The heroic tale of the WanderSafe wonder woman

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Long-time readers of this Blog will recall the story of Stephenie Rodriguez, well-known in travel retail as a digital media specialist and founder of the WanderSafe personal protection device. Stephenie was – correction, still is – on a mission to impact one billion lives by 2025 through empowering women and vulnerable people to travel and commute more safely.

That mission, though, had to be put on the backburner for a while. As related in my earlier Blog, Stephenie caught cerebral malaria after being bitten by a mosquito during a WanderSafe business trip to Nairobi, Kenya in September 2019. Cerebral malaria is the severest complication of the disease, whereby the parasite infects the spinal fluid. Officially, one in five diagnosed cerebral malaria patients die, though the true mortality rate is certainly much higher.

The infection led to a prolonged battle for life against septic shock.  Stephenie spent over a week in a coma in a Boston, US hospital where she had the last rites administered three times. Somehow, she made it through and, in time, back to her native Australia. But her battles were far from over. By late 2019 Stephenie faced amputation of her toes and heel reconstruction and would have to learn to walk again. In Sydney she was hospitalised for months, undergoing painful, often frustrating treatment and rehab.

I would like to jump to a happy ever after ending (that will come, but not yet) but the severity of her condition meant another extraordinary development. I will let Stephenie take up the story, for her words carry more impact than mine ever can. “On Wednesday, March 31, 2021, we took a leap of faith and I underwent bilateral amputations of both of my feet as they were deemed ‘unviable’ and my choices were surgery or a wheelchair and pain for life,” she wrote in an 8 April post on Facebook’s TR Meeting Point page, just eight days after the double amputation.

“I made the tough call, and I am pleased to inform you that the prognosis is positive, the pain has been removed (I still am recovering from surgery-related bruising and healing) and I will walk again, on robotic feet. I have 8 weeks to go in a medical rehab hospital here in Sydney to learn how to walk on these new feet, but I can confidently say that you will see me on a dance floor at the Scene, and walking across a number of stages again sharing knowledge and inspiring others giving a TED talk.

“Rehab is hard as I have been bed-ridden and in a wheelchair for 17 months now and mobility is an uphill challenge. I am getting stronger and I take it all in stride and try and stay positive.”

That rehab includes physio, doing weight-bearing on the stoma for the titanium shaft that extends from her amputation site somewhere between mid-calf and ankle. Initially Stephenie could manage 10kg for ten minutes. From that point, an additional 5kg is being added at each physio session until she can manage 35 kg capability. When that milestone is reached, the prosthetics will be attached and Stephenie will begin the long, arduous but ultimately triumphant process of learning to walk again.

This morning she posted: “Today we hit a milestone with our weight bearing in the harness, 20kgs for 15 minutes. I’m closer to walking each and every day. I feel a great paradigm shift physically as I don’t have the unwavering pain in the feet.

“If we can get to 35kg of loading before next Thursday I’ll be fitted with my first pair of training feet, my prosthetics, which will give me the ability to begin gate training as part of medical rehab that will run extensively for the next 6 to 8 weeks to help me adjust to this new augmented body. I’m excited about what the future holds with prosthetics and then I’ll finally be able to be upright and more mobile so I can get back to the business of Jozu for Women Inc and WanderSafe and our mission to impact 1 billion lives by 2025 by democratising safety.”

Lots of industry folks responded to Stephenie’s earlier 8 April post with our sector’s trademark blend of kindness, concern and humour. Wild Tiger’s Gautom Menon asked, “Where do I sign up to have a dance with you at the Scene [in Cannes]?”

Picking up on that theme, I challenged some of Stephenie’s musically-minded industry friends such as Denz Devarez, Adil Raïhani, Thomas Kaneko Henningsen and Rajiv Bhatia to create the Stephenie version of Jerusalema, the dance craze first performed by Angolan dance troupe Fenómenos do Semba to the South African hit song Jerusalema (#JerusalemaDanceChallenge) that went viral during the pandemic.

Let’s call it ‘StephenieDanceChallenge’. You can either do your best version of the Jerusalema dance or make up your own. Via this and some other initiatives we’ll do our best to raise some funds for Stephenie’s gofundme site (created to tell her story and raise funds for a long and expensive medical process involving surgical costs far above those covered by insurance). First prize? The first dance with Stephenie, of course, who will be judge of the best moves. Let’s dance.

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