The Unbreakable Kathie & David Braunstein
Caregiver: A caregiver is someone who is responsible for taking care of another person, providing physical, emotional, or spiritual support and love.
Many of us have been fortunate to have one or more people in our lives who have been our caregivers: spouses, parents, friends, neighbors, children. We lean on them for different needs, and we couldn’t exist without them. This is the story of Kathie and her caregiver and husband, David – a love story.
Kathie is a 66-year old, bilateral above-knee amputee from San Antonio, Texas. Nearly 10 years ago, Kathie contracted meningitis that entered her bloodstream; she developed sepsis and ended up losing her legs and fingers…and nearly her life. Kathie and David met with me to talk about their journey together.
SAAF: How long have you been married?
Kathie: 34 years.
SAAF: How did you meet?
David: It starts with a dog. I had a Golden Retriever named Cheddar, a hyper dog. On weekends, I would go on Volksmarches with Cheddar. One day, he didn’t want to go; he just sat there. I had to pick him up to take him home, then came back to finish my walk. Normally, I wouldn’t talk to anyone because I’d talk to my dog. [But I talked to Kathie.] Kathie was with a girlfriend and two guys. I thought she was dating one of the guys. But Kathie invited me over after the walk. When I left, I had accidentally dropped my wallet at her curb. So, when I got home, I had to return to her house [to get my wallet]…we became close friends, fell in love, and got married, and 34 years later we’re here!
Kathie: We have 2 boys, 27 and 32. They are both married and living in Austin.
SAAF: Tell me about when Kathie was in the hospital.
David: We had just bought tickets to go to Puerto Vallarta, and we were going to celebrate our anniversary. She was completely healthy one day, then the next day she had the flu. I had to go to work for a management meeting but got home as soon as I could because I wanted to pamper her. She never gets sick. She had gone to the doctor and was given Tamiflu. But as time went on, she got worse and worse. She was completely delirious. I called our best friends who were doctors; they came over and said maybe she has encephalitis. I called 911, and she went to the hospital.
Doctors did a brain scan; there was a wait time to get in for the scan. Much later that night, I called [our friend] the wife of the Head of the Intensive Care unit to try to get her husband to look at Kathie. He moved her immediately to the ICU and called an infectious disease doctor. That doctor said he had seen 47 cases of this in India, and everyone had died. He diagnosed her with meningococcal septicemia. Once you get it, you can die within one day. If you are lucky to get treatment, you are likely to lose all 4 limbs.
Kathie: The people who survive this are soccer players, mountain climbers, [real athletes]. From the time I was in my 20s, I knew I wanted to be healthy because cancer ran in my family.
David: Kathie was very athletic. She was running 6 miles at a time.
Kathie: I ran a lot of 10ks, played soccer at work, and played tennis.
SAAF: Where do you think you contracted the disease?
Kathie: I went to have my nails done. I think there were people who had been to Southeast Asia for a month, so I think that’s where I got it from.
SAAF: How long was Kathie in the ICU?
David: She was in the ICU for about 2 weeks. When they first took her up there, they told me to call family because she wasn’t going to live. They said she had a half-percent chance to live. I remember saying to them, “If you knew Kathie, if you gave her a half percent, I’ll take those odds.” I was trying to dispel any pessimism.
Those times were very horrible for me. I had Steven at home (a senior in high school), and I had a real important job on the executive committee of a major company – a 24-hour job. The women of Temple Bethel gave us meals every night and took turns visiting Kathie so I could work. It was a community effort. Kathie had a lot of friends from church, Catholic Charities, the community. My rabbi was very supportive, calling me nightly saying prayers; he went to visit Kathie. Our friends put Kathie on the prayer chain. It was a time that nobody should have to go through.
Kathie: I don’t know that David is over the trauma of having to make all those decisions, and trying to save his job that had my medical insurance. It was terrible for David, but we got through it. We moved forward.
David: After 2 weeks in intensive care, there was a shout of joy in the ICU. Our doctor friend said “She’s going to live, but she needs to go to a burn unit so they can fix her skin. He said she might lose fingertips, and the bottom of her feet.” We went to Lubbock because Houston did not have a bed for Kathie in the burn unit.
Kathie: As my condition improved, I was taken off antibiotics, and that’s when I got the sepsis.
