Art teacher's fortitude after four amputations fuels her recovery and return to work with students
Lynn Whitehead is teaching valuable life lessons to her students at Cedar Mill Elementary School.
In addition to instructing them on art techniques and helping them develop their creativity, the Sherwood resident is showing her young charges they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
Her own return to the classroom is a story of hard work, perseverance and determination.
Whitehead endured the amputation of her left hand, tips of her fingers on her right hand and both feet after a kidney stone caused a bladder obstruction in May of 2008, leading to a deadly infection, septic shock and organ failure. Following multiple surgeries and a year of rehabilitation learning how to navigate life with a new prosthetic hand and prosthetic legs, Whitehead returned to her duties as Cedar Mill's half-time art teacher in the fall of 2009.
Now in her 12th year at Cedar Mill, students who look forward to their time in art class say they remember how excited they were to have Mrs. Whitehead back.
'She's an inspiration for a lot of people,' said Tony Martinez, a fourth-grader who enjoys drawing. 'I think she's cool.
'She shows other people if you lose something, you can still be the same person. I've learned that whatever happens, you can still do the same things.'
Whitehead remembers the pain she felt went she and her husband Don made their first trip to the emergency room at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland.
After discovering a 6-millimeter kidney stone was the culprit, doctors sent Lynn home with medication to dull the pain and prevent nausea while she waited for it to pass through her system.
'Over the weekend, it didn't pass, and Monday morning my husband took me back to the ER,' she recalled. 'When we got there, they told him if we had come in one hour later, I wouldn't be here.'
The stone traveled from her kidney to her bladder, causing a blockage, which allowed fluids to build up and create an ideal environment for a bacterial infection to take hold and poison her blood.
'Septic shock happens very quickly and causes your organs to shut down,' Whitehead explained. 'I was in an induced coma in the ICU for nine or 10 days.
'I was hooked up to every machine imaginable. When I woke up, I thought I had frostbite. My fingers and toes were blackish.'
The steroids used to fight the infection robbed Lynn's extremities of blood, causing her fingers and toes to get gangrene. She went through 25 hyperbaric oxygen treatments in a pressurized room in the hope they would reinvigorate cells.
'It became pretty clear I was about as good as I was going to get at that point,' she said.
In mid-June, surgeons amputated her left foot at the ankle and her right foot below her knee. A couple weeks later, they removed her left hand at the wrist and the tips of all of her fingers on her right hand.
MacJulian Lang, an upper limb prosthetics specialist with Advanced Arm Dynamics in Tigard, was one of the professionals surgeons consulted with prior to the surgeries.
'We talked about how far back they would need to go to get to viable tissue with her most functional hand and discussed going a little farther up with her other hand to improve function with a prosthetic,' Lang said.
Those early days are a blur to Whitehead, who was in a state of shock.
'I wasn't feeling very strong at first,' she said. 'I found coping with limb loss is similar to the grief you feel with a death.
'Each amputation was like a death. There was a grieving process. I experienced severe grief and shock. There was a time that all I wanted to do was sit and watch TV.'
But that wasn't an option for Whitehead, who is the mother of two sons, Marc and Chris, who are now 23 and 19. It also wasn't an option for her caseworkers, who outfitted her with temporary prosthetics and immediately began training her on their use.
Lang's team fit her with a myoelectric prosthetic hand within two days after the sutures were removed.
'Lynn had immediate success in the prosthetic,' Lang said. 'She's an intelligent person with great body awareness. It can be difficult to isolate a muscle.
'With our occupational therapist, she learned to control the speed of her hand by varying the muscles of contraction in the forearm. There are two sensors built into the prosthetic that can sense the electrical activity within the muscle. When she fires or contracts them, the sensors pick up a signal that can tell the strength of the grip or how fast to move the hand.'
Whitehead was determined to train her muscles to do what they needed to do and find success with her new hand.
'At first it was very foreign,' she said. 'It felt weird every time I put it on. Over time, as my ability to use it improved, it began to feel more like part of my own body.'
Upon returning home from the hospital, Lynn's husband and youngest son, who was 16 at the time, spent the next eight months helping her figure things out. Lang's team also connected her to resources that would make carrying out daily tasks easier.
'She was very motivated to get back to teaching and as normal of a life as possible as soon as possible,' Lang said. 'There's a lot to just getting out of bed and performing daily hygiene routines - they all take effort.
'She had a desire that you can't give to someone. They have to have it in them and a willingness to work hard. We can't provide internal fortitude. She's the linchpin to her success and optimizing her function. Lynn's pretty incredible to watch.'
Back to school
Over time, Whitehead gained strength and confidence in her ability. With the support of a counselor, family and friends, she set her sights on returning to the career she finds so rewarding.
Whitehead grew up in Beaverton, graduating from Beaverton High School in 1976. 'I knew I wanted to be a teacher pretty early on,' she said. 'I would have the little kids over in the neighborhood and make up worksheets for them.
'I love the interaction with the kids. I like the hubbub of the classroom. I thrive on being a teacher and love to watch how creative the students are. Every day is different.'
Whitehead anxiously waited for the 2009-10 school year to begin.
'It was scary,' she said of getting back to work. 'You don't know what your stamina will be like. There are things you just have to find out.
'I was nervous about how kids were going to react and that some might be afraid of me. Only one or two were, and within a couple weeks, they were fine. For the most part, the kids were just fascinated. I tried to be open with them.'
As Lynn picked up paintbrushes to paint alongside students and hauled supplies over to tables to set up projects, students marveled at what she could do.
Fifth-grader Schuyler Dull said Mrs. Whitehead showed her how to be brave and taught her the importance of working hard to follow your passions in life.
'I think she is a good person because she came back to teach kids after everything she went through,' Dull said. 'It wasn't just a job to her. Coming back was really important - doing something she loves with kids she has known a long time.
'She taught me how to draw and use my imagination. She also taught me how to paint and about the color wheel and how to stitch and sew. Clay is my favorite, though. I'm a sculpture. She's really good at teaching us different steps.'
Third-grader Lacey Ellis wholeheartedly agreed. 'I like doing the art projects,' she added. 'It's really fun with Mrs. Whitehead. This is my favorite subject in school. I want to be an artist or a horseback rider when I grown up.'
'Instruction about color and perspective are only the beginning of what these children are learning,' said Carol Sorrels with Advanced Arm Dynamics. 'As Lynn grasps a brush with her partially amputated fingers and begins to paint, she teaches students a powerful life lesson - they too can overcome the challenges that life presents.'
Lang agreed and said it was gratifying to know his team helped Cedar Mill Elementary School regain an inspirational teacher.
'It's a testament to her strength,' he said. 'We provide her with the tools to increase her range of function, but that's her will and her desire that give her the ability to return to her life's work.'