Still Lisa: Strep infection turned childbirth into battle to survive

Photos by Laura Seitz
Deseret Morning News

Published: Sunday, March 12 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Learning to walk on artificial legs, at 44, means building up the glutes so they're strong enough to launch the legs forward, and training the brain to think about the relationship between knee, heel and toe. Today Lisa is dangling, attached to an elaborate harness that looks like an amusement park ride. Strength comes through exercise but also from the sheer effort of hanging from the harness, trying to move legs that aren't her own. They hang, like marionette legs, from the sockets that fit over her stumps. At the bottom are two running shoes.

She longs these days to be vertical. At home she will wear 8-inch kneeless "stubbies" that resemble pipes on small platforms. But in rehab she is trying to master the grand prize — with diligence and a certain amount of luck, she may one day walk on "C-legs" with bending knees and flexible ankles and a microprocessor that lets the two joints talk to each other.

First, though, she must show the insurance company she has mastered the practice legs in rehab. They're heavy and burn energy she doesn't have and may not get. Progress comes in tiny spurts and hinges on small things, like whether the sleeves that cover her stumps are precisely aligned to avoid painful pressure points. She has no guarantee that she will ever really walk, on her own, without the harness, but she works at it, hour after hour, heel toe, heel toe. It's exhausting, and as she tires she beckons to a therapist across the room.

"Christine, do you want to hold me?" she asks, then realizes how funny that sounds. "Hold me," she vamps in a husky voice.

She cannot yet drive and relies on a large network of friends to take her everywhere — the rigid schedule of walking therapy and hand therapy and doctors appointments that consumes her time and energy. The friends come, one says, not from a sense of duty but because they long to spend time with her. Even when doctors were removing pieces of her, notes a woman who helped care for her, "Lisa would ask about your kids and knew their names."

Because she lost part of her intestine, she doesn't absorb nutrients well, so eating is one more complication that must be considered and planned. She also lost fat and muscle when skin was taken for grafts. So she picks foods that are high in protein and energy. Once a Doves chocolate girl, she now craves vinegar and salt and green olives, her taste buds altered by the damage to her tongue.

It takes at least an hour to get ready to go anywhere each morning, 20 minutes and someone's help, just to attach her new electric arm. It's a complicated gadget, programmed so that flexing the triceps muscle in her stump opens the hand, relaxing the muscle closes it. To turn the wrist she must swing the upper arm back and forth. The arm is a work in progress: she has to decide if she wants an elbow, because elbows are not necessarily the most practical of nature's inventions. A microchip controls the strength of her grip.

These days, laughter and tears travel side by side. In the car at a drive-thru pharmacy not long ago, Lisa was playing with her electric hand, trying to get it to cooperate. She placed her left hand across the artificial palm to test its grip, which, it turned out, was relentless. She squealed, fumbling to make it let go. As the pharmacist came to the window and peered into the car, Sammie was reaching down Lisa's shirt, trying to unhook the battery to turn it off. At lunch, later in the day, Lisa retold the story and her friends howled with laughter.

She is both grateful for the help she has received from so many friends and envious of those who don't need it. In rehab one day, while Lisa's stubbies are being adjusted, Sammie kisses Lily between the eyes, making the child belly laugh. A small cloud briefly passes across Lisa's face. She would love to be the shelter Lily seeks, but that, like everything else in her life, will take time. Across the room, Lisa begins a waving game and Lily waves back. Soon, mother and baby are giggling at each other across the expanse of carpet.

· · · · ·

On the scale of randomness, strep falls somewhere between a stray bullet and cancer: something that seems to come out of nowhere but can't be blamed on chance alone. At night, when the children are asleep and the house is quiet, Lisa and Steve still ask themselves why it all happened. It is less a question about medicine and more about the whys of the universe. But gradually, Steve says, they are reframing the question.

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