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Former NCHS star pitcher all smiles after disease takes hands, feet

Posted: September 4, 2012 5:58 p.m.
Updated: September 5, 2012 5:00 a.m.
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North Central rode the left arm of standout pitcher Shannon Vincent, now Wessinger, to the Class A state softball title in 1999.

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COLUMBIA -- Sometimes, she will carry her arms in her back pack. But Shannon Wessinger still wears her heart on her sleeve.

Not even being a recent quad amputee can wipe the smile from the face or the resolve in her mind of the former Shannon Vincent, who in the spring of her senior season pitched the Lady Knights to the class A state softball title in 1999. It remains the school’s only state championship in any sport.

Today, the left arm which sent many an opposing batter to make a U-turn back to the dugout has been cut off, just below the elbow. Same goes for the right arm. The two legs which carried her around the bases and provided the power to her throws have both been fitted with prosthetics.

If you think for one moment, however, that Wessinger has made the call to the bullpen due to what she might call a curveball having been thrown in her life, well, she may give a sneer before going out to prove any doubter wrong.

There is no quit in Wessinger who has already rebounded from a near-fatal infection to be well on her way to things being business as usual, albeit with a few physical alterations.

*****

This is not how the 30-year-old Shannon Wessinger pictured herself as recently as four months ago.

On May 8 of this year, Wessinger was induced into labor as she and her husband, Eric, were to become parents for the second time; a baby boy whom they had already chosen to be named Shaun. The birth went without a hitch as Shaun came into the world healthy and ready to join his mom, dad and a 2-year-old sister, Jaime, at the family’s home in Lexington, where Shannon is a teacher/assistant softball coach at White Knoll High School.

A day after Shaun’s arrival, Shannon underwent a tubal ligation before being released to go home on May 10. The next morning, Wessinger developed a fever, which she thought nothing of other than it possibly being related to having given birth. The following Monday, however, the fever returned and the pain was enough that Eric took his wife to the hospital.
That is about the last thing Wessinger remembers of May 14. It would be the last thing she would remember for, roughly, the next month and a half. For that time, doctors kept Wessinger medically asleep in order to try and make sure her body healed.

“When I came to,” Wessinger said of her being awoken from her sleep, “I was in the hospital and was, pretty much, told the next day, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to lose your hands and feet.’

“I was like, ‘Wait. What? I need to know what happened first. Then, momma and my husband started explaining things and I tried to piece things together because for that month and a half, I had dreams, but that was about it. I don’t really remember anything else. The last thing I remember, now, were the speed bumps going into the hospital in Lexington.”

In giving her first interview since her illness, Wessinger and her mother, Tammy Vincent, were seated in a treatment room inside the rehabilitation center at HealthSouth in Columbia. With a pair of sunglasses pulled atop her brown hair, Shannon Wessinger was all smiles and was more than open as to what turned her life around.

While later admitting that things could have gone catastrophically bad, Wessinger said a team of 17 doctors, around the clock attention from nurses and the support of family and friends all played a role in her still-ongoing recovery.

In just the first 24 hours after being admitted to the hospital, Wessinger’s condition deteriorated to the point that she was put on a respirator. She stayed on a respirator until she woke up. About a week into her stay, she underwent a tracheotomy. In all, she said, she had, at one time or another, 14 tubes being stuck into her body which kept her alive and then, helped in her road back to health. Her list of medications which she has taken and/or continues to take in her recovery is between six to seven pages in length.

The illness which befell Wessinger was diagnosed as Strep A, a condition which at the time of her being brought to the Lexington Medical Center, affected only 220 other people in the world. Tammy Vincent said she was alerted to this fact by the physicians tending to her daughter.

Physicians are still uncertain as to how Wessinger contracted the illness. Once in her system, Strep A morphed into three infections and various parts of her body started shutting down to the point to which Wessinger DIC’d (disseminated intravascular coagulation) three times. Wessinger explained the three-letter medical term and the Winthrop University graduate then put it into more blunt terms.

“It’s pretty much where everything shuts down and you die,” she said of her close calls. “The kidneys started shutting down; the liver started shutting down. Breathing became difficult. I think I was on every piece of equipment that you could ever put on a person while I was in ICU.”

It was during these times, Wessinger guessed, that the dreams which she experienced were at their worst.

Throughout the ordeal, Wessinger’s mother and father, Joey Vincent, along with Eric kept a constant vigil.

“I was back there all the time; me, Joey and Eric were constantly back there. We were there all the time,” Tammy Vincent said. “She was in ICU forever; she was only on the general floor for two weeks. We came and went as we wanted, 24 hours a day.”

