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Women gain from pilgrimage pain

Few among us have a burning desire to walk 25 km every day for four weeks. Even fewer of us would want to make the trek on one leg. For one local woman, that was reality for the month of May this year.

Few among us have a burning desire to walk 25 km every day for four weeks. Even fewer of us would want to make the trek on one leg. For one local woman, that was reality for the month of May this year.

Sarah Doherty, an occupational therapist, and her good friend and co-worker Deb Heidebrecht, a physiotherapist, recently completed the ages-old pilgrimage called el Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Originally undertaken by pilgrims to visit the grave of the apostle James, the walk is now taken by both Christians and non-Christians as a way to meditate and grow in spirit.

Both local women work for the program Bridges under the Sunshine Coast Community Services umbrella.

In their area of expertise - children under five with special needs - radical cutbacks and an increased caseload have become the norm.

That, combined with the loss of her parents and brother, had left Heidebrecht feeling stressed and unhappy. Rather than jump on a plane and lie in the sun somewhere, the friends decided to embark on the spiritual adventure of a lifetime.

For Doherty, it was also an opportunity to test-drive new crutches. While the shock-absorbing features of the new crutches helped, the walk was murder on Doherty's wrists. She is still having problems with nerve damage from the physical demands the pilgrimage put on her.

The hardest day physically for Doherty was the second day out when she was climbing through mud in the Pyrenees. Unable to stop for nine hours, the day was a nightmare for her.

However, Doherty said when compared to being a mom and food shopping with three little kids in tow, the trip overall wasn't that hard.

"My disability is obvious. For other people on the Camino, their disability is not so obvious," Doherty said.

One woman who walked with Doherty jokingly said, "It figures I would get stuck with you. Now I have nothing to complain about."

Doherty walked 700 km between May 1 and 31. She took a train ride during the time to meet up with a cousin.

Doherty lost her leg at the age of 13 when a drunk driver struck her. She likens her life from 13 to 21 as being on the train ride. In as much as when she was on the train in Spain she didn't have to deal with the reality of the trek, during her teens she had trouble coming to terms with the reality of her disability.

"It wasn't until I was 21 that I was able to deal with [the loss of a leg]," she said.

Heidebrecht walked the full 815 km. Most of the time she and Doherty walked with other people, reconnecting about every 10 days, Heidebrecht said.

Heidebrecht, who hails from Halfmoon Bay, made a lasting bond with a young Danish man. His brother had recently committed suicide and the man was despairing over his loss. Heidebrecht, who was missing her brother, instantly empathised with her new friend.

"I lost a brother but gained a brother," is how she puts it.

The biggest challenge she faced on the trip came from an infected blister. Heidebrecht ignored the pain and kept walking. Finally, when the infection began to travel up her leg, another walker, a doctor, convinced her to go to the local hospital. She was amazed at the wonderful and free treatment she received there. The Spaniards treat all Camino participants at no charge, regardless of their economic means.

"The Spanish government is a strong sponsor of the walk. They have a great deal of respect for the pilgrims," Heidebrecht said. Thanks to massive antibiotics, the sores cleared up.

Both of the women are mothers and missed their children a great deal.

They're thankful to their families for giving them this opportunity. Heidebrecht would like to walk the Camino again, the next time with her husband.

Both women also credit their employer, Sunshine Coast Community Services, for allowing them to go to Spain.

"Our boss and this place understood and supported us," Heidebrecht said.

While she was away, Heidebrecht kept in touch with friends and workmates by email. She enjoyed sharing the spiritual and funny parts of the journey with everyone.

While she didn't keep in constant contact, Doherty also contacted home often.

She too was often overwhelmed by the inspiring people she met.

"If all the people in charge of the world walked the Camino, world peace would result," Doherty says with certainty.