Kaitlyn Dobrow climbed a short staircase, her eyes fixed on every step as she pushed and lifted one prosthetic leg in front of the other.
Her parents also watched raptly, not unlike when she first learned to walk as a baby.
“It’s amazing the things we take for granted,” her father, Don Dobrow, 60, said quietly as he watched her physical therapy session last week at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey.
Dobrow, 19, is slowly reclaiming pieces of her independence since her four limbs were amputated last year after she fell ill with a life-threatening case of bacterial meningitis. In addition to her legs, she’s learning to use a prosthetic arm on her right side, which she customized with a leopard-print pattern. Her left arm, which was amputated just below her shoulder, will be addressed later.
As she has throughout her recovery, Dobrow, who lives in Huntington Beach, displays a matter-of-fact, forward-looking attitude as she deals with the soreness, fatigue and frustration of learning to use her new limbs.
“I thought it was hard but you’re going to have to get over it,” Dobrow said. “It’s hard but I never thought it’s not going to happen because it kind of has to happen.”
One day in February 2013, Dobrow went to work and then to the gym. She felt sick that night and by the next day was rushed to the hospital. Dobrow had developed an infection that caused her blood to clot and damage more than half her body with the equivalent of third-degree burns. She underwent 22 surgeries, including the amputations and skin grafting.
She came home in October and therapists began working to prepare her highly sensitive, fragile skin for prosthesis.
Late last year, she took her first steps with support from an overhead harness to offset her body weight.
“I’d get so excited I wanted to jump up and down and scream,” said her mother, Kathi Dobrow, 58. “It’s like a first for everything again. Don and I went from having raised our kids, to last year, it was like starting with an infant and raising her to adulthood.”
Dobrow, although happy about standing and walking again, has contended with setbacks. After wearing the legs at home, she developed a large blister on her right thigh that left her unable to wear her legs again for a month.
“With that blister I did situps and shimmied back and forth on my bed to get the blood flowing a little bit,” she said. “You have to be fit to wear your prosthetics or you can’t walk.”
She only recently started using the legs again and must regain her stamina. Then there’s the matter of adapting to her new body mechanics and adjustments to her equipment.
“At first, I was really, really tall, even taller than I was before,” Dobrow said. “That’s why I felt so giant. I hadn’t stood in forever, plus I was like 3 inches higher. They shrunk me down to my normal height of 5 foot 7. When you lift up your leg and you’re just on one leg, it felt like you’d just topple over. I don’t want to say you’re paralyzed because you’re moving, but you have no feeling.”
Dobrow’s physical therapist, Julie Kasayama, said Dobrow will eventually learn to walk without watching her feet.
“She’s got to relearn how it feels to be on grass or sand or carpet, all from sensing cells in the hips and knees instead of the ankles,” Kasayama said. “She’s very in tune with her body. She knows how to tap into those muscles. She works at it.”
Last week, Dobrow underwent an hour of occupational therapy to practice using the prosthetic arm. Rather than use the hand attachment, she opted for the wider-opening hook. Dobrow must lift the 4-pound arm prosthesis with her shoulder and fire her triceps and biceps at different speeds to open and close the hook.
After a series of opening and closing exercises, occupational therapist Lisa Deshaies coached Dobrow through the process of applying makeup, one of Dobrow’s favorite things to do.
First, she had Dobrow pick up a makeup brush.
“I’m scared I’m going to crush it,” Dobrow said, but she managed after several tries.
A tube of mascara rolled around on the table before Dobrow could find her grip and pick it up, as well.
“This is like playing pinball,” she said.
Deshaies said problem-solving is essential when wearing the prosthesis.
“It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of figuring it out,” she said.
Earlier this month, Dobrow put on her legs at home and spent an hour applying her makeup with the prosthetic arm and hand before her first outing with friends without her wheelchair. But by the time they arrived at a hookah bar, her legs were aching and she was ready to go home.
Deshaies said as she continues to improve, Dobrow will need to pick and choose how she wants to spend her time and energy. For instance, she might learn to dress herself but it could take 45 minutes.
“She has to decide is it worth the struggle to be able to learn to do this myself or do I want to have someone help me?” Deshaies said.
Dobrow said she’s looking forward to learning to feed herself, dance again and celebrate her 20th birthday next week.
“There’s not many places that you can sit and have fun,” she said. “Until I can walk around for hours, I won’t be able to go more places.”