Force of will propels Md. woman's recovery after quadruple amputation

Quadruple amputee Cheryl Douglass and her friend Vera Foresman, a professional chef, are writing a cookbook for people with prosthetic hands.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 11:12 PM

In the old days, Cheryl Douglass didn't start her Thanksgiving cooking a week in advance. She was like everybody else, shopping too late, peeling too fast, timing it all to the last minute.

But now, two years after her life derailed during a stop at Bloomingdale's, Douglass is not like everyone else; she is a quadruple amputee. Her holiday cooking now starts on the third Thursday in November.

"It's just that everything takes so much" - she pauses to center a 10-inch knife over a scallion, the servo-motors in her hands whining softly with each motion - ". . . longer."

Chop. Another hard-won wedge of scallion falls to the cutting board. Her husband, Paul, washing a dish at the other end of their kitchen in Friendship Heights, gives a small smile. In the Douglass house this fall, every slice of scallion is another reason to give thanks.

When a raging strep infection got into Cheryl's bloodstream in 2008, Paul and their two grown children thought they had lost her. She survived, barely, but had to have both arms amputated below the elbow and both legs below the knee. They all thought Cheryl's life would never be the same.

But that tale of devastating ruin has turned into one of dazzling renaissance. Cheryl, 64, has galloped through months of rehabilitation and quickly mastered the use of prosthetic legs and hands. Even her doctors have been astonished at how quickly she has traveled from deathbed to gadabout, a vibrant, busy woman who does public speaking, travels and danced at her son Patrick's wedding last year.

"We're just thankful that she's still here," says her daughter, Claire, 27. "What she's been able to do so quickly is just incredible."

For Cheryl, the cooking is more than just another rehab milestone. Food, especially French food, was always a passion, the center of her social life. Learning to walk, brush her teeth and drive were critical. But getting her myoelectric hands on a chef's knife brings her closer to whole.

"It makes me feel more normal," she says, her fingers opening and closing mechanically as she gesticulates. With sassy short blond hair and a toothy grin, she's a sprightly figure in her bright galley kitchen, moving steadily from counter to counter on the carbon-fiber poles that are her legs. "Doing something like this that I used to do, it's a good feeling."

What Cheryl is doing today is a test run of timbales aux epinards, a spinach custard that is a Douglass Thanksgiving staple. With her is Vera Foresman, a longtime friend and professional cooking instructor. The two have been meeting weekly to test recipes and hone Cheryl's kitchen skills. They are writing a cookbook geared to chefs with prosthetic limbs.

Cheryl gingerly takes an egg in her right hand and holds it over a bowl. Her prosthetic hands (she has three of varying designs, two lefts and a right) exert up to 22 pounds of pressure. She has exploded full Pepsi cans and boxes of chicken broth. Cheryl sends an electronic signal to her thumb and index finger by lightly flexing the remnant muscles in her forearm until, splat, the egg shatters and the yolk drops, shell and all.

"Well, that didn't work so well," Cheryl says with a laugh as she carefully takes up a fork and begins fishing out bits of shell.

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