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Still Lisa: Strep infection turned childbirth into battle to survive

Photos by Laura Seitz
Deseret Morning News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 28 2007 3:06 p.m. MST

The tally of limbs and organs strep claimed had effectively reduced one-third of her body, and Steve wondered how much more she could take. Unspoken was "Would she want this? How much can someone lose and still want to live?"

As the strep took its toll, LDS emergency room nurses Lorie Hutchison and Anne Marie Bickmore set up a "Lisa Speckman Update" on Bickmore's voicemail. Hutchison would call the hospital each morning, then try to figure out how to phrase the increasingly grim news. "How do you tell people, 'They're cutting off her legs?' " remembers Hutchison, who would write her message, practice it out loud, then rewrite the words to soften the brittle edges, trying to find the right balance of truth and hope.

At least twice a day, Steve made the trek across the tunnel leading to Primary Children's Medical Center, where Lily was being treated for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). And the vigil continued in Lisa's room, where Steve would sprinkle her pillow with eucalyptus oil, hoping the fragrance would remind her of an afternoon in Australia when the air was hot and dry and everything was fine.

She slipped in and out of consciousness, full of medications that chemically paralyzed her and sedatives to keep her from panicking because she couldn't move. When she slept she had horrifying dreams. When she wasn't asleep, they gave her the news in small bits, deciding each day how much she could handle. Steve and Dee told the story in short chapters that had to be repeated over and over, the immensity too much to take in. Trying to make sense of it, Lisa groggily figured she must have been in a car crash, but she couldn't remember a thing about it.

She had been off the medications five days before she grasped most of what had happened. On Easter Sunday, near the end of March, her lips dry and a trach tube still in place, she told her mom, "I'm back."

· · · · ·

There's an old parlor game where people compare potential losses. "Which would you rather lose?" the question goes, "your sight or your hearing? Your arms or your legs?"

Here's how Lisa answers the question. "I could live without an arm," she says now. "I could modify my career and adjust." But her legs were another story. "My legs were where I lived and where my heart was."

Stuck in bed in those first weeks of April, everything seemed too hard. How would she be a mother if she couldn't skip down the beach with her daughters, take them hiking, roughhouse on the floor?

But there were milestones that buoyed her. Her kidneys started working again, a few drops of urine that made everyone cheer and put an end to dialysis. Steve brought Hannah and Lily to see her for the first time, and Hannah asked only "Where'd Mommy's hair go?"

On a sunny day near the end of April, Steve and Dee wheeled Lisa through the front door of the hospital for a breath of fresh air. There were tulips and daffodils growing in the island in the middle of the driveway, and a wisp of breeze. Suddenly she was crying, happy to be outside and in motion, even on such a small journey.

There were months of in-patient rehab still to come, first at the University of Utah and then in Chicago. Steve gave her pep talks. Her one arm was a gift, he told her.

After all, her loss, like all losses, was relative. If the surgeon had cut a little higher on her right arm, she might not be able to use a prosthetic one. If she had lost a few more inches of her legs, she might not be able to sit up. She could have lost her tongue.

In Chicago, where Lisa went for intensive inpatient therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute in the summer of 2005, she met two women who had lost all four of their limbs. She also met a man who had lost both arms in an electrical accident. He had both legs and could walk, but he had a 2-year-old and a baby on the way and he was sick at the thought that he couldn't cuddle them. Lisa could stroke Lily's cheek and give Hannah a one-armed hug. She still had five fingers, even if they were hypersensitive and sometimes painful.

"My one arm beats them all to hell," she decided.

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