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A true heroine reminds us how to experience life

Reader columnist Karrie Zylstra Myton
Reader columnist Karrie Zylstra Myton Staff photographer

In October, I made a trip to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. It wasn’t an emergency. The pain of my embarrassing bunion is just getting bad enough that I have been considering surgery, and the Seattle surgeons came highly recommended.

I could feel sorry for myself, but whenever I start down that road, I remember Carol Decker and stop myself in the middle of my whine.

Not too long ago, I listened with medical program students as the Enumclaw mother spoke for more than an hour. In spite of what studies say about our attention deficits, I never saw a person check her phone.

Decker first drew us in with her story of how she went from having a baby in 2007 to losing her eyesight, her leg, one arm and the ring finger on her remaining right hand. While pregnant, she had begun running a fever from strep pneumonia, an infection that led to the amputations and other complications. Although her daughter Sofia was born healthy, Decker had life-threatening medical challenges.

After describing the brutal process of moving from the hospital back home and excruciating medical treatments that included harvesting skin from her back to repair other areas of her body, Decker began to tell us of her triumphs.

Using her aching desire to mother her two young daughters, she pushed herself forward from one goal to the next. She's quick to point out that she did not do this alone. She had medical professionals and devoted family helping her achieve goals like cooking with her children and going out to dinner in heels.

As a rule, she accepts assistance whenever she needs it. During her talk, she asked twice for help with adaptive technology and her water bottle. Decker didn’t hesitate to ask, and the students leapt up to give her a hand. She said we all need to give and receive help in order to become our best selves.

Forgiving and letting go of the past have opened her up to the infinite possibilities of today. She had dark times when she begged her husband to put her in a nursing home but gradually let go of what she no longer had. She then moved forward into a flexible new Cheetah prosthetic leg, and a year ago reached her goal of snowboarding.

In the moment when she fell into the snow beside her children and husband, Decker told us she could have easily died a happy woman. Those experiences, she said, are available to us all at any time if we fully live in the moment, an ancient wisdom I felt her bring to life in front of me.

More than anything when I listened to Decker, I experienced joy. She made jokes about her blindness, saying that since she can see only occasional flashes of red, white or blue, she’s a “patriotic girl.” It was hard not to join in her laughter even though our tears stung when she said her one lasting regret is not ever seeing her youngest daughter’s face. Aside from that moment, her smile lit up the room in a way that warmed me inside long after she finished speaking.

At the end of the presentation, a student turned to me and said, “My life is changed forever.”

Mine, too.

As I lose my own abilities, I will remember Decker as a model of how to experience life. If I get to live long enough, my own eyesight will give out. My body will fail me, and I’ve already got that bunion. But, because of Decker’s triumphant spirit, I know I can still have a beautiful life filled with great courage, the loving help of others, and, best of all, joy.

Karrie Zylstra Myton of Puyallup teaches at Bates Technical College and writes children's fiction. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Email her at karriezylstra@gmail.com.