Alexis Hanford is pushed in a wheelchair through halls she once walked, stopping to chat with friends much as she did last year before the athletic teen was infected with a flesh-eating disease that has taken away her ability to walk without a leg brace.
But the Walt Whitman High School junior celebrates the normalcy that her recent return to school represents.
“A lot has changed in my life over the past few months,” Hanford said. “The fact that I can return to school is an amazing thing.”
Once an athlete, the Bethesda resident is unable to walk on or even flex her foot. She has taken over the first floor guest room in her house, because the stairs to her own bedroom are too difficult for her to navigate regularly, and she uses a walker to get to the nearby bathroom. Doctors have said she probably will always walk with a brace.
During a family vacation to Ukiah, Calif., last summer, Hanford wounded her leg on a piece of tree bark. Doctors in the area stitched her up, but her wound burst in Bethesda five days later.
Doctors from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., treated Hanford’s infection from a rare strain of bacteria with antibiotics and 17 surgeries to cut away dead skin and muscle, after which she went to MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in D.C. to start her recovery.
She is transitioning back to school slowly — a cocktail of pain killers makes it difficult for her to focus for long periods of time. Although she is only taking two classes — independent study and computer programming — Hanford is hoping to start pre-calculus soon. Her day is filled with doctors appointments, physical therapy, and long hours with the tutors who are bringing her up-to-date on the work she missed since her July 25 injury.
One-on-one instruction is a different kind of learning, and she said she is looking forward to returning to class full time.
“I have been impressed with her overall demeanor, not letting this keep her back too much,” said Kevin Pope, her independent study teacher. “She’s excited to get back to school, she’s done a good job in maintaining.”
Inspired by her lengthy hospital stay, the math and science lover has decided to turn her passion into a career in biomedical engineering. There is a lot of room for improvement in medical equipment, she said, pointing out that plastic bed pans are “the most uncomfortable thing you could ever sit on.”
“The fact that there’s one little thing I could create that could change so many people’s lives made me want to go into it,” she said.
Hanford is getting her first opportunity thanks to an engineering program at Walt Whitman called Project Lead the Way. The capstone course is an independent study class where her assignment is to create something new or improve a current design. With her friends Sara Fiscella, 16, and Molly Stone, 16, Hanford is working to create less expensive but more comfortable crutches that are easier to store.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement in crutches,” said Hanford, who carries a set when she is pushed in the wheelchair she uses to navigate the halls of her school.
Young people tend to rebound better than adults, but the reaction to medical trauma varies widely between individuals, said Jeff Brooks, practice manager of OrPro Prosthetics and Orthotics in Greenbelt, who created Hanford’s custom designed leg braces. He said Hanford has been through the stages of grief and reached acceptance.
“One person might get stuck in the fear stage, other people get angry and it makes them angry for the rest of their life,” he said.
Hanford has done a great job of turning what could have been devastating, walking with a brace for the rest of her life, into a positive, said her mother, Lynn Knieriem. She said her daughter has always had a zest for life, and her excitement at returning to school is part of it.
“When your options are maybe losing your life, or maybe losing your leg, having a brace is no big deal,” Knieriem said.