Finding a Purpose and Second Family with the War Amps

Sima Culjak survived for seven days in a canyon and had both legs amputated. The War Amps helped her find a second home.

In the winter of 1985, my sister, Drazenka, and I were just teenagers when we were walking from our village in the former Yugoslavia to visit our mom in the nearest town. We were poorly dressed for the harsh weather, wearing only jean jackets with blouses underneath. As it was dark and snowing heavily, we got lost in a canyon. No one knew we were missing as our mom didn’t think we’d attempt the trek in a snowstorm and our dad had assumed we arrived. There were no cell phones then, so we couldn’t tell anyone that we were lost.

After seven days without food or sleep, we decided to recite our last prayer. At this time, we heard a group of hunters nearby and I called out to them. We were rescued later that day and taken to the hospital. Drazenka and I had frostbite and an infection in our lungs. In order to save our lives, doctors had to amputate both of our legs below the knee.

Our story captured media attention and strangers lined up around the hospital to give us their well wishes. The encouragement and positivity from the community helped both Drazenka and me tremendously in our recovery.

Sima Culjak in the office

Image Credits: Photo: Sima Culjak

In 1990, my husband and I moved to his native Canada. Not knowing English and being a double-leg amputee, I wondered how I was going to find a job. My husband told me about The War Amps Key Tag Service, a lost-key return service that employs amputees and people with disabilities in Toronto. We knocked on their door and staff member Rob Larman, a leg amputee himself, welcomed us. Rob offered me a job on the spot and when he asked when I wanted to start, I said “tomorrow.”

I began working in production, stuffing envelopes for mailing, which is also where I learned to speak English. Today, I’m an assistant supervisor in the remittance/processing department, where I train employees and oversee the donations that come in.

The War Amps Key Tag Service was started in 1946 so that war amputee veterans could work for competitive wages and provide a service to Canadians that would generate funds for the association.

The War Amps is my second home and family. As many of my co-workers are amputees, we share a special bond. There’s a lot of mutual support and we show one another that the sky is the limit.

Sima Culjak in the pool

Image Credits: Photo: Sima Culjak

I have always loved the water. It relaxes me and clears my mind, but I didn’t think I could swim until another leg amputee at work told me that they were going scuba diving. Today, I swim and take part in all sorts of activities such as sailing, yoga, dancing and bowling.

People are often surprised to learn that I’m missing both of my legs because they don’t expect a double-leg amputee to be wearing four-inch heels! A coworker of mine who recently lost her leg was shocked when I revealed to her that I’m an amputee. She said that she had thrown away all her high-heel shoes because she didn’t think she could wear them again. After seeing me, she realized that it is possible.

It’s rewarding to work for an organization that is making a difference in the lives of Canadian amputees by providing financial assistance for the cost of artificial limbs, advocating for the rights of amputees and providing employment.

It also means a lot to me that I’m helping other amputees realize that an amputation isn’t a barrier to living a full and active life. I feel fortunate to have come to Canada, an incredible country, where I found my purpose and second family. My life has truly come full circle.

Next, read the incredible story of how a small Saskatchewan community rallied to save the life of an unborn baby.

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Originally Published in Our Canada