New limbs – New Life: Patti’s story

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 30, 2004

By Anna Monica – Correspondent

They said it was the flu because all the symptoms were there, including the usual body aches. But, on April 15, 2000, Patti Poirrier Amato’s life was changed forever – and in a way no one could have ever foreseen. It was the end of her life as she knew it.

Jared Amato could not rouse his wife from sleep that morning; she had drifted into a coma and for the following seven months, life for Patti Amato and family “became a nightmare.” It was a saga that left family and friends feeling helpless and hopeless, surviving mostly on prayer and each other.

On the third day in The Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge, the family was being prepared for Patti’s demise; the life support system would have to be disconnected if she did not soon show brain activity.

Patti does not remember at all the first three months in the hospital after she was diagnosed with mennigicocol meningitis. In this life and death situation, where she remained in a coma for nine days, doctors knew within two weeks that Patti needed amputation of her limbs or she would die. She would be a quadruple amputee.

When Patti did awake, her hands had been removed but doctors wanted to speak with her before they amputated any more. Then they proceeded to remove her legs below the knees. Paralyzed to keep her immobile, all she could move were her eyes.

While husband and family members took turns staying with Patti 24 hours a day, sometimes even sleeping on the floor, citizens of the close-knit Paulina community in St. James Parish were planning a July three-day weekend, “Patti-Fest” to raise funds for her care.

The turn-out at Longview Recreation Park in Paulina was tremendous. For just that Sunday, Patti was released from the hospital to attend the festival. Also, Patti’s Godfather, Danny Louque of Quality Machine Works in Grand Point, put together a golf tournament which turned out to be the largest in Louisiana. Almost everyone wanted to take part in helping.

Before that fate-filled day in 2000, Patti was indeed an extremely active and attractive employee, wife, mother of three and aerobics instructor. She had worked for 25 years for River Parishes Tugboat Company. This employer, she says, was very loyal to her during this time. Daughter Madison Amato was three when this misfortune entered their lives. Oldest daughter, Heidi Richard, now 21 and attending LSU, was strongly supported then by her team and friends at Riverside Academy. Son, Rusty Richard, now 23, was receiving support from his friends at the vo-tech school he was attending. Rusty will marry Candy Keller of Paulina in June.

Patti’s devoted parents are Lloyd and Marie Poirrier of Grand Point. With the rest of the family. They say “we cannot even begin to tell you how we felt.” They stayed by her side the entire time. Her brothers are Brent and Todd and the late Joey. However, Patti can tell you how depressed she was. Her right hand now has a very helpful “hook” while she makes good use of a small remnant of her left hand. She “cried her eyes out” the first day they brought her that hook. “I wanted a real hand,” she recalls. At this point she realizes how she could not do without it, as it is such a help in performing tasks. “But, now I still cry for everything,” says Patti with a large smile, “because I realize how fortunate I am to be here.”

The last three months of hospitalization for Patti was spent in rehabilitation. She has learned to walk well on her prosthetic legs. In fact, her devoted sister, Tina Guidry, is confident that in June, she may even be able to wear high heels for her son’s wedding. Thoughts of the upcoming wedding are another motivator that brightens Patti’s face.

“I was so depressed I didn’t even want to go home,” Patti says, in realizing her limitations upon leaving the hospital. When she did, she mostly sat on the sofa, lacking any enthusiasm. Tina, ever energetic and a “pusher,” decided that Patti, needed help in her rehabilitation. She and Marie Porrier decided on a new business venture that would aid in Patti’s rehab. They opened a new “Curves for Women” in Gramercy. Patti helps her family on occasion so she can be with other people and works out at least three times a week to get stronger. “Curves adds value to her life,” says Tina, who keeps a watchful and loving eye on her sister.

Life for Patti, Jared and the rest of the family has become more routine though not necessarily easy. Patti’s activity is limited, but the grateful family feels that it is just something we have to deal with.” Patti needs help in dressing but does her own makeup and can even “put on her own legs.” Now seven years old, Madison has become very helpful to her mom. With humble pride and teary eyes, Tina speaks for the whole family when she says, “I feel like we got my sister back and can help give her a new life. I am happy that we had a chance to do this. She could be sitting on a sofa right now. I am here to help rehabilitate her.”

For the Amato family, the Poirriers, and those who know and love Patti, it has been a long road – a hard one and one that doesn’t end. They do know, though, that love, perseverance, patience and faith have helped to keep a loved one alive, to have a life – and to embrace that life, however changed. And, Patti still smiles.