April 10th, 2019 | Published in Amputee Stories
Teenager Michelle Alcorn once envisioned a glamorous career as a high fashion designer. Illness wasn’t part of her plans. However, now the clothing she intends to design will be for people like her — people who wear prostheses.
A potentially lethal case of bacterial meningitis in June of 1999 left the then 15-year-old Texas 10th grader in critical condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. The infection attacked her vascular system, particularly her hands and feet. Soon after the disease was diagnosed, her family was told that Michelle’s extremities would have to be amputated. By the end of July, the surgeries were complete; Michelle’s hands were amputated at the wrist and her legs just below the knee.
Despite prompt intervention, Michelle’s medical condition didn’t improve. A secondary infection ravaged her body; doctors induced a coma to slow down her systems and promote healing. Several times during the following weeks, her family feared for the teen’s life.
Her mother Tammy recalled that a few days before Michelle’s 16th birthday, her daughter had to be resuscitated and put on a ventilator; doctors questioned whether to continue aggressive treatment. Then three days later, she woke with no serious damage to her brain or organs. It was time to begin life as an amputee.
After transfer to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) at the Texas Medical Center, Michelle was introduced to the Amputee Program and to Houston Children’s Charity, an organization of more than 75 agencies that provide assistance to disabled and underprivileged youngsters. She was also referred to Ted Muilenburg, CP, for prosthetic evaluation and fitting.
Initially, Ted fit Michelle with conventional control, wrist disarticulation prostheses with mechanical hands in October of 1999. These were replaced with Otto Bock myoelectric hands the following January. It was necessary to wait before providing her with below knee prostheses until the scar tissue and grafts covering her limb had healed sufficiently.
Last June, her prosthetist fit her with bilateral below knee prostheses with custom TEC locking liners for enhanced comfort and security. Seattle Light Feet completed the limbs.
“Michelle really pushes herself,” Ted stressed. “She has great determination.”
“The day her legs were fit, Michelle stood up and walked across the room. She amazed all of us!” Mrs. Alcorn recalled. “We were astounded to see her just stand up and walk.”
Ted continues to work with Michelle to fine-tune the Myoelectric control of her right hand.
Michelle enjoys shopping and going to restaurants with family and friends. Home schooled through her local school district, she uses a computer equipped with a voice dictation device for her homework.
“I’m not ready to go back to school yet,” she volunteered. “I don’t think I would be comfortable. People think I’m different now, but I’m not really. I’m even stronger than I was before I got sick, and I don’t let this get to me.”
Next semester, Michelle’s teachers will modify her schedule, with some classes at school. Her physical therapy sessions will count for high school physical education credits, and occupational therapy will fulfill her home economics requirements.
Michelle spends much of her free time with her brothers and sisters and their large circle of friends. Her mom characterizes Michelle as independent, fun loving, and funny, noting that her daughter’s experience has brought their family even closer together and made them all stronger.
This October, Houston Children’s Charity honored Michelle at its fourth annual gala at the Hyatt Regency in Houston. Recognizing her courage and determination, the banquet speaker noted, “This young lady has the spirit to triumph over her tragedy. Houston Children’s Charity is proud to know Michelle and to have played even a small part in helping her to reclaim her life.”
“That was really a lovely evening for Michelle,” Mrs. Alcorn said. “Everyone has been so great to us. The people from Muilenburg and from Houston Children’s Charity are helping us get through this.”
The teen’s family credits Michelle’s recovery to her tremendous spirit. “She is a ray of sunshine in our lives,” her mom emphasized. “And she always will be. She’s even more special now.”