The Unbreakable Janet Meyers
I recently met Janet Meyers and her husband Jerry for lunch at Chester’s Hamburgers. It was an appropriate venue as Janet was a manager of Chester’s for nearly 18 years. When she walked in, she was greeted with hugs and smiles from her former workmates. Janet is a bilateral below-knee amputee living in Marion, Texas. She lost her legs and parts of fingers due to complications from sepsis.
SAAF: How long have you been an amputee?
Janet: It will be three years in a month [since my illness]. I was getting ready to turn 60, and my oldest son – we share the same birthday - kept talking about having a big 60th birthday party. I didn’t want a party. I wanted to ignore the fact that I was turning 60. And then this happened.
Jerry: She almost got her wish. January 31st is when we took her to the emergency room.
Janet: And I will never, ever, not want to have a birthday.
Jerry: She spent her 60th birthday in ICU. She doesn’t remember anything.
Janet: They took my legs the week before my 60th birthday. So, the next birthday, we had a birthday celebration for two years. It gave me a whole different outlook on getting older.
SAAF: Tell us about life before your illness.
Janet: I was a manager at Chester’s at I-10 and Wurzbach for almost 18 years.
When Janet’s son, Mathew, was tragically killed in 2013, she quit working for a few months.
Janet: Having to cope with Mathew’s death made losing my legs nothing. Having to deal with that grief made this a little easier. Losing my legs was nothing compared to losing a child. My kids had to deal with the loss of a brother. There’s no way I could let them deal with losing me. Then 10 months after I lost my son, my children lost their Dad from a broken heart. So, I wanted to be here for them and especially for my grandkids. At the time, I had four grandchildren. I have six now.
SAAF: How did you get sick?
Janet: They never found the source of the infection. I was at home, and I don’t really have a recollection of the days before I went to the hospital. I was getting like a flu bug. I had been watching the grandkids, and they had been getting sick, not necessarily with the flu, but with those symptoms. I was also getting a pain in my calf. I called my sister (an RN in North Carolina) and told her I was running a fever and had a pain in my leg. She told me I needed to go to the doctor just in case there was a blood clot.
Jerry: We had been watching the grandkids and she was feeling miserable. I knew it was serious when she handed me Sutton [our granddaughter] and said she was going to bed. The next morning, she was still feeling bad.
Janet: I tried to get in to see my doctor but they couldn’t see me until Monday. This was a Friday. We went to the emergency room. They said there was no blood clot and there was nothing wrong, and I could go home. About that time, I started having trouble breathing; my chest hurt. They did a CAT scan of my lungs, and found they were filled with fluid.
Jerry: The doctors found an infection in her lungs, and they were going to admit her.
Janet: Then within 24 hours, I was on life support. They told Jerry and my kids that I had a 1% chance of survival. The diagnosis was sepsis, but they could never find the source of the infection. They said had I not come in for something [unrelated], I would have been dead. For the next six weeks, I was in ICU on life support. Jerry tries to forget it, but I told him we need to remember it because when you remember it, you appreciate where we’re at more. He and I have different thoughts on that.
Jerry: The first week was really the hardest because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Then one day the infectious disease doctor came in with a smile, and I said, “You’re smiling.” Janet’s white blood cell count was doing what it needed to do and the next day the doctor was smiling even more, and that’s when we knew Janet was going to make it. But we started watching her feet and hands. They had started turning black.
Janet: Jerry said the doctor told me I would have to lose my legs; he made the doctor tell me. But I have no recollection of them telling me. I have a foggy memory of being aware something was going on. My two kids were telling me that I lost my legs. In my mind, I was wondering what kind of accident was I in? I remember when I started to become aware, that was just my life now. My kidneys weren’t functioning, I was on dialysis 24/7.
Jerry: They wouldn’t put a feeding tube in because they needed to get her stabilized. Everyday we were fighting with [something new], her blood pressure, her white blood cell count, her breathing.
Janet: They kept trying to find an antibiotic that would work to fight the infection. I had lots of blood transfusions, plasma, platelets. They finally sent me to Warm Springs at Thousand Oaks after six weeks.
Jerry: We always made sure there was somebody with her day and night.
One Sunday, Jerry had gone to tour a rehab center in New Braunfels. When he returned, their friend Marisa told him he had missed something extraordinary.
Jerry: She said the doctors were screaming and shouting in the hallway because Janet’s kidneys started working again, and she was breathing on her own! That was a big day; the doctor was so excited because they didn’t know if her kidneys were going to come back.
Jerry: The doctors had to fight to get Janet into Warm Springs at Thousand Oaks because she needed a higher level of care than they could provide. But the doctors had known Janet for 42 days and knew she was a fighter.
Janet: At that time, the loss of my legs was insignificant because I had to learn to swallow, to eat, to talk, all of that before I could even begin to learn to walk. When I got out of rehab, I was nominated for their Wall of Fame! They had a ceremony and many of my caregivers spoke about me.
Jerry: Her picture is on the wall at Warm Springs.
There was one day, she hadn’t seen the grandkids since this happened, and she was afraid of how they would react.
Janet: I still had the tracheotomy and the boys were only four.
Jerry: Easter Sunday we had all the grandkids come out to the rehab. The kids asked “what happened to your legs?” She told them, then they moved on. No big deal.
