Show of Support
Brittany Miller didn't stop grinning Thursday morning as she tested out her new prosthetic leg for the first time under the watchful eyes of family, friends and technicians.
"This feels really good," Brittany announced in gleeful tones. "I'm going to run down the (wedding) aisle."
Seeing her 20-year-old daughter walking smoothly at varying speeds, motoring up and down ramps and even navigating steps had Brenda Miller spilling tears of joy.
Last January her daughter was fighting for her life after a simple case of the flu resulted in near-fatal complications. Brittany's internal organs began to fail. She spent a month comatose on a heart/lung machine at Stanford University Medical Center. Sepsis and lack of circulation took a toll on her extremities. Brittany's right leg suffered the irreparable damage. Doctors ultimately were forced to amputate the limb above the knee.
"Last March you couldn't even sit up by yourself, Brittany," Brenda said Thursday.
The former South Medford High School cheerleader and honor student captured the heart of her community when a Jan. 1 story in the Mail Tribune detailed Brittany's challenges — including the fact that Brittany had been forced to return her original artificial limb when her insurance company refused to pay for it.
More than $22,000 in donations have poured into a special "Brittany fund" at Spectrum Orthotics and Prosthetics in Medford, said Patrick Patterson, a specialist with the company.
"The first day (the story ran in the Mail Tribune) we got 50 checks," Patterson said. "It really restores your faith in the goodness of humankind."
The cash donations, combined with donations of time and labor from Spectrum and Freedom Innovations, which designed the micro-processor-controlled knee unit and other articulating joints in the specialized orthotic, have been a heart-lifting and humbling experience, Brenda said.
"We had no idea we'd have this kind of help from everyone," she said.
Brittany, who's in her first term at Southern Oregon University, cannot contain her gratitude toward everyone who helped her attain the custom-made prosthetic leg.
Brittany remains determined to write a personal thank-you to everyone who has donated — even the anonymous ones.
"I come home from school and write thank-yous," Brittany said, sitting in the therapy room patting her new limb.
"I can't believe I have a leg that's mine. I don't have to give it back. I feel like I've met more truly good people in the past year than I have in my whole life."
When Brittany was transferred from Stanford to Rogue Valley Medical Center on Feb. 16, she was still on a ventilator, dialysis, and dealing with the effects of organ failure. She was also still on feeding tubes and weighed only 84 pounds.
Finally released to her Jacksonville home, Brittany lived in a hospital bed in the family's living room. One of her first visitors was fellow amputee Michelle Kistler, who lost her leg to bone cancer 34 years ago when she was only 15 years old. Now a physical therapist, Kistler has been an invaluable help to Brittany, both as a mentor and a friend.
"She's come to appointments with me," Brittany said. "When I saw her walking and going up and down stairs and kneeling down, I said, 'I want to be like Michelle.' She's given me a ton of exercises to do."
Kistler's prosthetic is the same leg style as Brittany's. Only Kistler's knee component is not as technologically advanced as Brittany's, she said.
"I'm really excited for her," Kistler said, as she watched Patterson and Peter Brennan of Freedom Innovations customize the new limb for Brittany.
Patterson adjusted the fit, making sure the flex in the knee was just right for her activity. Brennan dealt with the computer components. Brittany's gait was recorded. The computer will now know when she is stumbling, and it will automatically lock her prosthetic's knee so she can steady herself.
"That's called stumble recovery," Patterson said.
Repeatedly asking Brittany to speak candidly about the new limb's operation, Patterson had her walk down hallways, sit, stand and tackle ramps and stairs.
"She's not a very big complainer, so we have to coax the truth out of her," he said, smiling.
The two men showed Brittany how to rotate her leg out of the way so she can drive her car, how to change the batteries in her knee unit, and what to do if it got wet.
"Saltwater is very corrosive," Brennan warned about beach outings.
They also explained how a sleeve will be fabricated for her prosthetic. Using her left leg as a mirror model, the new sleeve will fill out the contours of Brittany's pants, making the artificial limb barely noticeable, Patterson said.
Brittany's amputated leg will continue to change in shape and size for the next few years as her body continues to heal and adjust, Patterson said.
"We see the most changes in the first through third years," he said. "In two months she could shift two inches. And we can't compensate with padding."
It is likely the ongoing changes will require costly new prosthetic sockets that fit over her stump, and that means Brittany will continue to need donations, he added.
"We're still in the red," Patterson said.
A local motorcycle club has offered to champion Brittany's cause this spring and hopes to raise another $10,000, Brenda said.
"This isn't something that's just cosmetic," she said. "This changes her productivity."
But the girl who used to live year-round in flip-flops can't help being thrilled her new prosthetic's split-toe foot design will allow her to wear her sandals again. And heels up to 2 inches high. And paint her toenails.
Brittany dreams of walking down the aisle "like every other bride" with her fiancé and Timber Products mill worker C.J. Mitchell at their Aug. 18 wedding, which the Rogue Valley Country Club has offered to host free of charge.
Brittany is considering a pair of peep-toe heels. And pink polish on all 10 toes — the five she was born with, and five more that were purchased for her, as a wedding gift, by generous members of her community.
"I really don't have words," Brittany said. "I just feel so lucky."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.