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By Tom Didato
Special to The Lancaster News
Editor’s note: This story was first printed in the (Camden) Chronicle-Independent and is reprinted here with their permission.
Sometimes she carries her arms in her backpack. But Shannon Wessinger still wears her heart on her sleeve.
Not even being a recent quad amputee can wipe the smile from the face or the resolve from the mind of the former Shannon Vincent, who in the spring of her senior season pitched the North Central High School Lady Knights to the class A state softball title in 1999. It remains the school’s only state championship in any sport.
Today, the left arm that sent many an opposing batter back to the dugout has been cut off just below the elbow.
So has the right arm. The legs that carried her around the bases and powered her throws have both been fitted with prosthetics.
However, there is no quit in Wessinger, who has already rebounded from a near-fatal infection and is well on her way back to business as usual, albeit with a few physical alterations.
Asleep for over a month
This is not how 30-year-old Wessinger pictured herself this spring.
On May 8, Wessinger gave birth to her second child with her husband, Eric. The birth went without a hitch as their baby boy, Shaun, came into the world healthy and ready to join his mom, dad and a 2-year-old sister, Jaime, at the family’s home in Lexington, where Wessinger is a teacher and assistant softball coach at White Knoll High School.
A day after Shaun’s arrival, Wessinger underwent a tubal ligation before being released May 10. The next morning, Wessinger developed a fever, which she thought was related to Shaun’s birth. By May 14, however, the fever returned, along with pain bad enough that her husband took her to the hospital.
“The last thing I remember, now, were the speed bumps going into the hospital in Lexington,” Wessinger said. It would be the last thing she would remember for roughly the next month and a half. During that time, doctors kept Wessinger medically asleep so her body could heal.
“When I came to,” Wessinger said of her being awoken from her sleep, “I was in the hospital and was pretty much told the next day, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to lose your hands and feet.’
“I was like, ‘Wait. What? I need to know what happened first.’ Then Momma and my husband started explaining things and I tried to piece things together because for that month and a half, I had dreams, but that was about it. I don’t really remember anything else.”
Wessinger said a team of 17 doctors, around-the-clock attention from nurses and the support of family and friends all played a role in her ongoing recovery.
In the first 24 hours after being admitted to Lexington Medical Center, Wessinger’s condition deteriorated to the point that she was put on a respirator, where she stayed for six weeks.
About a week into her stay, she underwent a tracheotomy. Wessinger said she had, at one time or another, 14 tubes stuck into her body, which kept her alive and then helped in her road back to health. The list of medications she has taken or continues to take in her recovery is between six to seven pages long.
Wessinger was diagnosed with Strep A, a rare condition that affected only 220 other people in the world at the time she was admitted, the physicians told her mother.
Her doctors are still uncertain how Wessinger contracted the illness. Once in her system, the Strep A morphed into three infections and various parts of her body started shutting down to the point where Wessinger suffered DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation) three times.
“It’s pretty much where everything shuts down and you die,” she said of her close calls. “The kidneys started shutting down; the liver started shutting down. Breathing became difficult. I think I was on every piece of equipment that you could ever put on a person while I was in ICU.”
Throughout the ordeal, Wessinger’s husband and mother and father, Joey Vincent, kept a constant vigil.
“I was back there all the time; me, Joey and Eric were constantly back there,” Tammy Vincent said. “She was in ICU forever; she was only on the general floor for two weeks. We came and went as we wanted, 24 hours a day.”
“I was lucky. They let my family stay with me,” Wessinger said of her support system.
Wessinger’s long sleep affected her memory
While being kept asleep so doctors could treat her, Wessinger endured dreams that became all-too-real once she was awakened.
“I can remember some of my ICU nurses being in my dreams,” she said.
“It’s weird,” Wessinger said. “I never saw those nurses before in my life, but when I woke up, they looked exactly
like they did when they were in my dreams.”
When Wessinger was awakened after six weeks, her systems were working as they were supposed to. But it was not until two weeks later that she was what her mother called “conscious awake.”
“That week before, there’s a few things that were a little foggy,” Wessinger said of the days leading up to her hospitalization on May 14.
Little things like what Shaun wore home from the hospital were a mystery. His mother had picked out two outfits for him to wear home. But it was not until she saw a photo of Shaun’s first day at home that Wessinger remembered what she dressed her son in for his trip home.
When Wessinger woke up, her coaches from Winthrop happened to be in the room, but mentally she was not in the same place as her guests.
“When I woke up, I was still kind of hallucinating,” she said with a smile. “I could tell people were in the room because my softball coaches from college came to see me. I knew that they were there, but I was in some office room at the hospital on a beach somewhere. That’s what I could see out the window.”
