Barbara (Sandy) Lee is a fighter: She fought fires in Prince George's County for six years, now she's in Baltimore fighting to restore some order to her life.
Earlier this week, Lee, 27, who amazed everyone by surviving a crushing fall from a moving fire engine last September, left the Shock Trauma Unit at the University of Maryland Hospital and moved a few miles away to the rehabilitation center at Montebello Hospital. Although she defied death from her massive injuries when she was saved by the shock trauma unit, doctors say the rehabilitative phase may be the most difficult in Lee's road to recovery.
Lee will assume much of the reponsibility for her own recovery, said Dr. Saul Weingarden, director of rehabilitation at Montebello. "I can't make someone lift weights over their head . . . ," he observed.
Weingarden said there will be many times when Lee will get depressed when progress seems slow, and she still faces a number of operations to repair the damage from the accident.
Lee said the new hospital will be a big change from the crowded intensive-care floor at Shock Trauma, the shorthand name given the Maryland Institute for Medical Emergency Services Systems at the hospital.
On the floor, scores of doctors and nurses clad in washed-out pink surgical garb hustle up and down the halls, eyeing scores of monitors and inspecting miles of cords and tubes, such as those that have surrounded the firefighter's bed.
At Montebello, Lee said, "I'll have to get dressed every day. I won't be able to sleep late anymore." She has already begun working on upper-body strength by doing pullups on a trapeze bar that hangs above her bed. In addition, Weingarden said extensive exercise and techniques using such equipment as whirlpools will be used to stimulate her muscles and nerves.
Although Lee's right leg was amputated at the knee after the accident, she said she expects to learn to walk again. Her doctors say that may be possible with the help of a prosthetic leg and body reconstruction. Some Montebello specialists have told her that her stay at their hospital might stretch to two years, but the soft-spoken woman with sandy brown hair smiled mischievously and said, "I'm figuring about a year; I work hard."
Hard work it will be. Lee doesn't like to talk much about her accident, but she does remember her last night on the job.
When the alarm rang, she ran to the slow moving firetruck, holding her boots. She hoisted herself onto a seat on the outside of the truck, and when she reached down to pull on her boots, she slid from the seat, almost under the rear wheels of the truck. It dragged her a short distance and smashed her against the curb.
Her injuries were massive, including a crushed pelvis, loss of most of the skin on her buttocks and the back of her legs and a dislocated right leg, which had to be amputated.
Her doctor, Sheldon Brotman, said the firefighter lost so much blood that a record 173 units (the body holds 10 units) had to be replaced during the next 24 hours. "Sandy is probably the greatest trauma survivor in the world," said a still-amazed Brotman.
Her parents kept vigil at Lee's side those first few months, and Prince George's firefighters were posted in the halls of the shock trauma unit. Lee says she has no memory of that period.
Brotman said the pain was so great "it's probably a good thing that Lee was unaware of what was going on."
Lee, an avid horsewoman, said she was confused when she first emerged from the fog. "I thought I was in the basement of my riding instructor's house. I thought she had leased it out to a hospital," she said, laughing at the memory.
She said that seeing her horses last week, her firefighter friends who visit daily and recent overnight visits to her parents' home in Oxon Hill have keep her going. Lee said she never intended to die: "I think I made that decision at the time of the accident."