“I was lucky. They let my family stay with me,” Wessinger said of her support system.

While being kept asleep so doctors could treat her, Wessinger endured a series of dreams which became all-too-real once she was awakened by one of her nurses in ICU.

“Even though she was unconscious, there were things that she can remember, but she thinks they were dreams,” Tammy Vincent said before her daughter described what was going on in her mind.

In describing what she saw, Wessinger nodded in agreement when later asked if this was like Dorothy’s coming back from a hit to the head in the film, The Wizard of Oz.

“I can remember some of my ICU nurses being in my dreams,” she said. “I didn’t know they were my ICU nurses at the time but when I woke up and I started to understand and comprehend what was going on, I said, ‘Oh, wait, you were in my dream, you were in my dream and you were the one that yelled at me in my dream.

“Some random chick was screaming at me in my dream that I had.”

Her mother later cleared up the confusion. The episode, she said, was not a dream.

“There was one nurse that yelled at her and she wondered why she was being yelled at,” Tammy Vincent said. “She was the one who was yelling at her saying, “Shannon, you need to wake up. You have to come out of this. Don’t you want to see your babies, again? Baby Shaun needs to see you. You have to see your babies. You’ve got to wake up!’

“I said to her, ‘That wasn’t some random chick. That was your nurse. When I came in the room, that nurse happened to be in there that day and I said to Shannon, ‘Tell (the nurse) about the dream that you had.’ (The nurse) told her, ‘That was me. I was the random one you saw.’”

To this day, Wessinger said what she saw in her dreams played out in real life once she woke up.

“It’s weird,” she said, “I never saw those nurses before in my life, but when I woke up, they looked exactly like they did when they were in my dreams. It was weird because I had never seen those nurses before in my life.”

There were different sets of circumstances when it came to Wessinger’s dreams. There were the horrible ones and then, there were pleasant ones. She guessed the dreams came and went depending on the strength of the medication being pumped into her body.

When Wessinger was brought back from her sleep, her systems were working as they were supposed to. “When I woke up,” she said, “I ‘woke up.’” She was woken up after six weeks, but it was not until two weeks later that she was what Tammy Vincent called, “conscious awake.”

It was then that she learned the first part of her journey was over, but there was still a long way to go.

*****

“That week before, there’s a few things that were a little foggy,” Wessinger said of her memory of the days leading up to her being brought to the Lexington Medical Center on May 14.

Little things like, what Shaun wore home from the hospital were a mystery. His mother had picked out two outfits for him to wear home. It was not until returning home and seeing a photo of Shaun’s first day at his home that Wessinger remembered what she dressed her son in for his arrival at his new home.

Upon coming to, Wessinger said her coaches from Winthrop happened to be in the room. Where she was, mentally, though was not in the same place as her guests.

“When I woke up, I was still kind of hallucinating,” she said with a smile in telling the story. “I could tell people were in the room because my softball coaches from college came to see me. I knew that they were there, but I was in some office room at the hospital on a beach somewhere. That’s what I could see out the window.

“I know that’s not true, but that’s what it was to me at the time. It was just random stuff like that.”

Life became more real as Wessinger started regaining her bearings. Her family, doctors and nurses brought her up to date on what happened in the eight weeks since she fell into a deep sleep. Her son, who was less than a week old when she entered the hospital, was now some two months old and her daughter was speaking in full sentences.

“They would tell me what the kids did that day and what they were doing or, that Shaun was doing this or Jaime’s doing this. I didn’t have a clue,” Wessinger said of her lost eight weeks.

After those niceties were taken care of, the bombshell was dropped on Wessinger. Her days at the hospital were hardly over as parts of her arms and legs would have to be amputated. The surgeries would be performed on two different days. It had to feel like Wessinger was back in another one of her bad dreams.

“There was a huge shock effect because everything was fine,” Wessinger said of her reaction to being told that she would lose both her hands and feet. “I went from having a baby and going home with a three-day old and then, waking up and finding out that your three-day old is almost two months old and your almost two-year-old is speaking complete sentences. Then, on top of that, you’re not going to have your hands and feet anymore. There was just a whole lot of stuff that got pushed into everything at one time.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head the whole idea of not being able to have my hands and feet. I’ll go to reach for something and then I’ll say, ‘Crap. There’s nothing here to reach with because I don’t have my hands on. It’s odd. I’m still working through it.”

In the two days following the amputation of her legs, Wessinger said she experienced a new height in terms of pain. “I never felt anything like that for two days. I was in some pain,” she said. Two days later, her hands were removed. “That did not hurt nearly as much.”

