By Caitlin Bishop
Lee Kuxhaus spent years in medical school on an Air Force scholarship with dreams of becoming a doctor. In 2000, the 34-year-old Green Bay, Wisconsin native made her dreams a reality when she graduated and enlisted as an active duty Air Force flight doctor specializing in radiology. Kuxhaus served two deployments where she was responsible for the medical treatment of fliers, flight mechanics and chiefs.
In July 2011, while still on active duty and stationed in Alaska at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Kuxhaus became gravely ill, seemingly out of nowhere.
“I was getting ready for work and not feeling well but brushed it off as dehydration,” the mother of four recalls. “My husband remembers me lying on the floor to put on my uniform, but since we were undermanned at work, I went in for my shift anyway.”
When she attempted to read an X-ray that morning and couldn’t focus, she knew something was seriously wrong and went to the emergency room.
Tests showed Kuxhaus was in multi-system organ failure. She was immediately admitted, administered a breathing tube and was quickly losing feeling in her extremities as her blood was going directly to her failing organs.
Doctors determined Group A Strep, a bacterium that normally causes strep throat, was the cause of her worsening condition. In a rare circumstance, the bacterium resulted in sepsis and necrotizing fasciitis—a flesh-eating disease.
In the coming weeks, Kuxhaus underwent dialysis, platelet infusion and surgical “washouts” to prevent infections.
“My condition was critical and at one point, doctors told my husband they thought they might lose me within hours,” she recounts. To make matters worse, she also experienced serious complications—one with a 75 percent mortality rate.
However, by mid-August 2011 after a two-month hospital stay, Kuxhaus was released but her recovery was far from over. For two years afterward, she continued outpatient rehab and attempted limb salvage as she experienced residual effects of blood loss to her extremities, specifically her feet and right hand. Her surgeon recommended amputation in stages beginning with the toes, then forefoot and ultimately a below-the-knee amputation in 2013.
For most people, a planned, below-the-knee amputation requires a four-day hospital stay. For Kuxhaus, four days turned into eight weeks after getting an infection near the bone.
With the many issues she dealt with, re-learning to walk using a prosthetic was not easy. After years of attempts—becoming mentally frustrated that all her focus in rehab was on walking—she took a year off from using a prosthetic and decided to just have fun, even if that meant using a wheelchair.
“For four years during my grueling recovery I never had fun and it took a toll on my mental state,” recalls Kuxhaus. “I wanted to live again.”
In her year off she tried out adaptive sports with a friend, including hand cycling and swimming to a wheelchair triathlon.
“It gave me a sense of normalcy and drastically improved my mindset, which I badly needed,” said Kuxhaus, adding that after her year off she gave walking another shot and succeeded.
In April 2018, Kuxhaus was put in touch with the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), a non-profit organization that helps those with physical disabilities transform their lives through exercise and community. It was there that she decided to focus her efforts on regaining strength in her legs and training to run again.
“I went into ATF thinking I was fine and was holding it together pretty well, but in reality, myself and many others were holding it together only by strings,” Kuxhaus said. “ATF’s training not only pushes our limits physically, but also mentally. Their mind, body, spirit approach gave me the tools I needed to accomplish my goal.”
Since working with ATF, Kuxhaus has completed several 5K and 10K races and attempted a half marathon. She is now a Para Skeleton athlete and took Silver in the First American National Championships last year. Kuxhaus’ sights are set on jogging next, but above all she just wants to be in the best shape possible to hike or run anywhere she wishes.
“Despite my struggles, I’m proud I was able to keep a positive attitude throughout it all,” she said. “I taught my family and children that it’s possible to overcome the most difficult situations, embraced my new normal and came out on the other side a changed person, but a much better me.”