At Warm Springs, Janet met Mona Patel; she introduced her to Ian Warshak, who, like Janet, is a bilateral below-knee amputee and is also missing some fingers.
Janet: Ian came striding in, not walking. I thought, he’s in the same boat I am. Up to that point, I didn’t want to use my phone. Ian comes in, and his phone rings, and he reaches in his pocket and answers his phone. So that was an eye opener for me.
Jerry: Janet was all excited about Ian. I had a million questions for him – how do you take a shower, how do you go to the bathroom, how do you get your legs on and off? And Ian showed us [how he removed and put on his legs]. Janet said “I’ll never be able to do that.” For the first couple of times, [I helped her put shrinkers on], and I haven’t helped her since!
Janet: I met Justin [the prosthetist], and we started that process. In the meantime, I got pancreatitis so I was back in the hospital. While there, I had another infection in my leg, so they ended up having to do more surgery. I didn’t get my legs until June 2015. I got the leg on the right side first, but I couldn’t walk. I hadn’t stood up for 6 months. I didn’t feel comfortable. I always loved doing yard work, and when I got home, I got really down because I sat on my back deck thinking I’m never going to be able to do that.
Jerry: She had a fear of falling forward. But she first stood up in July 2015.
Janet: The amputations were February 2015. So by Christmas of 2015, I was able to walk across the living room without a walker or canes or anything. It was slow going and scary.
Jerry and Janet spoke about other amputees and their situations. Sometimes an amputee’s family can be overprotective – and although they have the best intentions, they might not allow the amputee to learn to become independent. Jerry said he did that, too.
Jerry: I mothered Janet. You want to help. But she had to put me in my place. I’ve learned to back off. It’s a mothering thing.
Janet: No, a mother lets the little bird fly. If I wasn’t in the same room with him, he panicked. One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with is Jerry being overbearing. Let me breathe some. I was relieved when he went back to work so I could have my own space. And I had to prove to everybody that I was going to be okay. In my mind, I knew I was going to be okay.
SAAF: It’s hard not to want to take care of your loved one. How long have you been married?
Jerry: Two hundred… [laughter]
Janet: 16 years, almost 17.
Jerry: Her son Patrick arranged for a group of people to come to the house, and they changed every interior door to 36”, built a front and back ramp, and Chester’s brought food. And now she can go anywhere in the house with a wheelchair or powerchair if she wants to.
Janet: But the stuff I loved was outside, and I couldn’t do that. Slowly, Jerry was able to let me be out of his sight, and I could do the things I wanted to do without people saying “you’re going to fall.”
There was a 5k on my son Mathew’s birthday. I couldn’t run, but I walked the 5k. I was going pretty good until I fell last June when I was outside stripping my deck. I broke my tibia. Being back in the chair for 3 months kind of messed with my head a little bit, but I’m trying to get back to that point. This FitFest program is really going to help with that.
FitFest is a friendly competitive program created by the San Antonio Amputee Foundation that encourages participants to exercise and eat healthy foods.
Janet and Jerry have been attending the SAAF support group meetings since shortly after Janet got out of rehab. They feel they have both benefited from the meetings.
Janet: I don’t know where we’d be without the support group.
Jerry: We were lost. One night when Janet was still in rehab, it was 2 am and it just hit me. How do I get her home? What do I do when I get her home? I couldn’t sleep, so at 4 in the morning, I headed to Warm Springs, and on the way, I got in a fender bender. I was a mess. The other guy got out of his car looking at the damage, then he pointed out that I was in a turning lane but had gone straight. I said, “No I wasn’t,” then realized that I had. Then he asked me if I was okay. I told him what was going on [with Janet] and it was the opposite of road rage; he hugged me. When I got to the hospital, I opened up to one of the therapists and they helped me, told me how to do things, and things got better.
I have seen countless people roll into the support group meetings and walk out [of later meetings], and Janet was one of them.
Janet: I really didn’t want to go to the [first] meeting, but Jerry said we really need to go. I remember seeing Tom A. I had never seen a bilateral amputee. They tell you it can be done, but until you actually see someone, it’s hard to believe. A month or two later, they had a fundraiser in Boerne, and we went. And to see all the other amputees living life -- there was live music and amputees were dancing -- it gives you hope. And then as time went on, when we went to the meetings, we were getting more out of helping others than we were for ourselves.
Jerry: The meetings help me. I have a bond with some of the other husbands [whose wives have similar limb loss as Janet]. We compare notes sometimes.
SAAF: I see that you wear your legs uncovered.
Janet: When I go out in public and I have long pants on, people can’t see my legs, and they aren’t as cautious around me. I’m so afraid someone’s going to knock me over. So I don’t mind them seeing my legs. It’s not exactly something I can hide. And if they don’t see my legs, then they see my hands.
SAAF: Has anything surprised you about living with limb loss?
Janet: My acceptance [of my own amputations] surprised me. I heard others talk about how angry they are; some [hadn’t wanted to live]. I think because I had lost my son, I was just so thankful to still be here. Once you accept that you are an amputee, you have to be patient with yourself. But it’s worth it. You have to accept it first. But you have to have people around you who accept it, too.
Jerry: She still does a lot of the things she did before, she just does them differently. Everything we do is a process. When we travel, we need to make sure we have accessible rooms. And there are different definitions of “accessible."
Janet: You can do anything you want. If you really want it, nothing is out of your reach. Your life doesn’t end; it just gets re-routed.