A new mom faces life after amputation

By : Steve Blanchard
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It’s no secret that newborn babies are challenging. There are the diaper changes, the crying, the feedings and the disrupted sleep patterns. But Gina Salvatoriello and Mel Meadows, proud parents of 14-weeks-old daughter Bryn, have the added struggle of life-altering surgery.

Salvatoriello’s right leg was amputated May 9, almost 12 years after she suffered life-changing injuries in a car accident outside Dallas, Tex.

“I don’t remember all of it, but it comes back in flashes,” Salvatoriello said two weeks before her scheduled amputation. “I remember seeing the sky out the front windshield, waking up and worrying that the car was on fire. When I woke up again I was in the trauma unit.”

Salvatoriello was stopped behind interstate traffic when a vehicle behind her failed to stop and rear-ended her, pushing her into the median, where she was hit by another vehicle head on. The accident broke her right leg so severely that first responders removed her car’s brake pedal along with Salvatoriello.

“My leg was wrapped around it,” she said. “I didn’t have any brain trauma or a broken back, so I thought I was lucky. All of my injuries appeared to be orthopedic.”

But three months after the accident, doctors discovered Salvatoriello had a rare neurological disorder that would make healing almost impossible. She has Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
CRPS and RSD is characterized by a severe burning pain, tissue swelling and extreme sensitivity to touch. It is also exasperated by trauma, and Salvatoriello’s case has progressed to Stage Four.

“I was told I would never get out of my wheelchair,” Salvatoriello said. “I went to every possible surgeon in the country. I was in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio. Eventually the doctors got me out of the chair.”

And while she was able to walk again, Salvatoriello, an accomplished artist and philanthropist, still battled constant pain, and as weather changed, her symptoms would get worse. So bad, in fact, that uncontrollable contractions of the joints disrupted blood flow and re-broke bones in her ankle.

The only option, doctors told her, was to amputate her leg.

“I have 19 pieces of hardware in my foot and ankle and my bones are still dying,” Salvatoriello said. “The hardest part of this for me personally is that I’ve fought so long and so hard to keep my foot and leg attached through such drastic measures. And to lose it feels like the last 10 years of torture has been for nothing.”

Sharing her story
Throughout her life, Salvatoriello has kept her personal issues to herself. Very few know of her battle with CRPS and when she was asked about her limp, she would simply share that she broke her ankle.

But now that she and Meadows have a new baby to care for, she’s reaching out to the community for help.

“More than the thought of the leg being gone and the physical pain or knowing I’m not going to be able to walk on my own again…what’s freaking me out most is that I won’t be able to reach the microwave to heat up a bottle or that I can’t get to her diaper changing station from a wheelchair,” Salvatoriello said. “I won’t be able to put her in her crib and how do I get her in and out of her car seat from my wheelchair? And then, how will I drive to get us to our doctors’ appointments?”

The daily logistics of raising a small child are mindboggling when considering how to execute them from a wheelchair. But it’s the future, big life moments that make Salvatoriello emotional.

“I’m not going to run down the soccer field and cheer her on,” Salvatoriello said, wiping away tears. “Those things are difficult. I thought she would be two or three by the time we got to this point. This came on us faster than I ever expected. How am I going to sooth her if I can’t walk the floor?”

And how, both women wonder, are they going to afford to make the changes to their home and vehicles to accommodate Salvatoriello’s life as an amputee?

“I have to have a ramp to get into the house,” Salvatoriello said. “We have to have doors widened and we have to remodel the kitchen so I can reach things. That’s expensive.”

And the medical treatment themselves have had to be mostly paid for out of pocket because so many of them are still considered “experimental.”

Hoping for help
The easiest way to help Salvatoriello and Meadows is through financial donations.

But the women also need physical and emotional help.

“It would be great if there was a resource out there I haven’t discovered yet that can help us take care of the baby,” Salvatoriello said. “I’ve been caught in an endless loop of automated responses and red tape. I’m laying on my back for six weeks. How do I logistically take care of the baby? how do I take care of myself? Mel has to work to keep us afloat.”

Salvatoriello said she’s never asked for help before. But she realizes that she’s reached a point in her life that she must reach out to the community in which she has been so involved since her high school days.

“I never wanted it to seem like I wanted pity, and I don’t want it,” Salvatoriello said. “In winter, when I’m in the most pain, I simply didn’t go out anywhere because I didn’t want to be seen in my wheelchair. I also never wear shorts because of the scars on my legs. It was easy to mask my issues. But that’s just not the case anymore. It’s like coming out again, and I need help.”

Support system
Fortunately for Salvatoriello, her partner of nine years has been by her side throughout most of her medical journey. Watching the person you plan to spend the rest of your life with struggle through medical issues can be almost as difficult as experiencing the issues yourself.

“It’s really difficult,” Meadows said. “I want to sit there and be there for her and be stoic and not get myself upset. I’ve been clammed up about it because you always wonder, ‘do I bring it up or not?’ You don’t want to ruin a good day by asking if today is the day we should move the dishes lower in the kitchen so she can reach them from her chair. But we have to address these things. It’s happening and there are so many things we weren’t expecting to be bombarded with.”

The one thing that keeps both women going, they say, is the addition of their daughter, Bryn, to the mix. The 12 week old little girl is happy, healthy and smiles at both mothers throughout the interview for this story.

“I’m absolutely amazed every day by this little girl and how much she has me wrapped around her finger,” Meadows said. “We always wanted a family and our concerns with Gina getting pregnant were how the weight gain would affect her leg. We never thought we’d be dealing with an amputation within weeks of bringing a newborn into the house.”

But the women have no regrets about their newest addition.

“She keeps us so busy that you can’t help but take your focus off of the horrible things we’re facing and concentrating on her,” Meadows said. “That little smile makes it all worth it, and if anyone can turn a negative into a positive it’s my wife, that’s for sure.

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