For Ken Te Tau, losing a foot meant gaining a second chance at life, as his amputation opened the way to new opportunities. But Ken also helps others by giving them hope and he now sees himself as someone who weaves people together. Ken offers peer support to fellow amputees in Aotearoa and gives amputees overseas a new life by recycling prostheses for charity Take My Hands. As a cultural adviser he brings Pākehā into the Māori world, as a musician he inspires Pink Floyd fans.
Ken Te Tau was on the waiting list to have his leg amputated when a sales rep came to his door. Ken watched the young man walk the 23 steps up to his house, and was amazed to open his front door and see he was an amputee.
‘I talked with him and he shared with me a small part of his journey as a young amputee. I just marvelled at him: he’d walked up my steps, he’d walked up my street. It was a great help for me.’
The young amputee gave Ken the priceless gift of hope. That was a decade ago. But in those few short years since his amputation, Ken’s life has changed dramatically and positively.
Ken, of Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Porou descent, was born with a bilateral congenital issue that affected both feet. Growing up in Porirua, he underwent multiple operations. There was ‘reasonable success’ with his right foot, but his left was ‘a dismal failure’. Ken suffered chronic pain which, as an adolescent, turned to anger. He found himself in trouble with the police. At 19, a hit and run accident damaged his legs further. A few years later, he fell and crushed his spine. ‘I should have been dead, years ago.’
Ken decided to have his leg amputated in his mid-40s. ‘Years of constant pain and discomfort had taken a toll on my family and me.’ It was a ‘relief’, he adds, ‘to finally be detached from my lifelong nemesis’.
He learned to ‘hobble gingerly’, then walk, then run. This ‘slow daily journey of discovery and self-analysis’, has given him ‘a second chance to re-live my life, but this time without pain’.
Ken is a musician. For 21 years he has played bass for tribute band The Pink Floyd Experience, which is touring New Zealand and Australia this year. Ken’s nickname is Rumblefoot, thanks to the good vibrations that emanate from his guitar.
Since 2014, Ken has also worked as a field officer for the Amputee Society in Wellington as well as a peer support volunteer for the New Zealand Artifical Limb Service (NZALS).
The cultural adviser for New Zealand Orthopaedic Association, Ken also has an advisory role with the Ministry of Health. While he recovered from his amputation he studied te reo Māori at Whitireia Polytech. That opened doors. For Ken it was a big deal to find himself in that role, in a short space of time.
Amputees all share the common experience of limb loss, but everyone’s experience is very different. ‘For some it’s a journey of loss, for others, it’s hope.’
Ken visits new amputees in hospital. They are unaware that he, too, is like them. But when they realise, they have a new awareness. ‘They see how well I am walking and it gives them a sense of hope that that could be them. They have a realisation of their future potential; they could walk again.’
Peer support is about manaakitanga: ‘making people feel welcome in this service, cared for, and valued, knowing that their voice can be heard, both the good and the bad.’
It is crucial for not only Māori but all patients regardless of their faith or ethnicity to be welcomed appropriately, according to these values. ‘They need to feel that it’s a culturally safe place for the whole whānau.’
Peer support is also about sharing his own lived experience, offering a unique ‘been-there, done-that’ perspective which no doctor can provide.
Ken works hard at inspiring his amputee whānau. His regular newsletters feature stories of people on a journey, of hope. Sometimes he feels vulnerable sharing his own kōrero. Then he remembers that he is empowering others to explore their own future potential.
He wants to set a real example of how amputees can have a full, healthy life and has committed to regular exercise, a semi-successful dietary plan and a get-up-and-go bucket list. Last year he ticked off a seven-hour traverse of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, ‘a huge undertaking for me, brutal and agonising, but extremely rewarding’.
In 2017, the NZALS was having a clear out. Any old used prostheses were earmarked for landfill.
Ken looked at the pile of artificial limbs sitting in the bin, backed his truck up, collected them and wondered what to do next.
Ken contacted Take My Hands founder Janette Searle and a shipment of artificial limbs was sent to the Hope Rehabiliation Society in Lahore, Pakistan. Janette says Ken is one of Take My Hands’ great champions. Through his advocacy, any NZALS equipment that can no longer be used in New Zealand is sent to Take My Hands. Amputees can now bring their old and no longer needed prostheses to the Wellington Artificial Limb Centre, where they will be assessed for their suitability to be donated to Take My Hands, a charity that recycles medical equipments and supplies, sending them to those in need overseas.
Take My Hands’ partners offer spare capacity in their warehouses and freight carriers, meaning it costs as little as 30c to change someone’s life. ‘It’s unreal right?’ says Ken, ‘By the time the end-user has a prosthesis made for them in another country, it’s extremely cheap. But priceless to that person.’
Take My Hands offers ‘compassion and hope, for other people like me’, he adds. ‘I think about my ability to walk, and the new potential that I’ve received from my prosthesis. Knowing that people in less well-off countries can benefit like that, too, is incredible.’
In the next 10 years Take My Hands aims to help a quarter of a million people by supplying almost 80,000kg of medical equipment and functional prosthetic equipment overseas to those who need it, while saving it from landfill in New Zealand. Giving your 1% to Take My Hands will help achieve this goal and give others the chance to live a normal life.
Interview by Rachel Helyer Donaldson. Images by Pat Shepherd.