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Brave Choice: A Life Worth Living

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Katy Hayes held her minutes-old daughter Arielle, marveling at her 22-in., 9-lb. 13-oz. miracle. It was her third baby, but she was as euphoric as a first-time mom, and her husband, Al, who had played guitar to his wife’s growing belly, shot photos through happy tears. “I remember,” Katy says, “hearing her little cry and being so excited.”

That was her last memory before her life changed forever. Within hours of giving birth at home in Kingwood, Texas, she was seized with intense abdominal pain-signs of a raging bacterial infection that would literally consume her. Two months later she woke up in a hospital room-without limbs. “I remember lifting my leg and not seeing any foot. I screamed, ‘Ahhh, my God!'” Katy, 42, says. “I was in shock. And scared.” So was Al, who had given doctors the go-ahead to amputate to save his wife from a rare invasive Group A strep infection. “What kept running through my mind,” Al, 35, recalls, “was ‘What if she wakes up and hates me because she doesn’t want to live this way?'”

It’s a question Katy has wrestled with in her darkest moments since Arielle’s birth on Feb. 10, 2010. Once a massage therapist, avid hiker and all-around supermom to Amber, 17, her daughter from a previous marriage, and Jake, 7, her son with Al, she now relies on her family to take care of her. Al, a school music teacher, has at times nearly buckled under the strain of helping his wife adjust to life as a quadruple amputee while taking on the baby, the bills and carpooling duty. But the answer to her husband’s question? “I’m so glad to be here,” Katy says. “I’ve had crying spells-it’s so frustrating. But I love hearing about my kids’ days, watching my son on the trampoline, looking at Arielle’s face. Al still makes me laugh. The point is, I’m alive.”

On a recent Saturday, the family piles into their van and heads to a drive-in joint for lunch. Al holds Katy’s hamburger, then steadies the straw in her iced tea so she can sip-tasks that, despite many hours of physical therapy and practice with her prosthetic arms, are still beyond her. “It’s good you’re hungry,” Al says, then he climbs into the backseat to change Arielle’s diaper. Next it’s off to the Home Depot, where Al activates the van’s hydraulic lift to lower Katy in her power wheelchair onto the pavement. An employee asks if they need a hand. “I need two!” says Katy, grinning.

Happy family outings were what Katy and Al imagined when she learned she was pregnant. They’d hit a rough patch in their 11-year marriage, but planning for the baby brought them closer again. After a bad hospital experience with Jake, Katy decided to have this baby at home with an experienced midwife.

It all went according to plan, and when Al called the hospital about Katy’s abdominal pain, doctors assured him she was fine. But after a few days, as her pain became unbearable, Al drove her to the hospital and insisted she be seen. Three hours later she slipped into a coma. “One doctor pulled me aside,” Al recalls, “and said, ‘She’s going to die.'” Later, doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where Katy was transferred for specialized care, told Al there was one slim hope to save her-a quadruple amputation to remove her gangrenous limbs. Pacing the halls, “I thought,” Al recalls, “I was going to explode.” Still, he kept thinking: The children needed their mother, even in a dramatically altered form, and Katy would want to be around to raise them, even if not in the way she’d hoped. He sat at Katy’s bedside and sobbed: “I hope,” he whispered, “you can forgive me.”

These days life at the Hayes home is a work in progress. After Al helps Katy shower and she eats her breakfast, a day nurse helps Katy, who contends with lingering pain. Local fund-raisers ( helped buy the family a handicapped-accessible ranch home and one of two vans, but Al is uncertain how much longer they can afford the nurse on his teacher’s pay. Now that Al is back to work full-time, Amber, a high school junior, cooks, cleans and takes Jake to his martial arts classes. “I feel like a teenage mom, and it’s stressful,” she says. “But my mom blows me away. She accepted what’s happened; she’s moving on. She’s my best friend.”

Talking fashion trends with Amber, playing Boggle with Jake, cracking up over The Daily Show with Al, Katy almost feels like her old self. Then there’s her new self: the one who just started to walk again, with the aid of a nurse and her family cheering her, on her prosthetic legs. A few days later, 1-year-old Arielle took her first wobbly steps. “I love that we are learning to walk together,” Katy says. “It’s a big deal for both of us.”