t’s been so long since Kaitlyn Dobrow went anywhere in her wheelchair that the battery on her family’s ramp-equipped van died recently from lack of use.
The Dodge Ram 1500 may be housebound, but Dobrow, 21, is on the move. On her own.
Three years after bacterial meningitis led to the amputation of all four of her limbs, Dobrow has fully adjusted to the prosthetic legs she wears from morning to night. She’s still mastering her prosthetic arms, after receiving the left one only a month ago.
“With the legs, I can do anything now,” she said. “I can go into my friends’ houses instead of saying, ‘Do you have a ramp? I’m in a wheelchair.’ It’s just so much easier. My legs get a little achy but it’s nothing that hinders me. Before I’d wear them for an hour and they’d start hurting.”
With her arms, Dobrow has swept the floor, folded laundry, doodled and fed herself. She’s now working on conquering the fears that stand between her and greater self-sufficiency, including climbing the stairs in her two-story Huntington Beach house and attending cosmetology school.
“God told me 2016 is going to be my year,” she said. “I’m excited but nervous to actually get my life started. I’ve been so coddled for years and so taken care of. Now I have to start doing it on my own.”
Her mother, Kathi Dobrow, helps her dress and bathe but hopes eventually she can get waterproof limbs.
“What I am anxious for is for Katie to start working on getting independent from me,” Kathi Dobrow said. “I’m 60 and I want to have the confidence she’ll be OK when I get too old to take care of her. She needs to figure out how she will support herself and what she wants to do school- and career-wise.”
In February 2013, Dobrow nearly died after contracting bacterial meningitis. The infection caused her blood to clot, stopping it from reaching more than half of her skin and soft tissues. The resulting damage was the equivalent of third-degree burns.
She spent six months in the intensive care unit at UCI Medical Center; underwent more than 20 surgeries, including skin grafts; and then stayed two months in a rehabilitation hospital.
Candy Cooper, a UCI nurse who cared for Kaitlyn Dobrow, said she was overjoyed when she walked into the burn unit to visit, calling her recovery “nothing short of a miracle.”
“It’s not just her physical progress but her mental progress,” Cooper said. “Things like this change you. You get a different introspective on your life than you normally would have. It forces you to look deep in your soul, at what people mean to you, and how strong you really are.”
Kaitlyn Dobrow said her illness transformed her inner self as much as her outer self. She used to believe she would die young. She partied and put off planning for her future. Her own insecurities made her defensive and short-tempered with others, she said.
She said she experienced God’s love for her in the hospital and dedicated her life to Christ. She spends much of her free time now at church and Bible study.
She felt terrified in the hospital as she lost skin and limbs but said she fully experienced peace, leaving her compelled to share with others Jesus’ words from John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
“I don’t feel that sense of doom anymore,” she said. “I want to live.”
Kaitlyn Dobrow said her older brother told her how much she’s changed during a road trip to Las Vegas.
“He was like telling me, ‘Before, you were so mean and there was nothing wrong with you. You had your arms and you were mean,’” she recalled. “‘Now you’re just a torso and you’re so nice.’”
Adapting to her limbs
Her greatest frustration is mastering her arms, which weigh about 10 pounds each and must be strapped across her chest and back.
“The arms irritate me the most,” she said. “It’s more mental. I remember my old occupational therapist said, ‘If you get frustrated, it just gets harder. Your muscles tense. You just have to take a break.’”
She’s able to write in big letters using her right prosthetic.
“It’s kind of adorable. It’s not as bad as a kindergartner. You can read it,” she said. “My main thing before was doodling. I got the desire to pick up a pencil and scribble a heart. I missed that so much.”
As for her prosthetic legs, Kaitlyn Dobrow has embraced how sleek and stylish she looks and is eager to get running legs so she can push herself more.
“You feel like you could fall at any moment,” she said of wearing prosthetics. “You don’t have any ankles or even toes to help hold you up. You kind of feel like a daredevil. In a way, it’s fun.”
The pink blotchy scars on her face from the clotting and lack of blood flow to her tissues have become less noticeable.
“God said that shows you’re a warrior, don’t try to hide them. I’m getting kind of upset that they’re fading. I think they look pretty cool.”