Roxanne Ouweleen was healthy and fit last May when, to her surprise, she struggled to complete a 5K — an activity she had done numerous times before.
Unusually winded and sweating heavily, Ouweleen finished the YMCA of the Foothills Fiesta Days Run in La Cañada Flintridge on May 29, then went home and shrugged off her performance as nothing more than “a bad day.”
“That was probably my first clue,” she said.
During the next 12 hours, she became severely ill. Her husband Mark rushed her to USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, where staff spent at least the next 24 hours performing tests to determine what was wrong.
A spinal tap revealed Ouweleen, 49, had contacted bacterial meningitis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are several types of bacteria that can lead to an infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.
A person who carries the bacteria but shows no symptoms can spread the germs to another. The disease can also be spread through food.
Early signs of bacterial meningitis can include nausea, vomiting, fever or a stiff neck.
Doctors never did pinpoint how Ouweleen may have contracted it, she said.
By the time they knew what was wrong, her organs were starting to shut down. Doctors were unsure if she would survive the 13-mile ambulance ride from Verdugo Hills to Keck Hospital of USC, where they wanted to give her further treatment.
After arriving in the intensive care unit at Keck, a machine did 100% of Ouweleen’s breathing, while she was fed through tubes and underwent 24-hour dialysis for kidney failure.
She woke up on June 10 to learn what had happened, as well as the fact that many of her family and friends figured they would lose her.
Ouweleen would spend six weeks in the hospital and three weeks more in a rehabilitation unit. She’d lose 40 pounds and need to gain the strength again to sit up on her own.
During that time, she’d also have to come to terms with losing both her hands and feet. A lack of blood flow to her extremities turned her hands stone cold, purple and unrecognizable to Ouweleen.
She had questioned why they weren’t healing, until it was clear to her that they wouldn’t.
“I wanted to get rid of the ugliness,” she said.
An even more difficult decision came when Ouweleen needed to confront what had happened to her feet. She had the option to remove only the parts of them that had been affected by the necrosis that had taken her hands, or she could choose amputation of both her legs below the knee. She chose the latter.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made in my life,” she said.
Today, she’s glad she did.
More than a year after going into the hospital, Ouweleen is adapting to life without hands and feet.
She spent a few months each living with her aunt, Sandy Sirbu, and her mother-in-law, Diane Cripe, who helped Ouweleen adjust to becoming more independent.
Recently, she’s been learning how to walk on two prosthetic legs.
She also uses a robotic hand to pick up items such as a pot or a blow dryer, but she can’t do with it what she loved — baking, cooking, using a knife to slice vegetables.
“As advanced as it is, it still can’t do what a hand can do,” she said.
Overcoming one of the most challenging times in her life has made her grateful for the support of her family and friends.
“As soon as I came out of that danger zone of dying, everyone around me was saying, ‘You’re going to do this. You’re going to get back on your feet,” she said. “I tried my best not to let them down. There was no option to lie down and give up. I needed to get through it, and it was hard. I knew it was going to be over at a certain point.”
One couple who visited Ouweleen every day in the hospital were Marral and Alex Araradian, who played movies for Ouweleen, washed her hair, or just visited.
“Most people would have given up,” said Marral Araradian. “Most people would have sat in bed, and said, ‘Oh, poor me.’ She did not, for one second, do that.”
Ouweleen is eager to return to work in the Glendale Unified School District this fall, where she was most recently an assistant principal at Balboa Elementary.
Her colleagues have spent the last week sharing a GoFundMe account online to raise money for her ongoing recovery costs.
In 10 days, supporters have pitched in more than $26,000 to reach a $150,000 goal.
Ouweleen still needs several surgeries to repair her nose. She is currently growing tissue on her forehead that will be used to replace the tissue she lost on the tip of her nose to the same infection that affected her hands and feet.
She’s also learning to drive again.
Days ago, accompanied by an occupational therapist whose expertise is in driving, Ouweleen drove from her Sunland home through La Cañada, to the Rose Bowl and back, to give the therapist insight about what driving accommodations she may need.
“It was one of the best things I’ve done the whole year,” she said. “I felt like a teenager.”
After a 30-year career in Glendale Unified, she’s also watched how the fundraising effort has brought in donations from her former students and colleagues she worked with decades ago.
“It’s just beautiful to know I’m loved and supported,” she said, adding that she wants to share her story with others who may face similar challenges. She’s hopeful they may reach out to her on Facebook.
“I’m trying to reach as many people that may be in the same situation, to support them and give them any kind of pointers or advice...or just listening,” she said.
Mary Mason, the director of teaching and learning for Glendale Unified said she’s not surprised by the outpouring of support Ouweleen has received.
“Our community respects and admires her ability to tackle this new challenge with the same passion and resilience that she has exemplified over all the years we have known and worked with her,” she said.