Biology major Abigail Wold loves shoes.
High heels and wedges are her favorites. She loves shoes so much that she has special prosthetics with adjustable feet so she can wear heels up to two inches.
“I love wearing heels,” she said. “My doctors don’t like it when I wear heels but, hey, they wouldn’t make prosthetic feet that you could wear heels with if you weren’t supposed to.”
Wold, 28, has to wear prosthetics on both her legs from the knee down because she contracted meningitis five years ago. The disease prompted the amputation of her legs below the knee and of two of her fingers at the first joint on her left hand.
Abigail’s mother Heidi Wold said that, though her daughter was in a coma for two weeks and in the hospital for a few months, her personality was not changed by the experience.
“She’s pretty much a happy, energetic person,” Heidi said. “Really and truly, even before and after, that part of her hasn’t changed.”
A small chance of survival
Before she contracted meningitis, Abigail was a healthy girl who had never even had stitches.
When she was 22 years old, Abigail wanted a change. She had spent a few years at Hillsborough Community College and working at Bank of America, but felt she wasn’t going anywhere. So, she joined the Army.
Two days before she was supposed to depart for boot camp, Abigail started to feel ill. She had a headache and started throwing up at a party. Her friends decided to take her home, where she fell asleep.
When Abigail woke up, she was in immobilizing pain. She decided to go the hospital and, while her friend was helping her get dressed, she noticed little rashes all over Abigail’s body that looked like hickeys. She knew the rashes could be a symptom of meningitis, and rushed Abigail to the hospital.
Meningitis, also known as meningococcal disease, is a serious and potentially fatal bacterial infection. Almost 3,000 people in the United States contract the disease every year and about 12 percent of them die from it. Of those who survive, about 20 percent suffer long-term consequences such as kidney disease, brain damage or limb amputations.
Her friend called Abigail’s mother, who is a nurse, right away. Heidi said she was shocked when she got the voicemail on her cell phone.
“My heart at that point just about stopped,” she said.
Heidi rushed to the hospital with her son and husband. She said she was slightly relieved because Abigail was alert and talking.
“She was still talking a mile a minute,” Heidi said.
Though she was talking, it wasn’t all good news. Abigail wasn’t producing any urine, which was a bad sign, Heidi said.
Within the next 24 hours, Abigail had nine surgeries. Her health went up and down, and no one was sure of her chances of survival.
By this point, Abigail had slipped into a coma.
A close call
After about 24 hours, the nurses told Heidi and her family to go home and get some sleep. Heidi had not slept nor had she left Abigail’s side. She left reluctantly, but received a phone call from the hospital only 45 minutes later.
“The nurse said, ‘You need come right away, the doctor needs to speak to you. Abigail is dying,'” Heidi said.
Abigail’s family rushed back to the hospital and prayed. One of Abigail’s veins had collapsed and doctors were having problems giving her the medication that could save her life.
Twenty minutes later, doctors were able to get a line in and stabilize Abigail.
After the incident, Heidi said she would hardly leave the hospital.
The next few months were not only trying for Abigail, but also for her family. Initially, no one was sure if she would survive.
“Realistically and statistically, she knew there wasn’t a chance that I would survive,” Abigail said of her mother.
Heidi’s experience as a burn nurse helped when her daughter became ill. Though Heidi knew certain ways to help her daughter — such as lowering the pressure in Abigail’s brain and turning her so she did not get bed sores — it was difficult to cope with her daughter’s near-death state.
“If I fell apart and started crying, it would be really hard on my husband and my son,” Heidi said.
Abigail’s aunt and nephew came to Florida to support her. Because her aunt was a pediatric nurse, she was able to help.
“I think the strength of the family probably helped her even more,” Heidi said.
Abigail agreed and credited their support with keeping her positive.
“I had a lot of people praying for me,” she said.
‘Can I be 8 feet tall?’
Over the next few months, Abigail went through nine surgeries in an attempt to save her legs.
At one point, however, Abigail felt they could not be salvaged. She said she would have let the doctors amputate after the first surgery.
