Catherine Fielding has had 32 operations since the motorcycle accident June 10 that cost her both her legs. There's just one more surgery to go.
Ms. Fielding, 47, is determined to walk into her daughter's graduation in May. Impressed by her attitude, and amazed by how much progress she's made, her physicians and physical therapists think she shall.
"I've never had a patient with that kind of amputation walk, and I've never had a patient walk on just a prosthesis," said Barbara Swan, director of physical medicine and rehabilitation for Allegheny General Hospital. "Catherine is a remarkable woman."
"Her attitude has been so positive," said Joseph Witt, chief physical therapist at the West Penn Allegheny Health System outpatient facility at the Richland Mall, where Ms. Fielding has been receiving outpatient therapy since Nov. 8. "She doesn't back down on anything. She's making our job easy."
Ms. Fielding was riding on a motorcycle driven by her boyfriend, John Leddy, on Route 68 north of Butler when Mr. Leddy lost control of the bike. Mr. Leddy broke his back in several spots, both legs, and his collar bone. Ms. Fielding's pelvis was fractured. Both legs were broken in multiple places. Her left sacroiliac joint -- which joins the tailbone (sacrum) to the pelvis -- was dislocated. She was bleeding internally.
"When we first got the call, we were told she wasn't going to survive 24 hours," said Catherine's mother, Barb Masiker.
Ms. Fielding was heavily sedated and on a ventilator until June 24. When she fully regained consciousness, she noticed her left leg was gone. Her right leg was so badly damaged, it later had to be amputated, just below the knee.
She still managed to look on the bright side.
"I knew I had to lose my leg, or I was going to die," she said.
Despite this, when her daughter, Krysta Simons, receives her master's degree in psychology from Edinboro University in May, Ms. Fielding is determined to walk into the ceremony.
After their release from the hospital, Mr. Leddy and Ms. Fielding lived in his mother's home in West Deer until the home they shared in Richland could be made wheelchair-friendly.
Ruth "Cookie" Leddy said John, whose injuries were less severe, lived with her for about eight weeks. Catherine, arrived later, staying for about a month,
"It was a little frustrating because she couldn't come up on the main level with us," Ms. Leddy recalled. "She practically lived in our game room. John was with her most of the time, of course, but he'd come upstairs to sleep."
She's amazed about how upbeat Ms. Fielding's attitude has been despite the severity of her injuries, Ms. Leddy said. "She's very positive all the time. She doesn't blame John at all."
Ms. Fielding's mom isn't surprised. "I taught her always to put that next foot forward," Ms. Masiker said. "Never blame anyone else for your troubles."
Rehabilitation has been difficult.
"In the beginning, it was hard just to sit up," Ms. Fielding recalled. "I'd been on my back for almost four months, and I had this huge, open wound on my left hip."
When she came to the rehabilitation center at Allegheny General Hospital after her release from the hospital proper, the emphasis was on learning how to function in a wheelchair, and how to take care of the wound on her left side, Dr. Swan said.
Evidently, she learned pretty well. "I do my own cooking, my own laundry, my own dishes," she said.
When she first got home, her biggest challenge was getting into and out of the shower, Ms. Fielding said. "[John or Cookie and I] would pull the wheelchair up to the shower chair, then I would transfer myself sideways onto the shower chair," she said.
Using the toilet was another challenge. She couldn't sit on it the way women normally do.
"You don't realize until they're gone how much you need legs."
Now that she has a prosthetic leg, "I can pivot like a girl," she said.
In her rehabilitation sessions with Mr. Witt and physical therapy assistant Darcy Skrip, Ms. Fielding has been learning how to walk on the prosthetic leg. It was difficult at first, and there was a lot of pain.
"Catherine's first walk on the prosthesis was just 4 or 5 feet," Mr. Witt recalled. "It was 48 feet [last] time."
The pain Ms. Fielding suffered on her first couple of walks was partly because her new prosthesis didn't fit quite right and partly because of the strain using the walker placed on her shoulders.
"Shoulder pain is a problem, because the shoulder wasn't designed to bear weight," Mr. Witt said. But in the absence of legs, the shoulder must.
A few adjustments by the leg's creator, De La Torre Prosthetics, have made wearing the prosthesis comfortable.
"Building a prosthesis is an art form," Ms. Skrip said.
And the more she walks, the stronger what remains of her right leg gets, Ms. Fielding said.
"In the beginning, [the prosthesis] felt like it weighed 100 pounds," she said.
Ms. Fielding has remarkable upper body strength for a woman, Mr. Witt said. That -- coupled with her extraordinary determination -- is why she has been able to walk so far so fast.
When she walks in physical therapy, a mirror is pulled along so she can see precisely where her prosthetic foot is in space. This is necessary, Ms. Skrip said, because the prosthetic foot doesn't have the sensors people are born with that tell them exactly where their feet are even when they're not looking at them.
Ms. Fielding has one more surgery next month. To prevent contamination of what remained of her right leg from urine or feces, she had a diverting colostomy. January's surgery is to reverse it, so she can use the bathroom normally. After it, Ms. Fielding will be fitted for a prosthesis for her left leg.
Learning to walk with it will be harder because on that side she's missing the knee and the hip joint in addition to the lower leg, Mr. Witt said.
But no one is betting against Catherine Fielding.
"She's been an inspiration to everyone here in the rehab unit," Dr. Swan said. "I wish I could bottle her. She's an absolutely amazing woman. Her goal is to walk at her daughter's graduation in the spring. You know what? She's going to do it."
Ms. Fielding has volunteered to be a patient advocate.
"If I can help just one person, that would warm my heart," she said.
Jack Kelly: email@example.com or 412-263-1476.