Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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Las Vegas teen Amy Purdy battles devastating illness

Disease ravaged the body but not the spirit of 19-year-old Amy Purdy.

The 1998 graduate of Cimarron-Memorial High School is recovering from a bout this summer with an ailment that claimed the lower half of her legs, her spleen, part of her hearing and may yet claim her kidneys -- but it hasn't touched her heart.

The heart of the now-frail girl, forced into a life-and-death battle in the prime of her youth, is that of a heavyweight champion who refuses to go down for the count.

"I remember seeing a white light when I was in surgery for my spleen," Purdy said. "I knew at that moment I had a choice -- I was going to stay or I was going to go, and there was no way I was going to die. I have my family and my friends to live for and so much to do."

When she made the decision to live, she said the light vanished.

Before being stricken with a form of bacterial meningitis, Purdy was an avid outdoor person at the peak of fitness -- snowboarding was her passion but she also loved to hike, climb rocks, water ski and ride wake boards.

She is determined to again take part in her favorite activities, once she is fitted with artificial legs, and vows to return to the profession she was beginning when struck down by illness -- as a massage therapist at the Canyon Ranch Spa in the Venetian hotel-casino. A fund-raising dinner will be held for her this week.

Purdy is the daughter of Stef and Sheri Purdy, a family long-associated with the popular Helldorado Days, a western heritage festival tradition begun in Las Vegas in 1934 by Elks Lodge No. 1468.

Stef Purdy was executive director of the Helldorado committee for seven years, until 1997. His father, the late Ralph Purdy, was one of the founding members of the committee.

Helldorado Days is in limbo this year but problems surrounding the popular event pale in comparison to those faced by Purdy and her family during the past two months.

"We were always pretty close," Stef Purdy said, "but you never know the family's inner strength till something like this happens. I especially didn't know Amy's inner strength."

Amy's fight for her life began unremarkably on July 15. She felt as if she were coming down with the flu but managed to put in a full day at Canyon Ranch and then ran several errands before going home to her parent's house, where she lives, and lying down.

The next evening she was deathly ill. Her body was shutting down due to a raging infection that had her white blood cell count at 103,000, when normal is 5,000 to 10,000.

"I knew I was dying," she said.

Her parents were on a trip out of state. A cousin rushed her to Mountain View Hospital, where doctors frantically tried to determine the cause of the illness that was causing her body to crash.

"They called me in Utah and said I needed to get back to Las Vegas. They didn't think she was going to make it," Stef Purdy recalled. His wife had returned a day earlier, before the seriousness of Amy's condition was known.

When Stef Purdy arrived at the Intensive Care Unit he was told his daughter had less than a 15 percent chance of living. "I walked into her room and her face was gray. Her feet and hands were purple," Stef Purdy said.

For the next five weeks Purdy was in the Intensive Care Unit. Her parents rarely left her side. "I slept by her bed for five weeks," Stef Purdy said. "I never left."

Family physician Dr. Rosemary Nowins, who headed up a team of 13 doctors who ultimately saved Amy's life, said the family's support was remarkable.

"The amazing thing was that the family was always there for her. There were vigils of 24 hours," Nowins said. "There is a lot of love, a lot of caring, a lot of concern and a lot of positive attitudes."

All of those things, plus Purdy's physical strength and her strong will, contributed to her survival, which Nowins said was a miracle. "I believe in a healing power beyond technology," Nowins said, admitting that she and the other doctors were praying as they treated Purdy.

It took three days of testing to diagnose Amy's illness as Neisseria meningitis -- bacterial meningitis generally contracted by inhaling airborne germs, although there are other sources of infection.

After treatment with penicillin the bacteria usually disappear within 24 hours. But Nowins said Purdy's case was special, one she may never see again.

She said that apparently Purdy had contracted the disease a month before entering the hospital in mid-July, but she was so strong and healthy it wasn't diagnosed as meningitis when she complained of being ill.

When she went to the hospital emergency room the first time she was given an antibiotic and sent home. "She got better after taking the antibiotics," Nowins said.