David: Kathie had gangrene, necrosis on her toes, feet and hands. The gangrene started eating her alive, and that led to a life or limb decision that I had to make. When we got out of there, Kathie started going through rehab for five weeks, then she was given an electric wheelchair. She was so happy to get out that she zoomed out, and she came home. The rehab hospital is a teaching hospital, so she got great care. The nurse treated her wounds. She healed. After that, she started getting around in her electric wheelchair. Kathie went to a prosthetist to see if she could walk.
Kathie: I surmised by the way he talked to me that he didn’t think I could walk. That’s why I went to Houston to TIRR [TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation & Research]. They have an amputee clinic. The road back is not easy. You have to have some determination.
David: You have determination like no other.
SAAF: How did the kids do?
David: They were busy with what they were doing. Steven was in high school and Michael was a senior in college. At that age, they were more peer oriented, but Steven at lunch break would come and read to Kathie even though she was unconscious, and he would come every day. They were kind of shielded from medical issues, but they got to see their Mom. We just stressed the positive, and we prayed together. Steven became an Eagle Scout when Kathie was sick. One of Kathie’s first words when she came off a respirator were “Eagle Scout.”
Our oldest son was loving and cared about his Mom. The important thing to them is that they have their Mom. They’re very helpful. I’m very proud of both of them. They came through a very hard time with very little emotional damage. That’s the miracle, too.
SAAF: When you got meningococcal septicemia, did you have time to process the fact that you’d have to lose your limbs?
Kathie: I didn’t want to lose [my legs], but it was David’s choice. He had the hard part. I was on an amnesia drug for a couple of months, so I was in and out.
David: I wish they would have put me on that amnesia drug.
Kathie: I really held out hope that they wouldn’t have to take my legs but once I lost them, I never looked back. That’s just who I am. I just said, “Okay, what are we going to do next, and how long is it going to take to figure out how to walk.”
SAAF: How long was that process?
Kathie: It’s an ever-going process. When I went to the stubbies, it was a month to get used to them. Then when I went to the C-legs, it was a month. That was years ago. My stubbies have a knee joint; typically, they don’t. That allows me to drive. [My prosthetist] helped to develop an ankle so that instead of always having to swing out to the side, I have enough give so that I can do a heel-toe.
SAAF: You mentioned that you drive?
Kathie: I drive with hand controls. When my shoulder got really bad, I bought a car and had lifts installed, one for me and one for my wheelchair, so it’s pretty cool; it was a life-changing thing.
SAAF: Has anything surprised you about being an amputee?
Kathie: Nothing really has surprised me about being an amputee. What I’m surprised at is how amazed people are at my ability to function whether it’s someone on the street or a practitioner. Evidently, there are a large of majority of people who don’t want to exercise or do anything. If a PT tells me to do exercises, I may not be perfect, but I’m going to do them. You have to be part of the solution.
I’ve really come to appreciate David for all he does for me. Many a story happens where someone gets a life-changing illness like this and their spouse leaves. So, I’m very grateful to David for all he does, but I guess that’s why we we’re together for 33 years.
David: 34! [with a smile]
Kathie: I feel that everybody looks at me and gives me a lot of attention for what I’ve been through. It’s easier for me to be the amputee than the caregiver. People don’t understand how difficult it is for the caregiver, and I’m so glad that I was the one that had the amputation as opposed to being the caregiver. He’s been very good to me.
David: I think there should be support groups for caregivers. They do [have support groups] at the [Amputee Coalition] convention, but that’s only two days. And what you see are people who are beaten down. It depends on where they are [on their journey], but for the most part it was a depressed group because they don’t have ongoing support groups at home.
Amputees are good people. Inspiring.
Kathie: I hope our story inspires others. Unbeknownst to me, they only gave me a year to live. Worry is not good for you. What makes me different than most is when people say, where do you want to be? I want to get out of bed tomorrow, and I want to try again. I went through cancer, I tore my rotator cuff twice; I’m much more cautious about falling. I just don’t want to break anything. I’ve always wanted to just do what I can do. I do the laundry at home, I help with cooking, I help as much as I can. I don’t want to sit around. I even get out and volunteer with the elderly. I get up and do what I can. I’m a very independent person.
A fellow amputee shared his advice for people who struggle with difficult life changes. If your feeling anxious about your situation, get out and help someone else. You'll be pleasantly surprised with the results.