In her suburban Atlanta home, Elizabeth Zweigel sits down at the kitchen table. She watches as her four-year-old son Carson walks over, carefully carrying one of his favorite games: Hungry Hippos. He places it on the table, opens the box and sets it up, carefully locking each hippo into place and pouring all 20 marbles into the middle. They both begin to slam on the launchers, hoping that their hippo will win, having chomped more marbles and consuming the prized golden ball. When the game is over, Carson beams, and Elizabeth smiles back, thankful that she is able to share this moment with her son.
It’s a moment that many mothers might take for granted. But for quadruple amputee Elizabeth, who lacks hands and feet due to complications from septic shock, playing a game of Hungry Hippos with her son represents triumph on multiple fronts–even if he wins.
Last year in March, at 33-years-old, Elizabeth fell ill with what she believed was the flu. A stay-at-home mom, she pushed through the day, taking care of her children as best she could. But by Sunday evening, her lips and legs were blue, she had trouble breathing, and couldn’t even walk down the stairs. Her husband Scott took her to the ER, where she assumed she’d receive some fluids and return home shortly.
Instead, by the next morning, Elizabeth’s doctors had placed her in a medically-induced coma. She was diagnosed with sepsis from a pneumococcal infection, which is what normally causes pneumonia as it enters the lungs. However, in Elizabeth’s case, the infection entered her blood, inflaming her body. The resulting septic shock led to multiple organ failure. She was placed on 24-hour dialysis and a ventilator; at one point, after she was paddle-shocked back to life for the second time, her friends began planning her funeral.
“I awoke about three days later to find out that not only had my hands been amputated, but that my legs would also have to be amputated soon,” Elizabeth recalls. “I spent the next few weeks healing and trying to grasp what my near-perfect life would now be. How would I take care of my family? Was it really possible that I’d have to be taken care of?”
I awoke about three days later to find out that not only had my hands been amputated, but that my legs would also have to be amputated soon…. How would I take care of my family?
In late April, Elizabeth had bilateral amputations on her legs, approximately four inches below the knee, becoming a quadruple amputee. After almost two months in the hospital, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center for the next three months. Scott’s parents temporarily moved in to their house to help with the children. (In addition to Carson, Elizabeth also has a one-year old daughter, Mia.) While grateful for the support, it was also emotionally challenging.
“My in-laws brought the kids to the hospital many times, and they came to visit me almost everyday once I got to rehab,” Elizabeth remembers. “That was the best, but it was also very hard. They were the ones taking care of my kids full time. I knew I needed to focus on getting better, but it was hard to watch someone else take over.”
After the amputations, Elizabeth’s son, who was three at the time did not want to get too close to his mom. Seeing her lying in a hospital bed with no arms, a catheter and a feeding tube in her nose was overwhelming. Over time, as Elizabeth’s tubes were removed and she became more mobile, Carson became more comfortable with his mom’s new appearance. Mia was only four months old when Elizabeth was rushed to the hospital; she was too young to understand.
Motivated by her family, Elizabeth tried to get out of bed, using an electric wheelchair and beginning the long road of physical therapy. During this time, she met a small group of women in Atlanta who were fellow quadruple amputees. They took turns visiting her in rehab, sharing pictures, telling stories and answering questions. Most of these women are mothers, and several brought their children to meet Elizabeth.
“When I was in the hospital, I wondered how I was going manage. But then a quadruple amputee walks in with her kids and I realized I would make this work.”
“The main takeaway from meeting them was that I’m going to be okay,” she recalls. “When I was in the hospital, I wondered how I was going manage. But then a quadruple amputee walks in with her kids and I realized I would make this work. They also taught me that if something was important to me, I’d figure out a way to do it. One woman, a recent amputee, told me that she’d just learn to zip up her pants so she could wear jeans. Another had learned to kayak.”
In early August, Elizabeth finally returned home, readyo get back to what she loved most – being a mother to her children. But it wasn’t easy. “The worst part about coming home was figuring out how to take care of my kids,Elizabeth explains. “I went into the hospital when Mia was only four months old, and during that time she bonded with the caretakers. She would go to them instead of me. I never wanted to change a diaper so bad! It’s not easy without hands, and she’s squirmy. It was so hard. I couldn’t even pick her up when she cried.”
Since then, Elizabeth has learned to change a diaper, but it’s a process. Step one is to hand Mia her iPhone so she doesn’t wiggle. Then she opens the clean diaper, using a combination of her arms and teeth to undo the straps. Next, Elizabeth lays Mia on top of the clean diaper and removes the dirty diaper, again using her arms and teeth; for hygienic purposes she will only change a wet diaper. Taking out a wipe is the easiest part, but closing the diaper involves using her arms, chin and teeth. It’s not easy, but she will do it when necessary.
These accomplishments–insignificant for most parents–are big victories for Elizabeth. She relishes the little things.
For example, after several weeks of occupational therapy and adjustments to her car, Elizabeth hit a major milestone: she got back behind the wheel. Most moms aren’t psyched to do carpool, but Elizabeth had never been happier. “The first time I did carpool for Carson, I was the happiest mom to ever do carpool,” Elizabeth laughed. “Driving has been the biggest thing for my independence: a total game changer. While driving may not seem like a big deal to most people, to me it’s one-on-one time with Carson. When he’s in the car, he’s stuck with me. At home, he wants to play. Now I can take Carson to school, and we go to the grocery store together.”
“While the physical things are a challenge for me, I am able to do the emotional part of parenting.”
Last December, Elizabeth received her prosthetics. Explaining to Carson that his mom would soon be half-robot, her son thinks Elizabeth’s arms and legs are “cool”. But months later, these prosthetics are still a challenge, and she does not use them regularly. They are more difficult to maneuver, so her occupational therapist suggested she begin by learning do things she enjoys. Her first thought immediately went to her children: what can she do with her new arms and hands that will make day-to-day life easier and more fun for them?
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Elizabeth. “Sometimes I’m hesitant to try something new, but I know now that I can figure out most things. If I can’t, I will wait for help or do something else, and I try not to let it get to me. I do have a moment here or there where I think ‘this is so awful,’ and then I see my kids smile or laugh. I know that missing this would be way worse, and, it would be even worse for them. It would be terrible for them and my whole family if I wasn’t here. I’d rather be here without hands and feet than not be here at all.”
Although she wants to put her children first, it’s a balance. Elizabeth still receives regular therapy to gain strength and better use her prosthetics, and she has to spend time caring for her body. But she’s making parenting work as a quadruple amputee. “While the physical things are a challenge for me, I am able to do the emotional part of parenting,” Elizabeth says proudly. “I can still teach empathy, honesty and compassion. And maybe I can teach them better than others.”