All Justin Fernandes wanted for Christmas was his right lower leg.
This would be difficult as Fernandes lost this leg from the knee down after he was struck by a motorcycle in a hit and run in July. But with the help of a crew who make their living working with the carcasses of dead animals, Fernandes got just what he asked for.
The project began with Fernandes, 24, who, after having his leg amputated, immediately began requesting to be given his leg. The hospital initially believed it was a result of the painkillers he was on and tried to tell him no but Fernandes was persistent—he wanted that leg.
It wasn't just the hospitals who proved to be a problem for Fernandes, though. The young man contacted a plethora of local taxidermists who either turned him down or gave him astronomical quotes for the project. Eventually, in desperation, he made a post on a local Facebook taxidermy group and someone tagged the folks from Toronto’s Prehistoria Natural History Centre (PNHC)—a Toronto-based museum and shop that specializes in skeletal remains. Ben Lovatt, the owner and curator of the museum, told VICE World News he and his crew were immediately interested in helping Fernandes pro bono.
“We have done everything from restoring ancient Egyptian animal mummies to assembling the skeleton of an entire whale found rotting on a beach,” said Lovatt. “But with Justin's leg, it was a whole other type of project.
“Technically it was something well within our capability but there were the psychological consequences of working on a decaying piece of somebody you know. As well as the logistical issue of all of the red tape and paperwork that came with doing something no one has ever done before in our province.”
Lovatt called Fernandes a strong person who went through one of the most traumatic things a person can experience—losing a limb—with a smile on his face, so they were dead set on helping him. Despite their good intentions, hospitals (for good reason) don’t release bodies and limbs willy-nilly to the public so Lovatt, his staff and Fernandes had to jump through several hoops.
So jump they did. Eventually, after virulently promising not to do anything weird with it, the hospital finally acquiesced and released the leg to them through a funeral home who worked as a middle man.
Then the real work began.
The museum set up a clean room in their new facility and stocked it full of all the proper PPE and tools Despite the detailed plan, there were setbacks. Perhaps the biggest was that the hospital didn’t keep the leg on ice, but instead refrigerated it. it wasn’t the freshest subject we’ve ever had,” Lovatt said.
“There was an odour that triggered a lot of basic human instinct,” said Lovatt. “So that was I think that was probably the hardest part for me.
The group brewed a few pots of coffee in an attempt to offset the smell and got to work. Noelle McKim and Dan Malette, both employees of the PNHC, were given the grisly task of taking the human leg, stripping it of its flesh, meat, and ligaments and turning it into a skeleton worthy of displaying.
“It was very psychological. I had to take a lot of breaks,” said Malette in a video the museum made about the process. “I had to take a shot at one point to calm my nerves.”
Mallette said he almost threw up when McKim cut the achilles tendon and he heard it snap back into the leg. “I learned a lot about human anatomy and I almost passed out like twice,” quipped McKim.
The duo took a lot of short breaks for their mental health during the process and made sure to update Fernandes on the state of his leg. A job of this size would normally take them about an hour, Lovatt said, but this one took 6 or7 hours.
After an arduous process, the group finally had stripped the leg of all meat, cartilage and everything "alive." The bones were then given to an employee to take all the small pieces and put them back together like a macabre yuletide jigsaw puzzle.
Finally, months after the crew and Fernandes first made contact, the staff at the museum gave him his gift. In December, Fernandes, walking with the help of a cane and wearing a red T-Rex Christmas sweater, went to the PNHC and got his leg back.
Lovatt said the crew knew presenting Fernandes with his leg could be a heavy experience so they decided to add some levity to it. As Malette brought it out, they sang “happy leg-day”—and presented his leg, now just the bones plus a bright red bow.
“It’s overwhelming really,” Fernandes said when he received his leg. “I was calling different taxidermists who just said ‘oh, hell no...’ When I had seen how much you guys wanted to do this, it was like ‘this is perfect, these are my people.’”
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