Life became more real as Wessinger started regaining her bearings. Her family, doctors and nurses brought her up to date on what happened in the eight weeks since she’d entered the hospital.
“They would tell me what the kids did that day and what they were doing or, that Shaun was doing this or Jaime’s doing this. I didn’t have a clue,” Wessinger said of her lost eight weeks.
After she caught up with her family’s news, the amputation bombshell was dropped on Wessinger. Her days at the hospital were hardly over as parts of her arms and legs would have to be removed in surgeries on two different days.
In the two days following the amputation of her legs, Wessinger said she experienced a new height in terms of pain.
“I never felt anything like that for two days. I was in some pain,” she said.
Two days later, her hands were removed. “That did not hurt nearly as much,” she said.
In the time between recovering from Strep A and before the amputation of her extremities, Wessinger worked to gain her strength. During that time, her arms turned black. It was enough to scare little Jaime, if not unnerve an older person.
“Before she had the surgery, Jaime wouldn’t have anything to do with her,” Tammy Vincent said of her granddaughter. “She’d come up long enough to give Shannon a hug and then she would run away.”
Once her mother’s arms and legs were removed, Jaime Wessinger was no longer scared.
“My daughter helps Mommy walk down the hall. She helps Mommy walk to the bathroom. She just wants to help,” Wessinger said with a beaming smile. “She’ll touch my arms and she’ll touch my legs and say, ‘Boo-boos better?’ "
“Shaun just sits and smiles and stares at me. It’s nice to be able to sit and stare at him because he recognizes my voice. He finds me in the room,” she said. “The worst part of this was when I woke up and I couldn’t be with them all the time; I hated it.”
These days, Wessinger is back at home with her family and has even started doing some of her schoolwork as a social studies teacher at White Knoll. She makes three trips a week to HealthSouth, where she has been an outpatient since July 31, for occupational therapy for her upper body and physical therapy for the lower part of her body.
A day’s activities may involve moving pegs around on a peg board or walking or trying to pick up Styrofoam cups without crushing them with her new hands.
“If it’s something that I can get quickly with my hands, it’s not that bad,” Wessinger said.
“The walking is the most physically taxing part because the stamina’s not there yet. They say that when you are in the hospital, for every month that you’re in the bed, it takes two or three months to recover from that. It’s trying to build strength back up with the physical stuff and the mental part is trying not to get too upset about it.”
When asked if she is a good patient, Wessinger laughed and nodded.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “They seem to like me. I do what I’m told. They tell me what they want me to do and walk off and they know that I’m going to do it. I have to; I have no other choice.”
About that time, Danielle, one of the rehabilitation specialists, popped her head inside the door to the room and held up a hand-made sign that read, “Shannon is awesome.” It said plenty about the effect Wessinger’s never-quit spirit has had on the facility and other rehab patients.
Fortunately, because Wessinger was in good shape, her recuperation process has been expedited. The muscle mass she had before being taken to the hospital, even after having a baby, helped because even though she lost some of her muscle mass during her hospital stay, she still had more than most people do.
Many of the exercises her physicians ask Wessinger to perform are repetitive. She is trying to re-learn how to keep objects in her hand when holding them over her head in order to make sure the muscles are doing their job.
The sessions, she said, are intense. The hardest part to overcome was the fact that all the work and all the time are being done to help, rather than penalize her.
“It helps me understand that they’re not doing this to make me feel bad; they’re not pushing me to show me how hard it is,” she said of the rehab sessions. “They’re doing this because they have to.”
A former athlete, Wessinger has shown her competitive side in her rehab exercises.
“You’d be surprised,” she said when asked if the competitive juices get flowing inside the rehab center. “They will say, ‘Go do this.’ I will say, ‘This isn’t hard enough. I need to do something else. We need to go faster because this isn’t fast enough. What else do we have to do? What else can I do to make this all go faster? We have to get this going. I’ve never been one to quit. That’s not me.”
Her new limbs
Inviting her guest to place his hands into her prosthetic arms, Wessinger provides instruction to touching the sensors on each side and see how they control the realistic-looking hand, complete with fingernails, and see how the hand opens and closes with the slightest touch.
The new set of arms, she said, can lift between 50 to 70 pounds, more than enough power to hold each or both of her children.
“The hardest part in getting used to the legs are the ankles not bending. The hands are another ball of wax,”
Wessinger said of working with her new body parts. “You have to learn whole new angles of how to grab things.”
There is no set date for when Wessinger rehabilitation will end.
Whether in rehab or back home, this ordeal has altered the way Wessinger approaches life.
“Before, it was ‘there’s time to do this later.’ Now, I know there might not be a time later,” she said of her new lease on life.
“If you want to do something, you need to do it now...you never know when something might happen and you never know if you are going to make it back from something like this. I’m lucky that I did.”