As A Man Thinketh...
New and Different
The year 1993 wasn’t shaping up to be the best year of my life. I was into my eighth year as a single parent.
I had three kids in college, my unmarried daughter had just given birth to my first grandchild and I was about to break up with a very nice man I’d dated for over two years.
Faced with all this, I was spending lots of time feeling sorry for myself.
That April, I was asked to interview and write about a woman who lived in a small town in Minnesota.
So during Easter vacation, Andrew, my thirteen-year-old, and I drove across two states to meet Jan Turner.
Andrew dozed most of the way during the long drive, but every once in a while I’d start a conversation.
“She’s handicapped, you know.”
“So what’s wrong with her? Does she have a disease?”
“I don’t think so. But for some reason, she had to have both arms and legs amputated.”
“Wow. How does she get around?”
“I’m not sure. We’ll see when we get there.”
“Does she have any kids?”
“Two boys -- Tyler and Cody -- both adopted. She’s a single parent, too. Only she’s never been married.”
“So what happened to her?”
“Four years ago Jan was just like me, a busy single mother. She was a full-time music teacher at a grade school and taught all sorts of musical instruments. She was also the music director at her church.”
Andrew fell asleep again before I could finish telling him what little I did know about what had happened to Jan.
As I drove across Minnesota, I began to wonder how the woman I was about to meet could cope with such devastating news that all four limbs had to be amputated. How did she learn to survive? Did she have live-in help?
When we arrived in Willmar, Minnesota, I called Jan from our hotel to tell her that I could come to her house and pick her and the boys up, so they could swim at our hotel while we talked.
“That’s okay, Pat, I can drive. The boys and I will be there in ten minutes. Would you like to go out to eat first? There’s a Ponderosa close to your hotel.”
“Sure, that’ll be fine,” I said haltingly, wondering what it would be like to eat in a public restaurant with a woman who had no arms or legs. And how on earth would she drive?
Ten minutes later, Jan pulled up in front of the hotel. She got out of the car, walked over to me with perfect posture on legs and feet that looked every bit as real as mine, and extended her right arm with its shiny hook on the end to shake my hand.
“Hello, Pat, I’m sure glad to meet you. And this must be Andrew.”
I grabbed her hook, pumped it a bit and smiled sheepishly. “Uh, yes, this is Andrew.” I looked in the back seat of her car and smiled at the two boys who grinned back.
Cody, her younger son, was practically effervescent at the thought of going swimming in the hotel pool after dinner.
Jan bubbled as she slid back behind the driver’s seat, “So hop in. Cody, move over and make room for Andrew.”
We arrived at the restaurant, went through the line, paid for our food, and ate and talked amidst the chattering of our three sons.
The only thing I had to do for Jan Turner that entire evening was unscrew the top on the ketchup bottle.
Later that night, as our three sons splashed in the pool, Jan and I sat on the side and she told me about life before her illness.
“We were a typical single-parent family. You know, busy all the time. Life was so good, in fact, that I was seriously thinking about adopting a third child.”
My conscience stung. I had to face it -- the woman next to me was better at single parenting than I ever thought about being.
Jan continued. “One Sunday in November of 1989, I was playing my trumpet at the front of my church when I suddenly felt weak, dizzy and nauseous.
I struggled down the aisle, motioned for the boys to follow me and drove home. I crawled into bed, but by evening I knew I had to get help.”
Jan then explained that by the time she arrived at the hospital, she was comatose. Her blood pressure had dropped so much that her body was already shutting down.
She had pneumococcal pneumonia, the same bacterial infection that took the life of Muppets creator Jim Henson.
One of its disastrous side effects is an activation of the body’s clotting system, which causes the blood vessels to plug up.
Because there was suddenly no blood flow to her hands or feet, she quickly developed gangrene in all four extremities.
Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, Jan’s arms had to be amputated at mid-forearm and her legs at mid-shin.
Just before the surgery, she said she cried out, “Oh God, no!"
"How can I live without arms and legs, feet or hands?"
"I'll never walk again. I'll never play the trumpet, guitar, piano or any of the instruments I teach!"
I’ll never be able to hug my sons or take care of them!" Oh God, what am I going to do?!”
"And God's still small voice said, "Trust Me..."
Six weeks after the amputations, as her dangling limbs healed, a doctor talked to Jan about prosthetics. She said Jan could learn to walk, drive a car, go back to school, even go back to teaching.
Jan found that hard to believe so she picked up her Bible.
It fell open to Romans, chapter twelve, verse two: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but be a new and different person with a fresh newness in all you do and think. Then you will learn from your own experience how his ways will really satisfy you.”
Jan thought about that -- about being a new and different person -- and she decided to give the prosthetics a try.
With a walker strapped onto her forearms near the elbow and a therapist on either side, she could only wobble on her new legs for two to three minutes before she collapsed in exhaustion and pain.
Take it slowly, Jan said to herself. Be a new person in all that you do and think, but take it one step at a time.
The next day she tried on the prosthetic arms, a crude system of cables, rubber bands and hooks operated by a harness across the shoulders.
By moving her shoulder muscles she was soon able to open and close the hooks to pick up and hold objects, and dress and feed herself.
Within a few months, Jan learned she could do almost everything she used to do -- only in a new and different way.
“Still, when I finally got to go home after four months of physical and occupational therapy, I was so nervous about what life would be like with my boys and me alone in the house.
But when I got there, I got out of the car, walked up the steps to our house, hugged my boys with all my might, and we haven’t looked back since.”
As Jan and I continued to talk, Cody, who’d climbed out of the hotel pool, stood close to his mom with his arm around her shoulders.
As she told me about her newly improved cooking skills, Cody grinned. “Yup,” he said, “She’s a better mom now than before she got sick, because now she can even flip pancakes!”
Jan laughed like a woman who is blessed with tremendous happiness, contentment and unswerving faith in God.
Since our visit, Jan has completed a second college degree, this one in communications, and she is now an announcer for the local radio station.
She also studied theology and has been ordained as the children’s pastor at her church, the Triumphant Life Church in Willmar.
Simply put, Jan says, “I'm a new and different person, triumphant because of God’s unending love and wisdom.”
After meeting Jan, I was a new and different person as well. I learned to praise God for everything in my life that makes me new and different.
Whether it’s struggling through one more part-time job to keep my kids in college, learning to be a grandmother for the first time or having the courage to end a relationship with a wonderful friend who just wasn’t the right one for me.
Jan may not have real flesh-and-blood arms, legs, hands or feet, but that woman has more heart and soul than anyone I’ve ever met before or since.
She taught me to grab on to every “new and different” thing that comes into my life with all the gusto I can muster... to live my life triumphantly.
By Patricia Lorenz
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith
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