The Comeback Kid
Ninety-seven days after she came to the University of Virginia Hospital, the unthinkable happened: Rayna left. Against all odds, she had survived. And then she had to re-learn everything.
It took months for her new prosthetics, custom-fit and built of a soft plastic that mimics human flesh, to arrive. In the meantime, Rayna had to make do with a wheelchair and a pair of arms that, in place of hands, had hooks that she opened and closed by rolling her shoulders.
Her twice-weekly therapy sessions were punishing, making her days as a Virginia Tech athlete pale in comparison. She struggled to build the muscles and the coordination she needed to do tasks that had once seemed so simple—things like brushing her teeth, taking a shower, feeding herself. Frustration was her constant companion in those days. “I was helpless,” Rayna remembers, “but I didn’t want others to think that.” She raged against her condition. And no matter how often it was offered, she refused help.
When Rayna’s new arms finally came, they were, well, mismatched. You see, Rayna is African-American, and the arms were Caucasian. Everybody had a good laugh about that one, and a new pair soon came.
Yet the moment that brought tears to everyone’s eyes was when Rayna set out to take her first, wobbly steps on her new legs. The prosthetics were mis-sized, adding three inches to her former height of six-foot-three. Still, that didn’t stop her. Sweat pouring from her brow, she looked like she’d fall forward with each baby step. But she didn’t. Instead, she inched across the room, her dad supporting her for balance.
For the first time in almost a year, Rayna was walking.
If you ask Rayna, not much has changed in her life since meningitis and sepsis stole her hands and feet five years ago. “I can do everything on my own,” she says. And that’s pretty much true.
Every night, she takes off her prostheses and sets them on the edge of her bed. When she gets up, she just slides into them. It’s pretty simple—there’s a suspension sleeve that she rolls up to suction the prosthetic to her leg, just below the knee. Then she straps on a pair of “body-powered” arms for her morning shower. They’re not electrical, which is good when you’re drenched in water, and she can control them by flexing the muscles in her back.
Once she’s dried off, she switches to her myoelectric arms, which attach at the bones on her elbows. Rayna controls these electrically powered prostheses with the muscles in her forearms, allowing her to pinch, grip, and release objects. At first, she couldn’t do much of anything with them. Couldn’t brush her teeth or make a sandwich or even push her glasses up her nose. But with focus and hard work, she mastered all those tasks and many more. Today, she dresses herself and makes her own meals. Most mornings, it takes her about an hour to get ready. Which is okay, she says, “because I’m not a morning person anyway.”
She got a pair of prosthetic legs that fit properly, and those first baby steps quickly became regular strides. Now, she says, “Most people can’t even tell I have prosthetics.”
Rayna loved the special pair of feet that she could adjust with the push of a button to wear heels. She used that feature so much she wore it out. Now she’s on her second set of adjustable feet.
She still loves to go out, “to dress up all girlie,” as her mom says. Put on a cute skirt, heels and earrings, then head out with her friends to listen to music and dance. At first, doing her hair was a problem—the prosthetic hands lacked the necessary dexterity to put together the intricate hairstyles Rayna favored. But with time, she found a style she could do herself.
She dates occasionally. “Just nothing serious,” she giggles.
For a while, when folks would ask her whether she could drive, she’d tell them yes. Then she’d give a big grin and say, “just not legally.” But now, she’s legal. She has a license and a Saturn Vue, and most of the time she keeps it under the speed limit.