Jackie Richard’s 20 year class reunion is set to take place in two years at Lawton Eisenhower. She hadn’t given much thought to going. She had a bright future for herself in Mobile, Ala., and looking back into the past was not on her radar.
However, over the past year and a half, Richard’s world has altered dramatically and painfully. But somehow the 35-year-old Oklahoma native found a way to see the silver lining in her life.
“I am just hoping that even out of a bad situation that I’m able to be of some kind of service to anybody that may be feel down at some time in their life,” Richard said. “And let them know they can get through things, because it’s not impossible. Even if people have been told I can’t do something, I have always proven them wrong.”
Up until Jan. 14, 2009, Richard had led a good life. She was a restaurant manager and bartender in Mobile with tons of friends and a planned-out future.
“I was just pretty much happy-go-lucky,” Richard said. “Living life as anybody would. It was just a normal routine day before all this craziness happened.”
The craziness started with severe stomach pains that forced her to leave work to go to the emergency room.
“I had just gone with a friend to eat sushi and then hung out the rest of the evening playing with her nieces and nephews jumping on the trampoline,” Richard said. “The next day my stomach was sore. A throbbing pain down in the lower abdomen. The next day I felt even worse. It was just out of sorts for me because I had always been healthy.”
At the time, she wasn’t too concerned. Neither was the hospital staff, who Richard said acted like nothing was really wrong.
The last thing Richard remembers was two student nurses coming into her room and asking a few questions. At that point, she blacked out.
“That’s the last thing I remember for a couple of months,” Richard said. “I guess the infection took over the whole body and took it from there.”
Richard later found out she had a blood infection known as sepsis, which caused her immune system to go into overdrive. She went into a coma for two weeks as her body attempted to fight off the infection. Her body filled with fluids and grew to five times her normal size as they tried to save her vital organs.
“Apparently all my organs had failed,” Richard said. “My heart was failing, my kidneys failed, my liver failed. Everything was pretty much on the brink of them telling my parents (Lien and Joe Hawkins) to make funeral arrangements for me. Twice. They didn’t think I was going to make it. Because most people die from it, nobody hears about it. You only have a 15 percent chance of living. I’m really surprised I’m here right now.”
But even after Richard fought off death, her ordeal was just beginning. While in her coma, she didn’t get enough circulation to her hands and feet. Gangrene set in and her limbs slowly started to deteriorate.
Several surgeries later, they finally had to amputate parts of both arms and legs and do four skin graphs to repair the damage from the bacteria that ravaged her body.
None of this was known to Richard when she finally awakened from her coma.
“It’s kind of scary waking up to not knowing what in the world was going on,” she said. “I don’t even think there was a time I noticed the limbs were missing. I had a trachea in my throat and I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do anything. But in my mind, all I could think was ‘When am I going to go back to work and what am I going to do when I go back to work.’ It hadn’t even set into my mind I had limbs missing. It wasn’t until I got out of the hospital, after a six-month stay to moving into a nursing home, that I realized I could be laying down for the rest of my life.”
Before becoming a quadruple amputee, Richard described herself as always having a cheerful disposition. Even during tough times, she had managed to keep a smile on her face. But this was a different animal all together she was dealing with.
The lowest point for Richard came while at a nursing home in Mobile. For a staunchly independent person, having others to take care of her was misery.
“It breaks you down as a person,” she said.
Richard’s story could have ended there and been one of thousands of people every day who goes through a life-changing ordeal and their spirit is broken. But she vowed that wouldn’t be her.
After two weeks, Richard got out of the nursing home and moved in with her sister, Lindsey Hawkins, in Norfolk, Va.
“It was just not a place I felt like I needed to be or I could thrive,” Richard said. “I put in a desperate call to my sister and she brought me up here to Norfolk to get me out of there. I was like I don’t want to stay here. I definitely won’t make it if I stay in the nursing home. That’s why I felt so helpless.”
They turned her sister’s dining room into Richard’s bedroom. Despite battling blood clots and a 14th surgery, Richard was soon on the road to recovery.
She began the next chapter in her life at the Sentara Day Rehabilitation Program. Her outpatient rehab was six hours a day, five days a week. Almost every moment was painful. But Richard said she never allowed her mind or spirit to go to some place dark.
“I have always been a positive and cheerful person,” Richard said. “I’ve never, ever been a down person. It was a continuos thing of I will get my life back and get back to where I was because there is nothing that can stop me, except for me. I have always been stubborn.”
Richard soon received her prosthetic limbs. She then learned to walk again, put on makeup and brush her teeth. The small tasks most people take for granted became giant victories. She continues to work her way toward independence, which means one day driving a car and working in her chosen field.
Richard has joined a soccer team that plays in motorized wheelchairs and wants to drive to her reunion.
Yet, even she, who has inspired many people with her story and actions, is amazed by the strength of those around her. That includes her sister, who left for Iraq last month to make some extra money doing off-shore work.
“She is putting her life at risk to try and get the money back up,” Richard said. “Because it took a lot of money in order for all this to get done. She is sacrificing herself for things I wish she didn’t.”
“It’s amazing what people can do and do for you when you’re at your lowest point. I have never experienced anything like that in my life. To know I have that kind of support around me is overwhelming. It’s the nicest thing I have ever experienced in my life. So, even though it’s a bad time for me, it’s the best time,” she said.
A benefit account has been set up at Regions Bank. It’s called the Jackie Richard benefit. Send to Regions Bank, 2052 Government St., Mobile, AL 36663. She also has a website at www.thejackierichardbenefit.com. Donations will help Richard with future prosthetics and adaptive equipment for a vehicle so she can drive again.