Battle Ground woman loses right leg, left toes to infection

She's happy to be alive and ready to do more than just survive

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Health scare highlights importance of planning

Kathy Hammersley's experience made her sister, Terri Kaufman, realize the importance of having a safety plan in place.

"None of us know when something catastrophic is going to happen," she said. "We always think it's going to happen later. … The reality is, none of us know."

Hammersley's husband didn't know how to contact her work supervisor when she became ill. Luckily, Kaufman and Hammersley work for the same state agency, and Kaufman was able to track down the appropriate person. Making a list of important information — telephone numbers, bank accounts, passwords and security questions, health insurance information — is helpful, Kaufman said. And talking with your loved ones about your wishes in life-threatening situations is also important, she said.

"As a family member, that makes life a whole lot easier for the ones standing vigil," Kaufman said.

Nearly two weeks of Kathy Hammersley’s life are missing from her memory.

On the evening of April 27, Hammersley remembers running a fever and not feeling well. The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital bed, with a nurse named Rhonda asking if she knew where she was.

Hammersley, 51, later learned she had been hospitalized at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center with an infection caused by flesh-eating bacteria. She was unconscious and on a ventilator for nearly two weeks, her body battling septic shock.

She also learned doctors had amputated her right leg in an attempt to save her life.

“It’s hard for me to fathom how sick I was, because I went from being at home to in the hospital,” Hammersley said.

Prior to that evening in April, Hammersley had been in good health. But feeling ill that evening, Hammersley stayed up watching TV on the couch while her husband and son headed to bed.

The next morning, Hammersley apparently said goodbye to her husband and son as they left for work and school, though she doesn’t remember the interactions. Later that day, Hammersley’s husband, David, arrived home from work earlier than usual. He found Hammersley sitting in the same spot on the couch.

Hammersley’s right leg was swollen and turning purple. Hammersley couldn’t tell her husband what was happening to her leg; she hadn’t even noticed it. She also couldn’t recall her husband’s name.

David called 911. As an ambulance transported Hammersley from their Battle Ground home to the hospital. Medics told David if he had waited 30 minutes longer, Hammersley would have died.

At the hospital, she was given less than a 5 percent chance of surviving. Hammersley’s family members — her husband of 29 years; 18-year-old son, Taylor; 23-year-old daughter, Caitlyn Theis; her sister, son-in-law and best friend — were all called in to say their goodbyes.

“We were told she probably wouldn’t survive the evening,” said Terri Kaufman, Hammersley’s sister. “At one point, they came in, her blood pressure was so low they were struggling to keep her heart going. Everything was shutting down.”

“It was horrid,” Kaufman said.

The family remained at Hammersley’s bedside for days on end, praying she would pull through. Hammersley continued to decline until about the fourth day in the ICU. That’s when doctors discovered the infection raging in Hammersley’s body was due to an aggressive flesh-eating bacteria in her leg, Kaufman said.

While Hammersley was still unconscious, her husband made the decision to have her leg amputated above the knee. Once the leg was removed, Hammersley’s condition steadily improved, Kaufman said.

When Hammersley finally woke up around May 9, she had no idea where she was or what had happened. That evening, her family broke the news that Hammersley’s leg had been amputated.

“I was alive,” Hammersley said. “For me, I just kept thinking, I can’t imagine the position my husband was in to cut off my leg. I wouldn’t want to be in that position.”

It’s unclear how Hammersley became infected with the bacteria. The bacteria exists in the environment and can enter the body through cuts or scrapes. Hammersley thinks it may have entered her body through an ingrown toenail, but nobody knows for sure, she said.

“It’s just kind of amazing that it can happen to you,” Hammersley said.

Recovery begins

About a week after Hammersley woke up, she was well enough to be released from the hospital.

“Once I started improving, I improved fast,” Hammersley said.

She went straight to Cascade Park Care Center to begin the long recovery process.

When Hammersley arrived at the facility, she had no muscle strength, lacked fine motor skills, couldn’t transition her body from her wheelchair to her bed and couldn’t stand up. Hammersley’s limbs were so weak she couldn’t hold her cellphone to her ear.

“It was horrible,” Hammersley said. “It’s amazing how quickly you lose all that. It’s amazing how much you take for granted how much you move.”

Since then, though, Hammersley has undergone daily physical and occupational therapy. She can now stand on her left leg, hop along the parallel bars and transition her body from one location to another. Her fine motor skills have improved, though they’re not yet back to what they were. Hammersley is in the process of getting a prosthetic leg and expects to be released and go home soon.

In early June, doctors had to amputate the toes on Hammersley’s left foot. Medications dropped her blood pressure so low that her toes weren’t getting enough blood flow and the tissue died, Hammersley said.

She’ll receive some sort of prosthetic for her foot, as well.

Hammersley is just ready to return home and for her life to return to normal.

She worries about how her husband and son are managing without her. They have four horses, three dogs and four cats to care for, in addition to property to maintain. She’s also ready to return to her job as a social worker for the state Department of Social and Health Services.

“I want to get home and take care of my family,” Hammersley said.

Once home, Hammersley will continue with outpatient therapy twice a week to increase her stamina and learn to walk with prostheses. Eventually, she hopes to get back into hiking and walking — activities she and Kaufman enjoy doing together.

The illness, Hammersley said, has been “a bump in the road” for the family, but it’s nothing they can’t get through.

“It’s really made our family tight,” Hammersley said. “We all realize what a blessing it is to have us. You can’t take it for granted.”