She lost her hands and feet to an infection. Now she’s cooking, dancing and traveling again
Published Washington Post, November 24, 2015.
What Cheryl Douglass is thankful for this year: It won’t take her a week to cook for Thanksgiving.
That wasn’t true five years ago, when she was getting used to her new prosthetic hands. The first time she returned to the holiday kitchen following the blood infection that took both her hands and her feet, the garlic cloves would go flying. One slip, and she would crush a carton of broth between her myoelectric fingers. She wasted more eggs than she whisked.
“Everything just took so long when I still learning,” Douglass says in her Chevy Chase, Md., kitchen. This year, seven days before the crowd arrives for the holiday feast, she’s deftly cutting an onion, but just to prepare some potato soup for lunch.
She grips the chef’s knife deftly in both hands, speedily chopping an onion that stays put thanks to a set of pins protruding from a modified cutting board. It’s one of the tips she includes in “The Bionic Chef,” a cookbook she has written for amputees.
But the turkey, au gratin potatoes and timbales aux epinards she will produce for Thanksgiving? She hadn’t even started shopping yet.
“This year, I won’t start cooking until Wednesday,” she says. “I can do everything at the last minute like everybody else.”
Procrastination is a luxury for Douglass, 69, a retired school teacher and lifelong amateur chef. Being a last-minute Thanksgiving cook is another milestone on the miraculous march to normality that she started in 2008, when she had a devastating collision with sepsis, a strep infection that reached her bloodstream.
The early months of her recovery were consumed with learning to balance on her artificial legs and coax movement from her new hands. But Douglass, who embraced the challenge as her “next profession,” has pushed from survive to thrive. Being more efficient in the kitchen allows her more time for, let’s see, playing tennis, dancing, working out three times a week with a personal trainer. She participated in a 5K walk in September.
“I was not the last person to finish,” she says proudly.
Her husband, Paul Douglass, laughs. The competitive fire of the pixieish athlete he married 42 years ago is undimmed. It’s a force he credits with pushing her from the shock of waking up without her limbs to the rich retirement they are enjoying.
“I haven’t been surprised, really,” he says in the living room of their sunny apartment, a recent photo of Cheryl dancing with a kilted Scot displayed on the widescreen TV. They travel often. She recently tried surfing in Hawaii.
“Once she had recovered, it was clear she had put herself on a path to regain all her abilities,” he says.
Douglass, a batch of bracelets clinking on her plastic wrist, pushes herself nimbly from the couch to go check something in the kitchen. She walks quickly around the furniture on carbon-fiber legs, more spry than many a sexagenarian. She averages 10,000 steps a day on her Fitbit. She recently started lifting weights.
“I’m going to bulk up,” she declares.
That recovery was far from certain during those terrifying weeks when Douglass lay fighting for her life. It began innocently enough; she thought she had the flu. But when she became delirious, a doctor ordered her to the emergency room at Sibley Memorial Hospital, where a blood test revealed the complications from a strep infection known as sepsis.
Transferred to Georgetown University Hospital, she quickly plunged into a fight for her life. Sepsis, once known as toxic shock, kills more than 200,000 Americans a year, according to the Rory Staunton Foundation, an awareness and victims’ advocacy group. The condition is highly treatable when caught early, but if it is left to progress, it is frequently fatal.
Douglass’s kidneys began to fail, then her lungs. Pneumonia set in. The end-of-life teams began to circle as her husband and their two children sat vigil. Her hands and feet began to blacken as her body focused its resources on protecting her core organs.
Finally, she responded. And when she awoke from the coma two months later, she wasn’t completely surprised to learn she had lost her limbs.
“I just had a sense,” she says. “I had vague memories of people talking.”
Maybe the forewarning gave her a head start on a recovery that astonished her doctors. She could control her new limbs within months and has been mastering them ever since. She learned to drive a modified Subaru and is now largely independent on the constant rounds of errands she assigns herself: physical therapy, prosthetic updates, shopping, a weekly dinner with old friends. She works to promote sepsis awareness.
“So many people could be saved if more doctors knew what to look for,” she says.
Being independent has not meant ignoring the hardships of a life without limbs, though. Getting dressed each morning is a long ritual of padding and prosthetics. Nothing, from picking up the morning newspaper to opening her pocketbook, is done the way she used to do it.
“I’m basically problem-solving all day long,” Douglass say, unconsciously gesticulating with her semi-realistic Ottobock hand, its fingers opening and closing with tiny electric whirs as she talks. “I hope I’m fending off Alzheimer’s.”
Nothing has required more reinvention than cooking, a lifelong passion for Douglass. She may still fling the occasional pat of butter across the kitchen, but after a lot of practice, she is back to producing nightly meals and the occasional banquet of her beloved French cuisine. “What Would Julia Do?” reads one of her T-shirts.
In the kitchen, she picks bits of peel from the evenly chopped pile of onion, a fine motor skill that took months to master. In her cookbook, Douglass has compiled all the techniques she has perfected, along with some adapted recipes.
Among her secrets: The foam tubing she puts on knife handles and wine glass stems to improve her grip. A pair of spring loaded tweezers that lets her pull labels from fruit. The electric pepper grinder, mandolin slicer and immersion blender that she dubs essential for any amputee’s kitchen.
“It makes me cry,” Douglass says, carefully picking up the cutting board.
She is talking about the onion. The cooking, that makes her smile.