Warning: This story contains details that some readers might find disturbing.
In July, 24-year-old Justin Fernandes nearly lost his life after being hit by a motorcycle while walking home from work in Mississauga. However, he just received the ultimate and perhaps the most personal of Christmas gifts that recognizes his traumatic experience: his severed leg, carefully preserved by a Toronto museum.
“It’s so rare and uncommon and strange that many taxidermists straight up said no when I asked, so it was a long process,” Fernandes told Global News on Thursday.
“I pretty much started this whole process five months ago and it took this long to get it all cleared for me to be here with it.”
It was on July 27 just after 9:30 p.m. when Fernandes was crossing the intersection of Dundas Street West and Erindale Station Road that he was struck. It’s alleged the driver briefly left the scene after the collision before returning.
A Peel Regional Police spokesperson told Global News the driver, a 29-year-old man from Mississauga, was charged in November with dangerous operation of a vehicle causing bodily harm and failure to stop causing bodily harm. He was set to appear in court in January.
“I didn’t really have much time to react and just got hit, clipped my leg and it severed — severed instantly — so yeah, it was an interesting night,” he said, adding he didn’t lose consciousness but was dehydrated after losing so much blood.
“The paramedics came, tied me up and made sure the blood loss stopped … I remember asking the paramedic if I was a) going to die from the blood loss and b) if he can put my leg back on because I knew at this point it was completely severed.”
Fernandes was taken to a trauma centre where he had emergency surgery. After being stabilized, he said it was recommended that he undergo a further amputation above the knee as he lost the skin and muscle on his knee and it would allow him to have better control and function of his new prosthetic leg.
“It was very distressing at the time. I was still basically in shock. I had no idea what I was going through — a lot of mixed feelings,” Fernandes said, recalling the initial weeks when he had to hop in the hospital with the assistance of a walker before he was fitted for a new prosthesis.
“Your body just kind of adjusts and forgets, and it’s amazing after 24 years you can just forget how to walk. I didn’t know what to do. It took many weeks for me to learn how to walk basically.”
When it came to determining what to do with the severed limb, he said he wasn’t sure at first what exactly he wanted to do. But Fernandes said one thing was clear to him.
“I decided I didn’t want it cremated. It wasn’t really my decision to lose this leg. I’m going to make it my decision about what I want to do with it,” he said, recalling how he turned to taxidermy.
“I became fixated on it. I knew it could be possible and I wanted to make it happen.
“Something in me started liking the idea more and more. It was so strange. I was so fascinated with how you can turn something that people look at as dark and grotesque and morbid and turn it almost into a piece of art, something unique, something beautiful.”
Fernandes said since he didn’t want to follow the cremation process, it was up to him to navigate and negotiate with the hospital on how to preserve and ultimately transfer the leg.
“After about 50 emails and 100 phone calls, I had to make sure it was cleared every step of the way,” he said.
Ultimately Fernandes found a taxidermist who provided a hefty quote of approximately $15,000, and that was assuming the leg would be released by the hospital.
Not sure what to do next, he turned to Facebook, where an employee of Prehistoria Natural History Centre, described as an independent nature and archaeological museum, came across the plight late at night and messaged his boss.
“I’m like, ‘Get back on there right now, message this guy and tell him don’t get tricked, don’t get ripped off by this guy, we’ll figure something out. I want to know more, we’ll see what we can do,” Ben Lovatt, the founder and the owner of the museum, told Global News, adding the cost for him and his team to do the job was a small fraction of the other taxidermist quoted.
Lovatt said they arranged a meeting outdoors at a parking lot since Fernandes didn’t receive his prosthesis yet.
“We kind of got to know each other, build that level of trust you need for something like this, and he seemed like a great guy in a rough situation with a very unique take on finding closure,” he said.
The staff and Lovatt had a meeting after to decide if they would take on the task, calling it “emotionally heavy” given the circumstances. Two employees would be needed to remove the flesh and muscle carefully with scalpels and a third employee was assigned the job of reconstructing the bones. Lovatt said the bones were shattered and they needed to move slowly to “get a better understanding of the situation.”
When it came to taking possession of the limb from the hospital, Lovatt said they had to alleviate concerns raised by the hospital’s administrators, their lawyers and the hospital’s ethics board.
He said there were points when they didn’t think this would be able to happen since they had to demonstrate their ability to work with hazardous materials, have access to personal protective equipment and demonstrate sterilization procedures.
Lovatt said since bones are saturated in blood, fluids, and potentially pathogens, it would be a multi-month cleaning process to clean and whiten the specimens.
“In the end, we seemed to reach an agreement that it would be unethical to deny somebody the ability to make themselves complete again and to heal and to get closure if it can be done safely and responsibly,” Lovatt said.
“Once all the paperwork was filed, we just knew it was a waiting game and would get a call. On a Tuesday or a Wednesday, I got a call and it’s somebody saying, ‘We’re going to be at your facility in 15 minutes and we have Justin’s leg in the back of the vehicle for you.”
Lovatt called the experience a “unique learning experience” and said the fact Prehistoria is an educational facility helped get the leg released.
“None of us had actually worked on a fresh human specimen. We’ve done a lot of work with antiques and vintage skeletons … we wanted to get a full understanding of every layer, every structure within a leg and within a foot and make sure we didn’t damage anything in the process,” he said.
“We were as gentle as we could, so a process that would normally take a couple of weeks for a common furbearer and normal piece of wildlife we actually stretched out to last about a month just to make sure everything was perfect. Perfection was definitely important on this project.”
Lovatt said it then took a few days to reassemble the leg. He said it was mounted on a silhouette of Fernandes’ footprint and assembled using wire and museum-grade glue, noting there is flexibility for handling.
“This leg will last a lot longer than Justin based on how we built it,” he said.
So on Wednesday, Lovatt and his team presented Fernandes “with a piece of himself” and said it was their honour to help him. It was originally supposed to be closer to his birthday, but became a “happy accident” it happened right before Christmas.
“This wasn’t just a project for us. There’s a reason we refused payment to do this because this wasn’t a project for money — this was beyond that realm,” he said.
“This was something that was real and important. This is a young man whose life has been forever changed and this is an object that will make his life better, his healing better, and that meant the world to us.
“We’ve basically become best friends in this process and we never expected that something so tragic could create such a bright spot in our lives, and Justin is that bright spot.”
Meanwhile, Fernandes, who said he was an avid cyclist and hiker, said he is looking forward to getting to a point in 2021 or beyond where he can do the things he loves after spending a month-and-a-half in hospital initially and two months as an inpatient at a physical rehabilitation centre. He still goes to physio on a weekly basis.
Even though he said some friends joked with him and suggested he turn the leg figure into a lamp or a cane, he isn’t sure yet where it will ultimately be displayed.
“It’s a story. It’s a conversation piece,” Fernandes said.