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Joshua Nowlan: 'The Final Step'

Aurora theater shooting survivor amputates leg
Posted at 4:04 PM, Feb 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-13 00:33:11-05

DENVER --  Shot twice while protecting others in the Aurora theater shooting, Joshua Nowlan has lived with unrelenting pain in his leg for more than five years.

He has decided it is time to amputate. He calls it "the final step" in his journey of pain.

"From when I first wake up to when I go to bed is a constant reminder of what happened to me," said Nowlan. "If I can amputate the leg, then there is one more piece I can finally let go of the tragedy. And it's another hurdle in my life I can finally get over."

For Nowlan, the pain started on July 20, 2012, when he was shot in the arm and the leg inside the theater. Both were nearly blown off – nearly.

Since then, what's left has left him in a desperate search for relief.

"Of course, here's my pain meds," said Nowlan, putting one prescription pill bottle after the next onto the counter. "This is just the starting point."

From opioids, to cannabis oil, to injections and acupuncture, he's tried anything and everything. He hates the way pain medication makes him feel. And nothing else has worked for long.

However, it seemed like it was – from the outside. He rides his bike, ran a marathon, and does CrossFit. But he says none of that feels real.

"They're great accomplishments, but it's still not really me. The pain is really there," he said. "I've just got to the point where I am tired of the 'Band-Aid' fixes. I feel that amputating my leg is my final step, and I want to go to the final step."

To him, amputation is about getting his quality of life back. But mostly, it's about stopping the pain.

For years, Dr. John Schwappach, the trauma surgeon who saved Nowlan's leg the night of the shooting, has been looking for answers other than amputation.

"I think for the last four years, we've hoped that the pain would go away and it simply hasn't," said Schwappach.

Nowlan had to get opinions from other doctors, too, who agreed that, at this point, amputation is reasonable.

"I'm excited. It's time. I want my life to be better. I want my family's life to be better with me," said Nowlan on the morning of the surgery. 

He is nervous, but he is ready – wearing a hat that has the date and symbol of the Aurora theater shooting.

"This is a very special hat for me. It shows everybody that was there is here with me," he said, showing the hat to the team that would soon take off his limb.

All along this journey, he feels he has never been alone.

"I want to show people that even after five years of pain, we still suffer," he said. "But we can still push through, regardless."

The surgery to amputate a leg is expected to take less than two hours. Nowlan's takes a little longer than expected because of massive scarring from the gunshot wound and the nerve doctors found trapped inside.

"I think it's likely the cause of his pain and discomfort and that was able to be removed," said Schwappach.

This is Nowlan's eighth surgery since the shooting, and every time he wakes up, he remembers what happened that night.

"I'm just having a flashback when I first woke up in the hospital after the shooting, and that was actually a lot of pain," he said. "I'm not feeling any pain right now."

The moment he sees where his leg once was, he is shocked, at first. And then, he starts to cry -- while he smiles.

"It's done. It's really done," he said. "I'm happy now. I'm really happy. These are tears of joy."

Just after the surgery, though, Nowlan had complete renal failure, a rare complication of the surgery doctors never expected.  He said he almost lost both of his kidneys and was in the hospital for weeks.

If you would like to help with Nowlan's medical expenses, click here.