Featured Story

For double amputee, recovery begins at Brendan House in Riverhead

When she emerged from a coma in July, Erin Hickey did not expect the following message from her doctor.

“He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’re going to have to lose your legs or die,’ ” Ms. Hickey recalled in an interview last week. It was shattering news for the avid surfer, longboarder and new mom.

“I’ll be honest. At first I said, ‘Just let me die,’ ” she said.

From an operating table on the 15th floor at Stony Brook University Hospital, she decided she would be a fighter, too, for her 2-year-old son, Ronan.

Last week, the 30-year-old bilateral amputee moved into Brendan House, a long-term care facility in Riverhead for adults with physical and cognitive disabilities, to begin her recovery.

Ms. Hickey’s story began in June. A fall in the bathroom of her new apartment in Shirley left her unconscious for over 12 hours. When she woke — and couldn’t feel her legs — she crawled to her phone and managed to call her boyfriend, who rushed over and dialed 911.

Ms. Hickey had lost so much circulation in her legs that she developed rhabdomyolysis, a condition resulting from muscle injury that leads to necrosis of tissue and kidney failure. 

When she developed sepsis, she was put into an induced coma for nearly two weeks as doctors tried to save her legs.

Ms. Hickey and Allyson Scerri, who founded New Beginnings Community Center and runs Brendan House, met by chance after Ms. Hickey’s colleagues from Penn Fabricators in Medford asked if she’d be able to help.

They formed an “instant” connection, Ms. Scerri said. 

“She’s very lucky she didn’t sustain a traumatic brain injury,” she said. “I know she will walk and have a beautiful and full life. We have some big goals for Erin.”

Though family members are stepping up to care for her son, Ms. Hickey is facing daunting medical bills to cover the cost of a home aide, which insurance will not cover. The group is seeking donations to help fund her recovery, as well as provide basic necessities like food and clothing.

Ms. Scerri is also hoping to raise enough to convert a garage on the Brendan House property into an art studio for Ms. Hickey, who will be living there for at least two years as she heals and learns to navigate with prosthetics.

“I paint mermaids” on wood and on surfboards, Ms. Hickey said, adding that sketching and journaling kept her sane during her hospital stay. She also took up the ukulele by watching YouTube videos.

Since moving into Brendan House last week, music has already created a bond between Ms. Hickey and Rob Tunison, a resident with traumatic brain injury who sings along to everything from the Beach Boys to Green Day. Ms. Hickey is the third resident to move in since Brendan House opened last year.

“I spent a lot of time in [the hospital bed,]” Ms. Hickey said, adding that she’s looking forward to getting active, spending time with her son and being outdoors again. “I haven’t felt the sun all summer,” she said.

She admits that the journey ahead will not be easy. She’s honest about the phantom pain, which is worse than she’d imagined, and feeling self-conscious.

Phantom pain, a post-amputation phenomenon, creates the sensation that pain is coming from body parts that are no longer there. “It’s a real thing, and it’s the most painful feeling I’ve ever experienced,” Ms. Hickey said, likening the sensation to a charley horse. “In my toes, it feels like they are being tasered. It comes creeping on,” she said.

Still, she radiates positivity and is eagerly awaiting the start of physical therapy. 

“I want to learn how to pop up on my surfboard again,” she said.

She’s already on her way, having had her first prosthetic fitting last week. 

“It’s very odd to see yourself like this, but the stronger I get, the easier it’ll be. I’m going to walk, then I’m going to run, then I’m going to fly,” she said.

To Ms. Hickey, moving into Brendan House represents a second chance of sorts.

“I’m just so amazed,” she said. “[Allyson] has moved heaven and earth for me. I’m learning to see myself in a new light. I want to be able to give [Ronan] the best life.”

Ms. Scerri has started a GoFundMe page to help raise money for Ms. Hickey. To contribute, visit gofundme.com/erins-new-beginnings.

[email protected]

Photo cation: Erin Hickey, 30, at the Brendan House in Riverhead. (Tara Smith photo)