Five years ago, the model and activist lost her right leg — and nearly her life — when she contracted toxic shock syndrome, a complication of bacterial infections associated with tampon use. Though she initially fought to keep her left leg, which was also severely damaged as a result of the infection, Wasser decided to have it amputated in January.
“I was ready,” Wasser, 30, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, which also includes her first photos as a double amputee. “For five years of my life I was just getting by — every day was painful. I couldn’t wear heels, I couldn’t run and I could only walk for like 20 minutes. That’s not living.”
It all started on October 3, 2012, when Wasser came down with what she thought was the flu at a friend’s birthday party. After her friends told her she looked too sick to stay, the 24-year-old drove herself home to her Santa Monica apartment and went straight to sleep.
A week and a half later, she woke up in the hospital.
She had been placed in a medically induced coma at Saint John’s Health Center after police found her face down on her bedroom floor with a 107-degree fever.
“They had no idea why this young, healthy, 24-year-old active girl was plummeting,” she says.
Luckily, an infectious disease doctor had been on call at the hospital. He asked if Wasser had a tampon in — which she did — and the lab results revealed she had TSS. Although Wasser had changed her tampon multiple times the day she got sick, she ended up suffering a massive heart attack and developed gangrene. The condition affected her right leg so severely that doctors had to amputate it, but her left foot also had major damage.
“I didn’t have toes, and my heel was basically burnt off,” she says of her left foot. “They gave me a 50/50 chance then that I wouldn’t be able to have a functioning foot, [but] I gave them a big, ‘You’re not going to stop me.’ I kept my whole leg, and I knew God would get me through it. He did, and I saved it for as much as I could.”
With the support of her photographer girlfriend Jennifer Rovero — “my angel,” she calls her — Wasser eventually decided to have her left leg amputated below the knee, and has felt “super amped” ever since.
“The other day I realized I wasn’t in pain for the first time in five years,” she said. “It hit me and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m okay. I feel normal, I feel good. I feel like what everyone feels like.'”
- Watch the full episode of People Features: Lauren Wasser: A Toxic Shock Syndrome Survivor’s New Mission streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.
She continues: “That was freedom in itself. That was the excitement, and that was what I had hoped for. Doing this amputation was getting rid of that pain and that suffering that I was dealing with and I was hiding.”
Wasser adds she will be even more “ready to go” once she gets her second gold prosthetic leg in a few weeks.
For more from Lauren Wasser, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Ultimately Wasser says she is ready to embrace this new chapter of her life, one she hopes includes running a marathon and starting a family.
“I’m ready to just flourish, travel, jump in the ocean and just be a normal human being,” she says. “My 20’s were pretty painful. I think getting rid of my leg was getting rid of the past and getting ready for my journey ahead.”