But when she appeared at the hospital again on the evening of July 16 she was near death. "She was crashing. There was no blood pressure. Her toes and fingers were blue. She had an overwhelming infection," Nowins, who was on vacation at the time, said.

According to Nowins the mortality rate for someone who was in Purdy's condition is as high as 80 percent.

Purdy was still near death three days after entering the hospital when Nowins returned to work. She was in such a critical condition that anything done to her had the potential of killing her while helping her.

Nowins said that a CAT-SCAN was vital to find out why Purdy was bleeding internally while "throwing off blood clots to every part of her body."

Simply taking her to the CAT-SCAN room could have killed her, but it was a necessary trip. The CAT-SCAN revealed that her spleen was four times its normal size. Surgery was required, but because her blood pressure was practically nonexistent it was doubtful she could survive on the operating table.

Remarkably, she did survive.

Nowins said that after the type of organism causing the problem was identified and treated, and after the removal of Purdy's spleen, it was a matter of treating the complications that resulted from the illness.

On Aug. 17, four weeks after entering the hospital, her feet and lower legs were amputated.

It was a miracle she didn't lose her hands, which would have been a double tragedy of its own: Besides being a massage therapist, Purdy is also a talented artist whose paintings adorn the walls of her parents' home.

Another major complication was with her kidneys, which shut down. Doctors will wait six months to decide whether the kidneys will come back or if a transplant may be required.

"Amy amazes me. But her friends amaze me, too," Nowins said. "One of them called and offered to donate one of his kidneys. He asked to remain anonymous."

When she awoke following the surgery to remove her legs, Purdy saw that her parents were disturbed. "I hated seeing my parents hurt," she said. "I felt I had to be strong. I didn't want my parents to be in pain."

And so she shared her strength with them.

Seven weeks after entering the hospital, Purdy went home. She has lost 70 percent of the hearing in her left ear; she has stomach problems; she has kidney dialysis three hours a day every other day; she has gone from 120 pounds to 92 pounds.

But she is alive and determined to focus her attention on the things she can do, not the things she can't.

Rob Gurdison, 25, a longtime friend and snowboarding companion, said Purdy's miraculous recovery "absolutely inspired me." Gurdison described Purdy as "the type of girl (who) goes for it. She has no fears. She wants to push it to the limit."

He has no doubt that Purdy will be riding a snowboard again, and sooner than everyone first thought -- perhaps even this season.

If Guy Griebel has anything to say about it, Purdy will be on a board sooner than later.

Griebel is owner of a snowboard specialty shop called It's All Downhill. He has known Purdy about five years, describing her as a leader among snowboarders and one of the first females to compete in a sport that once was dominated by males.

"She's a high-spirited kid, not afraid of anything," Griebel said. "She's a fierce competitor, full of spirit. We're going to make sure she gets back on a board."

Griebel said he has offered Purdy a job at his shop as soon as she is up to it, but he may have to fight for her services: Her 54 co-workers at Canyon Ranch Spa are eager for her to return.

Shane Bird, a massage development coordinator at the spa, said they have raised $3,000 to help buy Purdy's artificial legs.

The Canyon Ranch Corp. has matched that sum and may add to it, according to Bird, who met Purdy when she was a student at the Utah College of Massage Therapy in Salt Lake City and he was assistant director of career services.

Stef Purdy said that the prosthetic limbs are expensive -- costing between $15,000 and $20,000 per leg. He said his daughter needs two pairs -- one set for cosmetic purposes and one for athletic use. Insurance will help pay the cost of one pair but he needs to come up with an additional $30,000 for a second set.

Forty members of the Helldorado committee have organized a fund-raising dinner that will take place at 8 p.m. Friday at the Elks Lodge. The event is already sold out, with more than 550 people planning to attend the $25-per-plate affair. Dozens of businesses have donated items to be auctioned. Money will go to the Amy Purdy Rehabilitation Trust.

Purdy hopes to be able to use her new legs within the next three weeks so that she can walk down the aisle at the wedding of her sister, Crystal.

Gurdison believes it is that attitude that caused Purdy to reject the light when she was in the operating room, and is her purpose for still being here.

"She is here for a reason," he said, "to inspire others to love life, to show other people there is hope. It's just the way you look at life."

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