Student takes new strides after life-changing surgery
By Jared Misner
Sara Phillips is running late for the most important day of the rest of her life.
She’s putting on makeup for a debut of a different sort.
As she dresses for the Oct. 8 University of Florida Levin College of Law GreenLaw annual Eco-Run 5K race in a teal tank top, black Nike running shorts and affixes her shoulder-length black hair in a lime green hair tie, makeup seems out of place.
But for Phillips (3L), this is the day in which she’ll teach herself how to run again. This is the day she learns how to live again.
It’s a Saturday morning, but the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard is buzzing. Runners bend down to touch their toes. People with bold, black numbers affixed to their shirts jog in place. The registration table is about to close. The race is about to start.
Phillips, clutching a Vera Bradley wristlet in her hand, walks from the parking lot in that teal tank top and pair of black running shorts.
And for Phillips, that very sentence is a miracle. This is the same woman who doctors said would never walk again, who doctors many times said would be lucky to live through the night.
Below the smile, the bobbing black ponytail and the bright tank top and running shorts, is the miracle. As she walks from the parking lot, Phillips swings her right prosthetic leg out and back toward her body.
Two and a half years ago, doctors were forced to amputate nearly a fourth of Phillips’ body, removing almost all of her right leg, leaving only an inch of bone.
This is her first race back into the running world with her new running leg, which is shaped like a lacrosse stick at the top to connect to her hip and ending in a large “C” with a running shoe attached to it.
“We all have little speed bumps in our life, but ours are pretty minor compared to (hers),” said Bill Gair, Challenged Athletes Foundation board member, as he watched Phillips walk from the parking lot.
But Phillips knows nothing of speed bumps. Phillips’ life is only comparable to a drop-off.
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She would rather be studying during her second year at Michigan State University College of Law. Phillips’ most recent flare-up of ulcerative colitis, a disease that creates ulcers in the colon, was nothing new. The doctor told her to drink Gatorade, and that she would be fine.
But things got worse.
Doctors gave her an immunosuppressant to calm her symptoms and heal her body. Instead, according to Phillips, the dosage gave her the “immune system of an AIDS patient.”
Phillips finally decided to go to the emergency room on Jan. 24, 2009 — a date carved into her memory.
It would be the day that Phillips’ mother saved her daughter’s life when she took an unannounced trip from Florida and took Phillips to the emergency room.
Phillips’ walk into the emergency room would be her last on two legs as bacteria quickly and quietly poisoned her blood.
The immunosuppressant that doctors gave her had silently created a living room for the bacteria naturally living in Phillips’ body to grow and become toxic, eventually waging a sort of anatomical subterfuge to become a form of rare flesh-eating bacteria that ripped away Phillips’ right leg.
She didn’t realize had she not gone to the emergency room she would have died that night.
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As Phillips attached a white piece of paper with a bold 117 to her tank top, Gair’s daughter, Lauren, mentions a friend that piques Phillips’ interest.
“Oh, you know Ronnie?” Lauren asked.
“Yeah, I want to go rock climbing with him,” Phillips said.
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Phillips’ hospital bed was surrounded by 30 doctors in “space suits.” As she complained of pain in her right leg in addition to the colitis, doctors knew this wasn’t cancer after tests came back. But they hid the terrifying truth from Phillips for as long as they could.
“You’re not going to cut my leg off, are you?” Phillips jokingly asked.
“We’ll save what we can,” the doctors answered.
Phillips screamed for her mother who was watching from the window outside the hospital room.
This is where Phillips’ memory dies, where she often has to rely on the memories of others to piece her life back together. This is where her weekend stay in the hospital transforms into a nightmarish seven months of medically necessary torture, including five surgeries and a two-week coma.
“I tried waking up, but I couldn’t wake up,” Phillips said of her medically induced coma following her amputation. “It’s like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from.”
Now a visiting law student from MSU in her final year of law school, Phillips can’t run in the literal sense anymore. But nearly 45 minutes after the start of her first 5K since her amputation, she is working harder than almost every other runner.
Less than a mile into the race, Phillips passes Lake Alice. Sweat drips off her face and onto her chest. With only one leg, Phillips has to work extra hard to fight for what many runners may take for granted: the mere ability to land on each foot, evenly and in a clean motion.
And because doctors amputated Phillips’ right leg nearly up to her hip to stop the spread of her flesh-eating bacteria, Phillips’ amputation isn’t even normal if that word still has any meaning.
“My stomach is walking for me right now,” she said.
As Phillips turns onto Hull Road, a two-legged jogger passes. Phillips turns her head to watch her.
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Phillips isn’t angry at the world she says is clearly designed for two-legged people. Clothes shopping is a nightmare now. Showering is an obstacle. And she has to install a special left-foot pedal when she drives.
“(In the beginning), I remember laying in bed with just no reason to wake up,” Phillips said.
But Phillips had worked too hard to let people’s stares distract her from her goals of a law degree and bettering the world. She’d been through the long periods of avoiding mirrors and not recognizing the woman who stared back when she started to look into them again.
Phillips was an infant in the grown-up world of two-legged people. She was weak, both mentally and physically. If she ever hoped to return to law school, she needed to transform herself. Strength training, she said, maybe more than the amputation, saved her life.
And David Bush, the Ultimate Sports Institute’s director and cofounder in Weston, Fla., was the fitness doctor who helped transform Phillips to the person she is today.
“Most people would have quit when things were this difficult,” Bush said. “The greatest thing about Sara is that she never quit.”
Phillips determination was recognized when she recently won the Getting2Tri Foundation’s 2011 Female Athlete of the Year Award, which put her in a competition against national and talented athletes.
Phillips crosses the finish line long after every other runner. But Phillips’ hour-and-a-half finishing time is reason enough to update medical textbooks.
With this ordinary 5K, Phillips has proven wrong the science and the doctors who told her she’d never walk again.
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As she approaches the three-year anniversary of her amputation, Phillips sits on her bed crying as she pets her beagle, Snuffy. Her mind weaved among memories of doctors forcing her mom, Naomi, to sign a paper that would make it OK for them to cut Phillips’ leg off or let her die, memories of the nightmares she had in her coma, memories of a life left behind.
But she smiles, knowing her new life is long from over.
“I’m a big planner, but you can’t plan the future. If you plan the future, you’re going to disappoint yourself,” Phillips said. “Expect the unexpected. This has been a huge learning experience for me to show me what’s really important in my life.”