing that frustrates me the most about other prosthetics - that they fit one day and then five months down the line things change and you can't wear it anymore and then you're done.
I also love that my Koalaa is so light. That means so much to me because the weight of my other prosthetics causes chronic pain in my arm. The first day I was fitted with my Koalaa, I didn’t take it off for hours! I was just so happy.
I didn't expect it to be waterproof and machine washable either. Those are also really great things for me. A lot of devices, when you sweat, you have to take what's called an arm break and take your device off. But with Koalaa, I don't have to do that because it is all material. Any moisture simply gets absorbed, and I can just throw it in the wash at the end of the day.
It’s a game changer. I keep saying that, but it really is!
What would you say to someone thinking of getting a Koalaa?
I would say - Yes! Do it!
It is something that has changed my quality of life. It’s allowed me to get back to doing activities that I used to do but wasn't able to anymore. It's really cool to get that opportunity.
Thank you Melanie for taking time to share your story with us!