Shannon Wessinger reached to pick up a stylus, but it slipped through her fingers before her prosthetic hand made it to the iPad on the desk in her White Knoll High School classroom.
The students in her history class who were paying attention then got a lesson they didn’t know they had signed up for.
Wessinger’s expression shifted quickly from exasperated frustration to self-deprecating grin.
Seven months after a rare infection forced the amputation of her feet and hands, she no longer sweats the small stuff.
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Wessinger is simply glad to be alive, to be able to hug her two babies and, finally last week, to be back in the classroom. Her return to White Knoll was scheduled around Thanksgiving to ensure a break after the first few days of work, but the timing of the season also was ideal.
“I’m thankful for the school district,” Wessinger said. “They’ve been so great about everything. I’m thankful for my kids, my husband (Eric) and my family and Eric’s family. The family’s the big thing. If I didn’t have the support system, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Mainly, when she gathers around the dinner table with her extended family today, Thanksgiving will have “a new meaning to it because I might not have been here,” she said.
Her ordeal began shortly after the greatest of joys – the birth of her second child, a boy named Shaun, on May 8 at Lexington Medical Center. The next day, she had a tubal ligation, and she went home the following day.
Four days later, she suffered severe pain and fever, and her husband Eric rushed her back to the hospital.
Her condition deteriorated quickly.
A rare Strep A infection was attacking her body. Her body actually shut down three times, only to be revived by hospital personnel.
The battle continued inside and outside her body for days, then weeks. She was kept unconscious for six weeks while physicians dealt with the repercussions of the infection. The extreme procedures included shifting oxygen-rich blood from her extremities to her vital organs.
When she finally woke up, she got the devastating news that her hands and feet would need to be amputated.
Before the infection Wessinger’s hands and feet worked better than most people’s. She was a high school softball star at North Central High School in Kershaw County, and she played collegiately at Winthrop before a knee injury finished her career in her senior year. In addition to teaching history, she is an assistant coach for the softball team at White Knoll.
Athletics instills many characteristics in participants. Even the best learn how to pick themselves up from adversity.
The combination of an athlete’s determination and a mother’s sense of duty kicked in almost immediately for Wessinger.
“I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself,” she recalled of her first thoughts after the amputations. “I had a 2-year-old and a 2-month-old.”
As soon as possible after the surgery, she hit the rehabilitation work.
“If they asked her to do five reps, she did 10,” her husband Eric said.
Her tremendous attitude so impressed the nurses at the hospital intensive care unit that many of them walked or ran in the Governor’s Cup road race in early November as Team Shae Shae, for her nickname.. She walked across the finish line with them.
“The physical stuff was easier,” Shannon said of her many hours of rehab at the hospital and later at HealthSouth. “They’d tell me what to do to get off this mat on the floor. That’s easy. The mental stuff on how to use the hands was harder.”
She had to teach the muscles and nerves at the new ends of her arms and legs to communicate with the mechanics of the prosthetics.
It’s still a challenge.
“Some days, we’re not cooperating,” Shannon said. “On a bad day, it’s like, really! You’re doing this today. I just need my pants buttoned so I can move on to the next thing.”
She and Eric are fortunate to live surrounded by family members and friends who have helped care for Shaun and their 2-year-old daughter Jaime. Many of those same folks helped construct a new deck and ramp on the back of the Wessingers’ rural Lexington County home, making it easier for Shannon to get inside when she arrived back home.
Eric knew his wife well enough to recognize coddling her wasn’t the right approach.
They took their one-weekend-each-month camping trip as quickly as possible. Even if Shannon had to crawl into the camper that first trip, she enjoyed the return to routine.
“It took a while for it to click, then it’s the realization it’s never going to be the same,” Shannon said. “Really it is, but it isn’t. It’s just how things are done is different. How to pick Shaun up, how to play with Jaime, how to get around on my own, but I’m still the same person I was.”
She’s equal parts enthusiasm and determination. Even on bad days, she finds humor in situations.
“I’m not a sad person,” she said. “If I’m not cracking a joke, something’s wrong.”
But those first few weeks in full-time rehab, it would be difficult for even the most upbeat person to maintain a positive attitude. Eric sensed his wife needed something to inspire her.
“I got on her butt one day,” he said. “She only had so much to do all day (at the rehab center). I said why don’t you work on your master’s paper.”
So Shannon started working on a research paper on how the introduction of iPads into the classrooms in Lexington 1 was improving student progress. She typed it, holding a stylus in her mouth. Only later, did she move on to typing with two prosthetic fingers.
“At first, when I’d eat, I’d end up throwing food across the room,” she said. “I had a hard time writing.”
Even months later, she showed visitors to her White Knoll classroom how her closed prosthetic fist seemed to be fighting her attempts to open.
On those bad days, some might think, maybe she shouldn’t be in the classroom dealing with high school students. But four months into her rehab, she needed to return. Teaching means so much to her.
The plan was for her to return for half days starting Nov. 14. She would teach one class, and Richard Bailey, the long-term substitute who had been filling in for her, would take over the other two classes when she tired.
Shannon’s third day back, she couldn’t resist and taught all three classes. “Some subjects I love so much that I can’t keep my mouth shut,” she said.
That night, she was exhausted. “When the kids left the classroom, the energy went with them,” she said. “I went to bed at 7 o’clock. My 2-year-old came in and said, ‘Night-night Mom.’”
But she was back at school raring to go the following Monday.
It might take her a little longer to operate the remote-control on the overhead projector or to move a cursor on the iPad screen, but she already has the attention of her new students.
“What are you going to do tonight?” she asked after a class session spent prepping for a test on the Reformation.
“Study,” the students responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“At least you can lie to me if you’re not going to,” she replied.
As the students left, they walked past a “Welcome Back” sign posted outside Wessinger’s classroom. Faculty members and students had written messages on it, calling her a hero and an inspiration.
But she doesn’t feel special. She’s just somebody who’s been knocked down and has gotten up with a lot of determination and plenty of help from people who love her.
“They say this kind of stuff only happens to people who can handle it,” she said, “and we can handle it.”
While Shannon Wessinger has health insurance, the family is discovering that many expenses aren’t covered by insurance. They have set up an account with FirstGiving for tax-deductible donations. Anyone who would like to help can go online to FirstGiving.com and search for Team Shae Shae.