Shelbyville Daily Union

October 30, 2013

Quadruple amputee regains independence after tornado-related illness


CNHI News Service

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — Louella Aker survived a deadly tornado in southern Indiana last year with little more than a scratch, but the aftermath of the storm cost her all of her limbs and nearly took her life.

Now, the 66-year-old quadruple amputee is regaining her independence in a new home built to accommodate her disability. The exact cause of the disease that took Aker's extremities is still a mystery, but doctors believe it may have been a rare bacterial infection brought on by the March 2, 2012 tornado, an EF4 storm that leveled schools and businesses, killing 13 people in southern Indiana.

On the day of the storm, Aker recalls seeing the funnel cloud barreling toward her home in Henryville, Ind.

"When you see them on TV, they're always white," she said. "This was the dirtiest funnel cloud I had ever seen. I mean, it was just black. When I heard it roar — and it truly does roar like a freight train — I had never heard that before, it was frightening. We all hit the basement."

Aker and her family rode out the storm, and then came outside to see homes flattened and trees uprooted.

"I was just really in a daze," Aker said. "I had never seen anything so horrible and so frightening. You just wanted to sit and cry…It was the toughest thing I had ever gone through. It really was."

But for Aker, it was only the beginning. A few weeks after the tornado, she started to feel sick. She had flu-like symptoms and a fever that spiked to 104 degrees. The last thing she remembers was sitting in the emergency room, waiting to see a doctor.

Then she slipped into a coma.

She was unconscious for a month, even as doctors did exploratory surgery to try to determine the source of huge blisters on her arms and legs. The doctors found nothing, but when Aker awoke several weeks later, things had gotten much worse.

"Both of my arms and both of my legs looked like I had been put on a charcoal grill," Aker said. "They were just black and crispy. From that point on, it was doctors and more doctors."

Eventually, Aker was told doctors would have to amputate her legs and arms.

"(The doctors) seemed to think it could have been some type of bacteria that was picked up because this tornado was so large, and came so far, and picked up so much stuff, but there was really no way to tell," Aker said.

Similar mysterious cases of bacterial infections were reported in the wake of other natural disasters, including a tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., in 2011. According to the Joplin Globe, 13 people were diagnosed with a fungal infection in the wake of the tornado. Five of the 13 people who were infected with the bacteria died.

The fungus — apophysomyces trapeziformis — grows in soil, water and wood, and is harmless to humans unless it penetrates the skin. When it does penetrate the skin, it enters the capillaries and cuts off the blood flow to tissue, killing large areas of tissue.

A team with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention identified the Joplin cases as mucormycosis, an infection that results from the fungus. Those with diabetes or cancer are at an increased risk for the infection. Aker is a breast cancer survivor.

After the surgeries, Aker began the rehabilitation process that lasted nearly a year. She was fitted for prosthetic limbs at a rehab clinic in Louisville, Ky., before she was moved to a long-term facility in Sellersburg, Ind.

The response of Aker's hometown in the aftermath of the tornado was an inspiration to her.

 "We had help from a lot of people, but the entire community was very strong," Aker said. "Everybody who came through it, came through it stronger. And I think they came through with an appreciation of the human spirit."

A nonprofit group, March2Recovery, helped pay for adaptations to a new home for Aker, in nearby Jeffersonville, Ind. Doors were widened, the stove was lowered and the bathroom was modified, all to make it easier for Aker to get around her house.

Aker said the help she got from many others allowed her receive the biggest gift — her independence.

"When I first woke up, I immediately wondered how I would do anything," Aker said. "I had my own house, had a garden, raised chickens ... I saw all of that slipping away and I wondered if the rest of my life would be in a nursing home in a wheelchair.

"I just did not ever think I would see this again. To raise my kids and have my grandkids stay with me, and to see myself getting back to that stage is just miraculous, it really is."

Details for this story were reported by The News and Tribune in Jeffersonville, Ind.