As Lindsay Ess watched the events in Boston unfold last week, she wondered if she could help the victims of the Marathon bombing. When she found out that many had lost limbs in the explosion, she knew she could.
Ess is a quadruple amputee. In 2006, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. She underwent surgery for her condition, but it went terribly wrong. She developed septic shock, which lead to complete organ failure. She was in the intensive care unit for five months.
Finally, doctors told her that they had tried everything to clear the sepsis, but in order to save her life, they needed to amputate both of her hands and both of her feet.
Ess tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about her journey, and how she plans to help the victims of the bombing.
On accepting Her amputations
"It didn't really sink in until I came home from the hospital and saw all of my pictures of my previous life ... and really understood that I needed to move forward. I couldn't just sit in my bed and cry anymore."
On life as an amputee
"You don't realize how much you use your hands until you don't have them anymore. And there was a lot of things I could not do ... almost everything, until I had a prosthesis, which were basically like hooks on my hands."
On the Boston Marathon bombing
"It put me back to the hopeless feeling ... Then after a little bit, it's like, 'I want to help.' I have been called upon a lot to go to hospitals to speak with new amputees around the area, and I've seen — there, in the hospital and in physical therapy, where I was wanting to walk again — I've seen in their eyes, a loss of hope. A look of just, 'How am I ever going to get my life back?'"
On wanting to help
"Even before Boston, I knew that I wanted to go back to school to get a rehabilitational counseling degree. But now that Boston is here, I feel an obligation and duty that God has entrusted me with, to give hope to these people. It helps to see other people that have embraced it and actually loved their life. And also, sometimes it takes somebody else that's been there and done that to say 'Wow, you're doing awesome.'"
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now, our Sunday conversation.
LINDSAY ESS: My immediate reaction was shock and disbelief, and then I just reached out to anybody that could put me in contact with hospitals because I knew that I could be of assistance.
MARTIN: That's Lindsay Ess. We found her on Facebook, where she posted that she wants to get in touch with victims of the Boston bombings, especially those who lost limbs. "Any way I can help, I will," she wrote, "will travel, will speak, will write, will visit - whatever it takes. Life after limb loss is difficult to imagine in the beginning, but we all know it gets better. There has to be hope," she writes. "Sometimes, it's easier to just see it or hear it through others."
There are at least 13 people who lost limbs in the blasts at the marathon. They face a long road to recovery, both mental and physical. Our Sunday conversation, Lindsay Ess - a quadruple amputee who lost both her hands, and her feet, not in a tragic accident or an explosion, but because of a fairly common disorder.
ESS: I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in the year of 2006. Summer of 2007, I needed a surgery to take my ileum out - which is part of your small intestine that touches the large intestine; it connects. And there was an obstruction, which is pretty common with people with Crohn's disease. The surgery didn't go so well, and I developed septic shock. So I went through complete organ failure; died three times and was resuscitated, was in the ICU for five months.
And during that time in the ICU, the doctors told me in order to save my life - after many, many tries of draining the sepsis out of my blood - that I needed to have amputations of my hands and my feet. It was traumatic, looking back; but at the time, I was so heavily medicated that I didn't really realize what was going on.
MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask, did it sink in? Did you really understand what they were saying, when the doctor looked at you and said, Lindsay, we have to take your hands and your feet?
ESS: I didn't know, at the time. Like I said, I was medicated; and I just said, do what you have to do, to get me out of here. So it didn't really sink in until I came home from the hospital and saw all of my pictures of my previous life, and really - understand that I needed to move forward. I couldn't just sit in my bed and cry anymore.
MARTIN: I imagine that you did that for a while, though.
ESS: Two weeks.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. I've read that you had different feelings, different views about the loss of your feet versus your hands. Can you talk a little bit about that, how you saw those losses differently?
ESS: The reason why the hands affected me so much is because you don't realize how much you use your hands until you don't have them anymore. And there was a lot of things I could not do - almost everything - until I had a - prostheses, which were basically, like, hooks on my hands, and I wanted to be more feminine.
MARTIN: Hooks on your hands - I mean, we hear all the time about how prosthetics have advanced so much. That seems a little raw, rough. Hooks?
ESS: Well, I think I was a little too into what I looked like - I believe - previously, before everything happened to me. And so that hit me very hard, and it was very hard for me to accept. They were very functional, as far as daily living things like restroom, picking up small items.
ESS: But they weren't feminine. I was also fitted with my electric hands, which I like to call man hands because they were large.
ESS: We tried smaller hands, like child hands, but they were too small.
ESS: I just never connected to them. I guess six months out of rehab, I was offered a hand transplant. I wasn't ready yet, but years later, I decided I was ready.
MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of how many surgeries are we talking about, what are the threats, what did you have to go through?
ESS: Well, since my amputations were right below the elbow, I would have to have a full forearm and hand transplant, which means my nerves would have to grow from the end of my residual limb to my fingers - which happened in September of 2011. Currently, they're at the tips of my fingers, and they hurt really bad. (LAUGHTER)
It's just nerve pain, but every little thing has to be attached - nerves, bones, muscle, veins; and then a very long road of hand therapy, physical therapy, personal training. It's about 15, 20 hours a week of therapy. It's a full-time job.
MARTIN: How is life now?
ESS: Before everything happened in Boston, it seemed - it was very - I mean, I'm still positive and happy...
MARTIN: But Boston affected you in a different way.
ESS: Yeah, it put me back to the hopeless feeling I felt those two weeks. And then after, you know, a little bit, it's - you know, it's like, I want to help. I don't - because I have been to - been called upon a lot, to go to hospitals to - you know, speak with new amputees around the area. And I've seen there, in the hospitals, and in physical therapy - where I was wanting to walk - again, I've seen in their eyes the loss of hope, and a look of just, how am I ever going to get my life back?
MARTIN: Did you have someone helping you navigate those questions for yourself?
ESS: No. I have a good family support system, but nobody that had lost limbs. When I was in rehab right after the hospital - I was there for about two weeks - and there was a young lady that came, that was a quad amputee. I would say that person put me back more than it set me forward only because of the look of that person's prosthetics. They weren't - their hands were not visually pleasing to me.
MARTIN: So she wasn't necessarily a comforting presence. What does that mean for you as you look forward, as you try to think about what you can do for the victims in Boston? How can you be helpful to them?
ESS: I think there's a little bit of time that needs to go by; I would say a month or so. I have read that some of them are waking up and happy to be alive, even though they look down and see that their limbs are gone. However, they're still in this state of shock. But I think that my presence would help because I have recovered completely from losing all four, and I'm happy with my life.
And I have found a purpose in my life. Even before Boston, I knew that I wanted to go back to school to get a rehabilitational counseling degree. But now that Boston is here, I feel an obligation, indeed, that God had entrusted me with, to give hope to these people. It helps to see other people that have embraced it, and actually love their life. And also, you know, sometimes it takes somebody else that's been there and done that to say, wow - you know - you're doing awesome.
MARTIN: Lindsay Ess - she lost her hands and feet to a major infection, soon after her graduation from college. She is now reaching out to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Lindsay, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
ESS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: As we said, Lindsay Ess wants to help those Boston bombing victims who may be facing a new reality after amputation. Lindsay Ess can be reached on email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.