(Special Note: I made an audio of this post so that Carol and others like her can hear my voice rather than Siri’s voice or some other digital voice. If you currently have your vision, I’d challenge you to listen through the words while you close your eyes to get a feel for how Carol might experience the story. You can always open your eyes again to see the pictures after you listen.)
Last week I had the privilege of meeting a gorgeous woman with an even more gorgeous soul. She came to speak to the students I work with at Bates Technical College, and because of this, I have an amazing story to share.
The Months that Changed Her Life
In October of 2007, Carol Decker learned she was pregnant with her second child. Chloe, her oldest was not yet a year old. Up to then, Carol had lived a beautiful life, getting married at 22 to Scott Decker who became a dentist. She worked full time as a medical assistant, had loved to snowboard since she was twelve, and had always been active while growing up with 4 older brothers who taught her to be fearless.
In June of 2008, thirty-three weeks into her pregnancy, Carol began to run a fever. Soon her situation became so severe that she went to the hospital where the doctors and the health team rushed her into surgery to deliver her baby. She looked at her husband and said goodbye as they wheeled her away. She would not see him again.
Her daughter Sofia was born healthy, but for twenty days the medical professionals kept Carol in adrug-induced coma. Scott had to make unbearable decisions to amputate her leg, arm and ring finger on her right hand because her body had become septic — she had an infection that caused her system to stop circulating correctly.
When Carol woke up, she tried to look at the doctor and saw nothing. Her family and the medical team learned that she had also gone blind. For weeks after that, she went through a debriding process to remove her damaged skin. Then the doctors ‘harvested’ skin from her back to graft onto those damaged skin areas. The pain was excruciating.
In addition to the strep pneumonia that caused sepsis, she had developed disseminated intravascular coagulation, a condition that created havoc inside her body because the clotting abilities didn’t function correctly. She came close to death countless times.
Pulling Herself Back Up
When Carol first went home that September, she weighed 90 pounds. Her husband or brothers had to lift her from the bed so that she could go to the bathroom. And she was in agony, mentally and physically. Her two little girls would come to lie next to her while she could do nothing for them.
This — not being able to mother her children — was what broke her heart. And then she dug deep. With the superhuman help of her amazing husband and family, Carol began to use the pain of not being with her children to motivate herself. Her two girls became her reason for life. They were the driving force that pulled her through the months and years of pain and the also excruciating work of rehabilitation.
Six years later, Carol is a speaker, telling others of how she sets and reaches one goal after another. On her birthday in August of 2009 she walked into Wild Ginger on heels. She now helps her children in the kitchen and uses a special tool to cut apples.
She spent a long time showing our group the many tools she uses to make her life easier. She showed us her cheetah leg prosthetic, her no-spill bowls, her color reader that electronically tells her the color of her clothing, and told us that she has a talking microwave. She had a table full of gadgets to share with us.
Last winter, she was able to go skiing with the help of an organization called Outdoors for All. Being with her family on the mountain that day was a joy that left her lying in the snow after a fall feeling like her life could not possibly get better.
In fact, she says her life now is good. So good that she would not go back to the time before the sepsis if she were given the choice.
I sat with over fifty nursing and occupational therapy assistant students and listened to her for an hour. Our attention never lagged in spite of what studies say about our shortened ability to focus. I never saw a person check her phone even though Carol would not have been able to see it to feel slighted.
She ended her talk with powerful life lessons she learned and hoped to pass on to us to bring meaning to her experiences:
If you can get over your fear, you can do anything she said. Carol thought it helped her to have that fearlessness that her brothers had taught her long ago. We all can do with more fearlessness even if we are not faced with the challenges of walking again or negotiating in a world without our vision.
Carol repeats often that she could not do this alone. During her talk, she asked for help twice. Once a student helped when she knocked over a water bottle. Another time, a student helped her with a gadget. She didn’t hesitate to ask, and they didn’t hesitate to help.
Her husband astounds me in what he has done to make her beautiful life possible. He gets her every gadget he thinks will make her life better and does much of the family work that would have fallen on her shoulders if the sepsis had never happened.
I have seen Carol speak before and notice that she always has someone incredible with her. This time her mother-in-law was there. Last time, I met one of her therapists. My colleagues tell me her husband has been to events and also her sister-in-law. She is surrounded by love in the verb form and easily accepts what others offer her in a way that makes her stronger and, I suspect, lifts up those who do the helping.
Carol emphasizes that we all need to let others help us in order to become our best possible selves.
Let Go and Forgive
Letting go of her past and the way she used to do things allowed Carol to move into the amazing life she has now. She has become extremely flexible in how she manages her everyday tasks. Instead of telling herself she can’t do something, she sets the intention to do it and then problem solves until she finds a way.
Forgiving herself and others for whatever happened in the past has opened her up to the infinite possibilities of today.
Live in the Present
In the moment last winter when she fell into the snow with her children and husband on the mountain with her, Carol said she could have easily died a happy woman.
Those experiences, she said, are available to us all at any time if we fully live in the moments.
Carol laughs readily and has what her husband calls ‘infectious optimism.’ She made jokes about her blindness. She can see only occasional flashes of red, white or blue, which, she joked, makes her a patriotic girl.
When we listened to her we could all feel her joy. It was hard not to join in with her even when our hearts broke for what she had been through. Watching her enjoy her life to its fullest, we all wanted to do the same.
Now Carol is working on more speaking engagements and she’s written a book called Unshattered with the help of a local author.
The Big Takeaway
I’ll finish this post by saying that she is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met who is living an astoundingly beautiful life.
A student next to me turned to me after Carol finished speaking. She said, “My life is changed forever.” Mine, too.
I know as I lose my own abilities, I will remember Carol as a model of how to really live. Because, after all, we are all only temporarily ‘abled,’ even if we never experience Carol’s challenges. Eventually, our eyesight goes. Our bodies fail us. But we can still live beautiful lives with great courage, the help of others, flexibility and laughter.