This story was written and performed by Jennifer Griffin for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) on March 17, 2014, at Hamon Hall in the Winspear Opera House in Dallas.
The theme of the show was “Elephant in the Room.”
“Joan Didion wrote, ‘Life changes fast.’ And for Jennifer Griffin that was certainly true,” says Oral Fixation creator and director Nicole Stewart. “One day she is getting ready for work when she starts feeling ill; two days later she winds up in the hospital — and leaves as a quadruple amputee. Here she shares her powerful story and how she has found healing through humor. Read it here, and don’t miss her performance in the video below.”
It began on a Wednesday morning, as I was getting ready for work. My thoughts were preoccupied with the contracts that needed attention and which heels went better with my outfit. As a paralegal, my life in Dallas seemed to be all about details, organization, and yet another tough negotiation.
As my morning progressed, I began to get chills and an upset stomach, as if I was getting the flu. My first instinct was to tough it out and push through, but then I realized I could use feeling crappy as a hall pass. I called into work, explaining that I would be working from home.
By Friday afternoon, I was still sick in bed. By the time my husband Nick arrived home from work, the chills and upset stomach had evolved into nonstop vomiting and my words slurred. In spite of the previous day’s visit to a clinic, where I was told to take Milk of Magnesia and all would be okay, Nick and I knew this was much more serious. Nine-one-one became our answer. In a matter of seconds, my life turned upside down.
As soon as the ambulance arrived, I tried to stand from the bed and realized I could no longer support myself. So I fell back onto the bed and let the professionals take over.
From the time I arrived in the ER, a team of people was at my bedside. The bed, the air, and everything in the room felt cold. I was still vomiting, my abdomen was very distended, and the conversations between the medical team seemed to be happening too fast. All I could see was the terror on the faces hovering over me. The doctors considered the cause of my symptoms internal bleeding, but they weren’t sure. At some point, a wonderful nurse grabbed my hand and with a few comforting words soothed me into a deep sleep.
When I awoke in ICU, I had been in surgery for hours. I was scared, confused, and desperately wanting a tall drink and some good food.
But instead, I was put into a medically induced a coma, on and off, for the next eight weeks. My kidneys failed, I was on dialysis, and for all intents and purposes, I was on life support. Blood transfusions became synonymous with my name, and my family stopped counting the number of lines attached to me when it surpassed 20.
Once I was out of the coma, I learned that I did not have internal bleeding but had suffered a ruptured abscess on one of my ovaries. The infection from the abscess got into my bloodstream, leading to strep-A and sepsis (aka, multi-organ failure). Essentially, during the three days leading up to my ER visit, my body was shutting down, one breath at a time.
There was one more detail that changed my life forever. When I fell into sepsis, my body pushed my blood and oxygen to my brain and heart to keep these organs alive. Because oxygen and blood are so vital, when they are lost from the arms and legs, the extremities die. It’s like water to a plant. My hands and legs had died.
I left a 3.5-month hospital stay in July 2007 as a 35-year-old quad amputee.
What the hell just happened? In 90 days I went from being an independent adult to being a very needy childlike person. I found myself rediscovering how to brush my teeth, eat, shower, write, and drive.
I decided to learn from it and move forward. After being home for a few days, I realized that I hadn’t really looked in the mirror. So, after returning from my first night out, I walked into the bathroom with my head down; after a few minutes I got the courage. Standing face to face with my reality, I discovered that I had lost so much of my hair from all the medications and that I looked like a little girl starting puberty. I weighed 95 pounds. My hair was so thin, dry and just not me. The back of my head had spots of baldness and resembled a path of bunkers on a golf course.
Since hospitals don’t provide haircuts or styling techniques with the extended care package, I decided to fix this little detail on my own by purchasing a wig. My beautiful mom and Aunt Martha took me shopping. I actually had fun trying on different colors and styles. I embraced the freedom of seeing myself in a new light. The wig I ultimately decided on was a longer bob with wispy bangs. The compliments I received on my new look boosted my confidence and made the unnatural feel very natural. It had so much sass I felt unstoppable, like I should have a one-word name like Beyoncé.
Once the wig was set, Mom and Martha thought it time to tackle my unattended eyebrows.
At the salon, they sat by my side laughing and talking. The lady helping us looked at my hands but never said a word, and thanks to my prosthetics she didn’t even notice my legs. I started to fall into a long overdue relaxation. She massaged my face and rubbed oil on my neck. As I leaned my head back on the chair for the brow waxing, a look of “OMG, did that just happen?” was plastered on everyone’s face. Somehow my wig had slipped off my head, taken a dive to the floor, and I never felt its absence.
My mom smiled, Martha tried not to laugh, and the lovely lady experiencing this with us was somewhere between laughing and crying. At this moment, I started thinking, This must be what my life is going to be like now. Where do I go from here?
I felt so vulnerable and exposed. It’s not like I could have reached down to grab it. Not only was I missing a wig, I was missing my hands, too.
But soon the awkward moment was broken by our laughter. Between my mom and Martha the wig was caught and gently placed back on my head as if nothing ever happened. And my eyebrows turned out fabulous. My life had changed beyond the obvious, and I made a conscious choice to find the humor in it, making laughter my new drug of choice.
This was just the first of many awkward moments, which continue to permeate my life. One day I picked up my car from the valet line, and as I pulled up my skirt to step into the car, one of my legs fell off. Thankfully my leg fell standing upright so that I could recover quickly. But I could not, in any way, recover from the sound the leg made as it hit the ground or the bewildered stare the valet attendant and I were locked into.
I was in shock, and didn’t know what to explain first. I had a lot going on. The valet, well, she was just in shock. Yes, this elephant was as big as Texas, but after the embarrassment subsided and the valet attendant realized it wasn’t a party trick, I realized just how funny it was. In the end, she offered to help and I drove off with the confidence that connecting with strangers about the absurdities of my life had become my new normal.
Children have also been great teachers. I was in the grocery store and a mom passed me with her toddler riding in the cart. Once he saw my hands, he cupped his hands to her ear, and thinking he was whispering, said, “Mom, she doesn’t have hands.” The elephant? It came out like he was talking through a megaphone being played through a loud-speaker. His mom just gave me a deer in the headlights look and we chatted for a few seconds about nothing at all. I learned in this moment that the older we get, the more we shelter ourselves from real conversation, maybe to protect others or ourselves from hurt feelings. But kids have no filter, and maybe there is something we can learn from that.
When situations like these occur, we are all faced with a psychological challenge. I could have become really embarrassed and closed off and decided never to go out in public to prevent my leg or wig from falling off or to prevent hearing the words “she has no hands.” But wouldn’t that be avoiding life?
The trick is to take the elephant out of the room by acknowledging it, so others feel comfortable, and help change the way the elephant is viewed. Even though I have had my days of frustration, I’ve learned this can be the difference between the elephant gaining weight and taking up the whole room or the beast kneeling down to let you gently escape.
So if you see me reaching out to shake your hand or asking for a bowl of nuts in a cup or soup in a mug while visiting a five-star restaurant, it’s just my way of saying, “It’s OK. I got this.” Yes, my path has been altered, but we get only one life. This month is my seventh year anniversary of being a survivor. And I’d rather have this life embracing my challenges, than no life at all.
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