In the time between rehabbing from Strep A and before the amputation of her extremities, Wessinger worked to gain her strength back so that she would be fit enough for the amputation surgeries. During the time, her arms turned black. It was enough to scare little Jaime, if not unnerve an older person.

“Before she had the surgery, Jaime wouldn’t have anything to do with her,” Tammy Vincent said of her granddaughter. “She’d come up long enough to give Shannon a hug and then, she would run away. (It was) because of the way her hands and feet looked; they were dark … they were black. I think that scared her.

“Then, after she had the surgery, she was all over her. She was crawling on her and was all over Shannon. She was treating her like … well, just mommy.”

Ironically, once her mother’s arms and legs were removed, Jaime Wessinger, was no longer scared. When the stitch marks left below the elbows and the knees as the result Wessinger’s surgery healed, mother had her own personal nurse and … her own one-person publicity team.

“My daughter helps mommy walk down the hall. She helps mommy walk to the bathroom. She helps mommy brush her hair. She helps mommy brush her teeth. She just wants to help,” Wessinger said with a beaming smile when talking about her daughter.

“She wants to sit in my lap and she wants to be there with me. She’ll touch my arms and she’ll touch my legs and say, ‘Boo boos better?’ Even when she’s on the phone she tells people, ‘Mommy’s boo-boos better.’ When people just walk in the house, she tells them, ‘Mommy’s boo-boos better.’”

“Shaun just sits and smiles and stares at me. It’s nice to be able to sit and stare at him because he recognizes my voice. He finds me in the room … it’s just nice being able to …

“The worst part of this was when I woke up and I couldn’t be with them all the time; I hated it. Once I got home, I didn’t care if they were hollering or screaming; it was just nice to be home with them.”

*****

These days, Shannon Wessinger is back at home with her family and has even started doing some of her schoolwork as a social studies teacher at White Knoll, albeit at a limited rate until being given the go-ahead by her physicians.

For the time being, she makes the trip to the other side of Columbia at HealthSouth -- where she has been an out-patient since July 31 -- undergoing occupational therapy for her upper body and physical therapy for the lower part of her body, three times a week as she continues to get used to her new arms and legs. Her sessions are about 90 minutes per visit.
A day’s activities may involve moving pegs around on a peg board to walking and anything in between to trying to pick up Styrofoam cups and trying not to crush them with her new hands.

“If it’s something that I can get quickly with my hands, it’s not that bad. If it’s something I have to struggle with, it gets mentally taxing because I get a little frustrated,” Wessinger said of the adjustment process.

“The walking is the most physically taxing part because the stamina’s not there, yet. They say that when you are in the hospital, and for every month that you’re in the bed, it takes two or three months to recover from that. It’s trying to build strength back up with the physical stuff and the mental part is trying not to get too upset about it.”

When asked if she is a good patient, Wessinger laughed and nodded her head. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “They seem to like me. I do what I’m told. They tell me what they want me to do and walk off and they know that I’m going to do it. I have to; I have no other choice.”

At about that time, one of the rehabilitation specialists, a young woman named Danielle, popped her head inside the door to the room and held up a hand-man sign which read, “Shannon is awesome.” It said plenty as to the effect which Wessinger’s never quit spirit has infected the facility and other rehab patients.

There is one wheelchair-bound military veteran, in particular, who has watched Wessinger’s resolve during her rehab sessions and told her that she has inspired him to keep working with his physicians to overcome his injury.

“He came up and told me that and I said, ‘Uh, Thank you,’” said the modest Wessinger when asked of the story. “People who I’ve never met me before come up and talk to me. I don’t know what to say to them; I’m just being me. I can’t be anyone else.”

Fortunately, by being and staying in good shape, the recuperation process for Wessinger has been expedited. The muscle mass she had before being taken to the hospital, even after having delivered a baby, helped because even though she lost some of her muscle mass during her hospital stay, she still had more than most people do.

Many of the exercises her physicians ask Wessinger to perform are repetitive. She is trying to re-learn how to keep objects in her hand when holding them over her head in order to make sure the muscles are doing their job. The sessions, she said, are intense. The hardest part to overcome was the fact that all the work and all the time are being done to help, rather than penalize, her. That, at first, was a hurdle Wessinger had to overcome.

“It helps me understand that they’re not doing this to make me feel bad; they’re not pushing me to show me how hard it is,” she said of the rehab sessions. “They’re doing this because they have to. Knowing that going in makes me work harder because if I work harder then they will work harder to make things go faster.”

