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It started with a persistent cough. In no time at all, Alixandra “Alix” Gerringer was admitted to the hospital. Less than a month later, sepsis had taken over her body, resulting in amputation of all four limbs.
By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thirty-seven words. They are written in green ink on a small card to a friend. Those 37 words may not seem like much to some people but to the friends of Alixandra “Alix” Gerringer they are worth their weight in gold.
The message is simple. It’s a “thank you” note to one of Gerringer’s co-workers and friend. Here’s what makes it special: Gerringer wrote the note with an adaptation device connected to her upper arm. The lower half of both of her arms and both of her legs were amputated after her body was stormed by sepsis.
It’s the way her body responded to a life-threatening infection. The nasty storm can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and even death. The Sepsis Alliance estimates sepsis kills 270,000 Americans a year. It is a leading cause of hospital deaths; an estimated 19 out of 100 people who are hospitalized with sepsis are readmitted within 30 days; and 87 percent of the cases begin in the community. It can start with something as simple as a bug bite or paper cut or something as big as pneumonia or meningitis. The key to calming the storm is to seek treatment as early as possible.
What’s tricky about that early intervention is that many people don’t know they are sick enough to seek medical attention.
Gerringer, a nurse at IU Health Arnett, was working out at the gym the night before she was hospitalized on Feb. 20, 2020. It was her supervisor – also her best friend - Beth Stansberry, who insisted Gerringer go to ER.
“She had a cough all winter but worked every day,” said Stansberry. “She didn’t seem sick. We live in Indiana so we have coughs.” Gerringer’s two daughter’s Brooklyn, 8, and Madison, 4, had been sick with ear infections and strep throat so Gerringer thought at the time she may have picked up a bug from them.
By the time she got to ER, she was immediately moved to a trauma room. “They assumed she had sepsis because they couldn’t get a temperature and she was blue. It hit fast,” said Stansberry.
Looking back, her husband of nine years, Joseph Gerringer, wonders if there was more they could have done, or if they could have done something sooner.
“She’s a nurse and there are times we reflect on that day. Should I have urged her to go to ER that morning? Would it had made a difference,” her husband asks. “She has Type 1 diabetes so there have been a few times – mostly when she was pregnant -that I treated her like she was sick. This time was different. She didn’t seem sick,” he said. Even when she was taken to ER, she played the role of “RN Alix” acting more as the support system than the patient, explaining her symptoms to family members.
In fact, Gerringer had pneumonia and it resulted in what her friends say was the “perfect storm.”
On March 10, 2020, she underwent surgery for a quadruple amputation. It was one of seven surgeries she’s had since that first night in the ER.
In her journal Gerringer wrote: “I don't know that I'll ever eat a Portillo's chopped salad and enjoy it the same way I used to. I could see that my hands and feet were black, but I thought surely the doctor wouldn't need to go much higher than the wrists and the ankles. I knew the anatomy and physiology. I knew my hands and feet were dead because of a lack of blood flow and that this is a problem that can't be undone. I knew the amputations were necessary to save my life. “
After surgery she was moved to a long-term care facility for three weeks and then to a rehab facility near her Lafayette home.
“They wanted me to stay in rehab and do more and become more independent. I thought, ‘how independent can I be,” said Gerringer, 30.
“I remember my sister asking me several times what I needed, what could she do for me? I said ‘I just need time.’ Time to process this shocking, life-altering news. Time to mourn the loss of my limbs. Time to mourn the loss of my fiercely independent lifestyle. Time to pull myself together before surgery the next day and try to keep my anxiety under wraps. I had absolutely no idea what my future would be like,” wrote Gerringer.
Like every other stage of her life, she longed to do things for herself. More than anything, she longed to be at home hugging and holding her two daughters.
“I consider myself a fiercely independent person – taking care of kids, cooking, cleaning, landscaping and home improvement,” said Gerringer. “At first it was frustrating and making me upset that I couldn’t hold my girls,” she said. Initially, her youngest ran to her dad when she needed comforted. Eventually, as the girls became more accustomed to Gerringer and her electric wheelchair, they climbed onto her lap. When she was in rehab, Gerringer wondered how her girls would view her – if they would be afraid.
Both her husband and Stansberry were intentional about speaking honestly with the girls.
“Her oldest daughter is so smart. She made chalk sidewalk drawings on the patio of Alix with pink prosthetics. It was like she knew even before we told her,” said Stansberry. “While we didn’t talk about the amputations at first, my goal was to get them thinking about the situation,” said Joseph Gerringer. “We read books that talked about fact vs. fiction and about robotic arms.”
Now, a year later, Gerringer said the family is adapting.
A native of the southwest suburbs of Chicago, Gerringer ran track and cross country in high school. Later in life, she found an adrenaline rush in skydiving, riding roller coasters, and zip lines. It was in part her way of overcoming fears and in part the thrill of pushing the limits.
After high school, she attended Illinois State University where she obtained her nursing degree. She started her career by working in an inpatient surgical trauma unit. She joined IU Health five years ago in the resource pool at IU Health Arnett, and then became coordinator of the department.
As the oldest child of Linda Lee and Paul Lee, Gerringer often played a nurturing role with her siblings. She chose a career in nursing because she wanted to help others.
“Alix is a true leader - supportive, positive and understanding. Her patient interaction is both clear and compassionate. She is the team member I would go to if I had any clinical or work-related question,” said co-worker Kristen Romanovich. “If she didn't have the answer, she would lead me in the right direction. She has been instrumental in my growth as an IU Health Arnett employee.”
Romanovich added: “Alix has remained positive and upbeat throughout the most challenging circumstances, and has become a hero to all of us.”
When asked if she is more compassionate now than she was before her illness, Gerringer didn’t have a chance to answer.
Stansberry jumped in: “I don’t know if she could have shown more empathy than before she got sick. Even now, she worries about others more than herself.”
Those same IU Health co-workers have rallied around Gerringer planning softball tournaments, selling “AlixStrong” t-shirts, starting a GoFundMe account, and planning a yard sale to help support her family. They help with her daughters, take her to dinner and appointments, and jump in whenever and wherever they are needed.
“We are like a family and the community has joined us in supporting Alix,” said team member Melanie Braswell.
This month, Gerringer headed back to work with the help of a touch screen computer. She still hopes to one-day ride roller coasters again but for now she is focused on regaining some independence.
At home, Gerringer has established a routine. Her sister, Nichole Lee, moved in with the Gerringers. She teams up with Joseph Gerringer to help with the day’s activities that include, getting the girls off to school, administering Alix’s medications, and helping her adjust to devices that aid in her independence. She has prosthetics for her arms and is working to acquire the right fit for her legs. She has spent time with physical and occupational therapists to complete simple tasks like opening and closing her hands.
Sometimes that therapy is as simple as coloring a picture with her daughters, or grasping a Styrofoam cup. Other times it is as complex as crafting Lego pieces for her daughter’s birthday party.
And then there’s that handwritten note to her friend.
“Yes, it took me awhile,” said Gerringer. “But I wrote the card. I actually wrote the card.”