The devastating illness that forever changed Cindy Martinez’s life began almost imperceptibly, as nothing more than a small pain in her left shoulder blade.
Cindy, 36, the mother of two young children and wife of a metro Atlanta-area police officer, thought little of it. Perhaps it was the result of sleeping in the wrong position, she imagined, and carried on with her day, heading off to work.
It will go away, she thought to herself.
But in fact, just the opposite happened.
Over the next few days, her condition deteriorated, morphing into flu-like symptoms that became so severe she was eventually rushed to the emergency room.
What transpired next garnered the attention of media outlets the world over. As it turns out, Cindy did not have the flu. She had necrotizing fasciitis – a flesh-eating bacterial disease. It’s a rare condition that spreads quickly and can become life-threatening in a very short period of time.
The ensuing treatment for Cindy involved surgery to remove back muscle, and in order to keep her alive, she was given medication to constrict blood vessels, allowing all blood to go to her heart. Before it was all over, Cindy would go into septic shock with multi-organ failure, and a significant portion of her limbs, which had lost blood flow, would require amputation.
Initially, both feet and her right hand were amputated. Then, the leg amputations were extended to just below the knees and the right arm was amputated above the elbow. In addition, all of the fingers on Cindy’s left hand were partially removed.
It’s the type of experience that would forever define many people. But this is also where Cindy’s story diverges. Those who know Cindy, and who saw her through this journey, describe an unassuming person of quiet strength, someone who is nothing short of remarkable – a miracle woman.
“In life, you’re faced with different challenges, and what makes you who you are is how you overcome those challenges,” says Cindy’s husband David. “And Cindy never ceases to amaze me.”
When Cindy was just 17, she enlisted in the Marines, a decision that required her mother’s approval at such a young age. That she chose the Marines as a young woman is both an example of Cindy’s courage and an experience that likely helped prepare her for what was to come.
Cindy faced her amputations with characteristic resilience and strength, almost matter-of-factly, knowing it was what needed to be done if she were to survive.
“A lot of people don’t know how they would react,” she says. “It is what it is. I had no choice. This is what had to happen.”
Between the amputations and the skin grafting required on her back, Cindy spent months in the intensive care unit at three separate hospitals, including time in a burn unit at Wellstar Cobb Hospital in Austell, Georgia and the JMS Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia.
She arrived at Shepherd Center a humbled human being, slightly overwhelmed by the task before her. Cindy was totally immobilized by her amputations, no longer able to move on her own or do anything for herself.
“I was bedridden, I had a feeding tube, I couldn’t even roll to my side and I was totally dependent on people,” Cindy recalls. “I didn’t have my right arm, and my left hand was all bandaged up.”
Despite the challenges she faced, it would be just a matter of weeks before Cindy would regain her independence. Her recovery included working with an occupational and physical therapist and initially involved upper-body and core strengthening, as well as relearning simple tasks of everyday living, such as feeding herself and brushing her teeth.
“Anything we asked her to do, she did it,” says physical therapist Jill Roecker. “She wasn’t afraid to hurt a little, and she wasn’t afraid to work hard. She didn’t express a lot; she just kept her eyes forward.”
After two weeks, Cindy was fitted with prosthetics. It was a day she remembers as extremely difficult and painful, but one that was quickly put behind her, replaced by triumph after triumph.
“First, I worked on trying to get my balance, and then from there, it was a couple of steps with a walker. Soon after I was able to walk the hallways,” says Cindy. “Eventually, we got rid of the walker. From the time I got the prosthetics to the time I left Shepherd Center was just four weeks, and I left there walking.”
To the untrained eye, it would have been hard to notice anything amiss about Cindy’s gait as she left Shepherd Center.
Roecker watched Cindy that final day and thought to herself, few people would know this is a woman who only recently learned to walk on prosthetics.
“By the time she walked out of Shepherd, she wasn’t needing anything to hold on to,” Roecker says. “I personally thought if she had been wearing pants, no one from the outside would realize she had undergone amputations of parts of her legs. You didn’t really see a limp or any impairment in her gait.”
The ways in which Cindy has shown that this chapter of her life will not define her are awe-inspiring. After leaving Shepherd Center, she began CrossFit training five days a week. And then, she biked and ran the Marine Corps Marathon, biking 25 miles and running the final 1.2 miles with her husband by her side.
“That was a big achievement,” David says. “I never expected it. You’re talking about one year from her getting in prosthetics to her running a marathon.”
She may still struggle with small things each day, such as opening a jar or lifting heavy objects, but the family has come together, learning to adjust to their new normal, helping each other whenever they can.
As for the future, Cindy plans to spend it speaking with other amputees about her story. There also may be a half marathon on the horizon, and most importantly, there’s her family.
“My children kept me going each day,” Cindy says. “I’m still here, I feel healthy and I am grateful to still be able to watch them grow.”
Written by Mia Taylor
Photos by Gary Meek
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Ga., is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury or brain injury. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation and is a 152-bed facility. Last year Shepherd Center had 965 admissions to its inpatient programs and 571 to its day patient programs. In addition, Shepherd Center sees more than 6,600 people annually on an outpatient basis. For more information, visit Shepherd Center online at www.shepherd.org