Infection costs woman her limbs, not spirit
March 25, 2014 11:00 AM
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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Donna Lowery grabbed her purse off her dining table two days after Mother’s Day and headed out the door to appease her husband’s request she be checked at an emergency room.

“I thought he was a hypochondriac when he said my behavior changed,” the 57-year-old former police officer said.

She woke up three weeks later with her husband at her side in an intensive care unit.

When she lifted her right arm, it was gone beneath the elbow.

“Your first reaction is to look at your other arm,” she said. It was gone, too.

Her husband told her he had something to show her, as he lifted the blanket.

“I was wiggling my toes, but my legs were gone, too.”

Nine months after her quadruple amputation, doctors still can’t identify what caused her body to fail.

On Valentine’s Day, Lowery walked out of Corpus Christi Rehabilitation Hospital on prosthetic legs. She released her grip on her platform walker in the lobby to wave her prosthetic arms as hospital staff and patients gathered to applaud her independence.

Lowery, of Flour Bluff, Texas, was inspired to help others after she learned she is one of about 185,000 people who had limbs amputated last year, and one of about 2 million people living with an amputation. During her recovery Lowery has visited, comforted and encouraged dozens of amputee patients in several Corpus Christi hospitals; worked at forming a local chapter of Amputee Coalition of America; and connected with a combat nurse to launch a personal mission to encourage military amputees.

A quadruple amputee is extremely rare, but the Amputee Coalition of America does not have statistics on how many Americans have lost all their limbs.

Her commitment to others affected her caregivers.

“In my 31 years, Donna is the most strong-willed and amazing woman whose faith has moved a mountain,” said Coleen Crawford, an occupational therapist.

Lowery couldn’t sit upright on a mat when Crawford first worked with her. Without help, she would topple over.

“She came in not able to sit, or anything else, and now she’s walking out of here,” Crawford said.

She gave Lowery a framed verse when she left the center: “The will of God will not take you where the grace of God will not protect you.”

Lowery credits her strength to religious faith, despite still not knowing why she lost her limbs.

“My charge now is to share, listen and offer hope,” she said. “I’m a new person, not defined by lack of limbs, but by the spirit that drives me to help others know everything takes an enormous amount of strength, courage and time.”

Teams of doctors at several hospitals, including a state infectious disease specialist, have compiled a more-than-3,200-page medical file, trying to figure out what happened to Lowery. They told her the infection wasn’t Rocky Mountain spotted fever but offer little other explanation.

In the first hours after arriving at the emergency room, Lowery’s gallbladder was removed. Her kidneys later failed, and dialysis was started as she fell into a coma. Her liver function faltered, and her blood pressure plummeted, all with no answers. The blood flow to her extremities waned and gangrene set in.

Her husband made the decision June 1 to remove her limbs without being able to talk with his wife.

“It had to be done to save her life,” said Bill Lowery, 54, who’s retired from the Coast Guard.

As she remained unconscious doctors encouraged her husband and son to take Lowery off life support.

They prayed with men at their church, Bay Area Fellowship, before her son accepted his mother’s impending death and returned to Pompano Beach, Fla., to attend his newly launched nutrition business.

Her husband refused to accept.

“While praying about it all the way home a peaceful feeling came over me,” Bill Lowery said. “I knew it was not her time and to keep pushing on.”

After no change the next day Lowery began second-guessing his decision, he said. But the following Sunday one of her doctors reached across to check her vitals and her eyes popped open.

“It was incredible,” Lowery said. “I was right not to give up hope.”

After her ventilator was removed, Donna Lowery called her son.

“Hello, Mom?” questioned Mark Soto, 25.

“Yeah honey, it’s me ...” she responded.

“We cried together half an hour,” Lowery said. “It was a special time for us, and I thought there’s so much to live for.’”

Soto was awestruck.

“Words can’t describe how it felt when I got a second chance to talk to her,” said Soto, a former honorable mention all-state linebacker at Flour Bluff High School. “She was supposed to die, and I had swallowed the pill that it was just a matter of time.”

He spent 10 days with his mother at Christmas, and he, too, is inspired by her faith.

“I want everybody to know if they’re having a bad day, look at my mom,” he said. “Then you’ll realize you can do anything if you have Christ in your life.”

By the end of last year Lowery was back home awaiting prosthetics. She visited other patients each Tuesday at the rehab hospital and other hospitals, and was available for her surgeon’s other amputation patients, at his request.

“People need to know there is hope no matter the trauma — infection, dismembering accident, knee surgery, hip replacement, stroke — they need to know progress is made from here-to-here,” she said, placing her hooks on her temples.

From the rehab hospital’s nursing director to the kitchen and maintenance staff, all have been like family, Lowery said.

“She’s one of us,” said Cynthia Hindman, spokeswoman for the rehabilitation hospital. “We all celebrate the life of this hero.”

Her church family feels the same.

Lowery walked into Bay Area Fellowship on Feb. 22 for the second time on prosthetics.

Greeters applauded after opening double doors.

She was stopped in the foyer by a crush of church members wanting hugs.

“I’m sorry,” said Sean McCracken, a volunteer at the church, who couldn’t hold back tears as she clutched Lowery. “It’s awesome and wonderful.

“It’s a day to celebrate,” McCracken sobbed. “You are amazing.”

Lowery sat in a chair. But as the music began she stood and pumped her prosthetics in the air, swayed her hips and sang along: “God is good, God is great.”

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