“The reality set in for me probably sooner than it did for anyone else,” she said. But the surgeons wanted to keep trying.
After the seventh surgery, and under the recommendation of the orthopedic surgeon, she told the doctors to amputate them.
“That was the decision, and I never looked back,” she said. “It just wasn’t worth it to me.”
The doctors amputated both her legs below the knee.
“They said the good news was that I could be as tall as I want,” she said. “I asked ‘Can I be 8 feet tall?'”
The doctors said no.
Abigail said she was determined to walk as soon as possible, especially because doctors told her it would take a long time.
“I’ve seen people walk on prosthetic legs just fine, and that’s what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’ve been in the hospital for three months, and I’m ready to go home.”
What she remembers
Abigail said she remembers certain things from when she was in a coma.
For example, at one point Abigail’s blood pressure was so weak that doctors had to attach a femoral line in her groin so her body could receive medication. They stitched the tube into her body.
This was the first time in her life she had stitches.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, stitches don’t hurt at all,'” she said and laughed, explaining that she probably didn’t feel anything because her blood pressure was so low.
Send in the ‘Angels’
Heidi said her daughter was able to survive — and stay positive — because of her strong personality.
“A core personality helps people to figure out how to get through things,” Heidi said. “If you’re a person who is not positive, you will have a much harder time getting through crises.”
Once Abigail recovered from her close brush with death, she decided she wanted to help others in similar situations — those who survived meningitis, those who have had their limbs amputated, or both.
Abigail is a part of Meningitis Angels, a nonprofit organization aimed at eradicating meningitis, encouraging the meningitis vaccine and supporting those who have been affected by the disease.
As an Angel, Abigail travels to meet with others who have been afflicted with meningitis. She offers support and comfort to them and their family members.
“Doing those peer visits and helping the families see that life isn’t over just because stuff like that happens to you is so important,” she said. “I think that gives them a sense of hope that nothing else can.”
Meningitis Angels founder Frankie Milley said Abigail’s spirit and upbeat attitude encourages her to be strong. Milley started Meningitis Angels after her son died of the disease.
“She’s just one of my little heroes,” she said. “She encourages me because, despite the disabilities that she has and the health issues that she has a result of her meningitis, she keeps on.”
Milley said she will not be able to head the organization much longer, but she has a few Angels picked out who could take up the job — Abigail is one of them.
“She is one of five that I call Frankie’s Angels that I hope will take over and pick up the ball and keep going,” she said.
Abigail and her friends were able to identify the signs of meningitis early, which probably led to her survival.
Abigail, however, never knew about the meningitis vaccine. She said that if she had known, she would have gotten it and would probably still have her legs today.
“Education saved my life, but a vaccine could’ve saved my legs,” she said.
Though her work with the Angels has already made a national impact, Abigail said she hopes the vaccine will be put on the Center for Disease Control’s list for required vaccinations for 11 to 18 year olds.
The after effects
Abigail fought her battle with meningitis five years ago, but she still has health problems because of it.
She has adrenal insufficiency, which means her adrenal glands — located above her kidneys — do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol. Abigail has to take steroids and has six kidney stones.
She also becomes sick more easily than in the past. She has had pneumonia and mononucleosis since contracting meningitis.
Though she has prosthetic legs, those who know her say she doesn’t act handicapped.
“She’s not fixated on the things she can’t do,” said Abigail’s fiance Ricky Blanco.
He said what some people may view as different has become normal for them.
“Whenever I see her put on her legs, it’s just like she’s putting on her shoes,” Blanco said. “It’s a daily task. I go into the bathroom and shave — someone who doesn’t do that everyday might see it as different.”
Abigail also has some short-term memory issues, but is thankful that that is the biggest way she is impacted mentally.
“That’s much more devastating than losing body parts,” she said.
Beyond her short-term memory loss, Abigail said she might be a little crazy.
“But I don’t think that has anything to do with the meningitis,” she said. “I was crazy to begin with.”