A former athlete, Wessinger has shown her competitive side in her rehab exercises. When she is told that working to get up off the mat may take a little time, the next thing you know, she is up and standing and ready to tackle the next task. Getting in and out of the car? Done in a flash. The question she asks? “What’s next on the list?”

It is during her rehab work in which, Wessinger said, the athlete comes out in her.

“You’d be surprised,” she said when asked if the competitive juices get flowing inside the rehab center. “They will say, ‘Go do this.” I will say, ‘This isn’t hard enough. I need to do something else. We need to go faster because this isn’t fast enough. What else do we have to do? What else can I do to make this all go faster? We have to get this going.’

“I’ve never been one to quit. That’s not me.”

The rehab center is not the only place in which Shannon Wessinger thinks back of her days as an athlete at North Central or Winthrop. In fact, she said that she will often think back to that magical 1999 season in Boonetown and use it as motivation for the high school players she coaches.

“I think about it sometimes, especially coaching in high school. I tell our players, ‘If we could do it, y’all can do it. But y’all need to get it together so that we can do it,” she said.

“I bring it up, sometimes, when we’re talking about different things; about how it felt to win the state championship about how it felt to win a state championship and what we’re working toward.”

*****

Inviting her guest to place his hands into her prosthetic arms, Shannon Wessinger provides instruction as to touching the sensors on each side and see how they control the realistic-looking hand -- complete with fingernails -- and see how the hand opens and closes with the slightest touch.

The new set of arms, she said, can lift between 50 to 70 pounds, more than enough power to hold each and/or both of her children, which is the most important thing to her.

“The hardest part in getting used to the legs are the ankles not bending. The hands are another ball of wax,” she said of working with her new body parts. “I’m trying to get used to opening and closing them and not being able to flex the wrist up or down or rotating the wrist. You have to learn whole new angles of how to grab things. The hands are the hardest part, which is something I knew going in.”

There is no set date as to when Wessinger’s trips to rehabilitation will end. She joked that she will keep coming back to HealthSouth “Until the doctor said that I’m good and kicks me out and tells me not to come back anymore.”

Whether in rehab or back home, this ordeal of more than four months has altered the way in which Shannon Wessinger approaches life and everything that is out there. She learned, nearly the hard way, that nothing is guaranteed to any person and that rather than count the days, make the days count.

“Before, it was ‘There’s time to do this later.’ Now, I know there might not be a time later,” she said of her new lease on life.

“If you want to do something, you need to do it now. If you want to go to the museum and see something, do it now and don’t put it off. That’s something that I’ve learned … real quick. You don’t have time to put stuff off because you never know when something might happen and you never know if you are going to make it back from something like this … I’m lucky that I did.”

Her mother nodded in agreement in hearing those words come out of her daughter’s mouth.

“She can do anything that she wants to do. I said that even before she got her legs or her hands,” Tammy Vincent said. “The only obstacle that she is going to have is herself. She can do it. She just has to learn to do it a different way. She has to do it her way, now.”

And that way includes living life to the fullest and enjoying spending time with friends and, most importantly, her family.
“There’s no stopping. I don’t have time to slow down,” she said while talking about her two children. “They need me to get up and move. They don’t need me to sit around and feel sorry for myself. I don’t have that luxury.”

Does she consider herself lucky after what she went through to still be up and around after what she went through this spring and summer? Wessinger was asked that question as the interview started coming to a close. She paused and collected both herself and her thoughts before giving her response.

“That’s part of it,” she said. “Feeling sorry for myself is not an option. It never was. I have too much other stuff to worry about to sit around feeling sorry for myself.

“I have a 2-year-old and a 4-month old … I can’t do that. I could not have been here for my kids and for my family. It’s pretty good that I am … things worked out.”

 

Addendum: How much has Shannon Vincent Wessinger’s pulling through from her ordeal inspired others? First, the ICU nurses from the Lexington Medical Center who tended to her will either run or walk in the annual Governor’s Cup road race in Columbia on Saturday, Nov. 3. Wessinger will join the group as they approach the finish line and she vowed to walk across the finish line with her new friends, who still check in on their former patient.

In addition, members of Wessinger’s church in Lexington are also in training as they plan to take part in the Governor’s Cup, as a tribute to their friend and fellow parishioner.

Locally, on Friday, Sept. 28, there will be a barbecue chicken dinner to be held at the Buffalo Church Ministry Center on Lockhart Road, in Kershaw, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Plates, available for dine-in or take out will be sold for $8 each with all proceeds and donations being turned over to the Shannon V. Wessinger Benefit Fund. For tickets, call 427-2583 or 475-3129.

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