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Surviving & Overcoming Toxic Shock Syndrome

Sara Bliss
Senior Writer
July 21, 2014

Photos Courtesy of Penny Fisher

Six years ago, clothing designer and former model Penny Fisher was a busy mom of two on vacation with her family. Out of nowhere, she began to feel disoriented and ill. Within 24-hours she was on life support and her family was told to say their goodbyes.

For reasons that are still unknown, Fisher had contracted Strep A, a rare bacteria that went into her bloodstream causing her to develop Toxic Shock Syndrome. She was put in to an induced coma for three months, during which she survived pneumonia, septic shock, and swelling of her brain. When she woke up, she was bald and weighed 90 pounds. Her hands and feet were black because blood had been diverted from her extremities to keep her organs alive and doctors told her that a foot, a leg, and several fingers had to be amputated.

One of the most amazing things about Fisher, beyond her superhuman determination and strength, is her attitude about the hell that she went through. “I did not freak out,” she says. “I just thought, I am going to turn this around. I’m going to look good no matter what. I am going to attract my husband no matter what. I am going to be fun loving no matter what.” She wasn’t just grateful that she got to mother her children, Ross and Sloan, and be a wife to her husband Jeff, but she was determined to thrive. She adjusted to a new body, thanks to prosthetic limbs and fingers, and was on the tennis court and traveling to Italy just weeks later. Here is Penny’s awe-inspiring story in her own words.    

WAKING UP FROM THE COMA: My hands and feet were black. My limbs had died on my body. I knew that unless I got amputated, I would have no freedom or mobility at all. I had to go home and get healthy enough to eat and recover so that I could get have this intense surgery of having all of my limbs, basically, amputated at once.

ADJUSTING TO A NEW REALITY:  I actually had a pretty good attitude from the beginning. I was surprised at myself.  Though to be honest, I don’t think I knew how bad I looked because everybody was very conscious about covering up any mirrors. For a long time I didn’t even know that I was bald.  I faced it with a very optimistic attitude, because it was so bad, that I was like, This just can’t be happening. It’s going to reverse. This is just like a movie. It’s just going to work out for me.  So I did not freak out. I just said to myself I am going to turn this around. I’m going to look good no matter what. I am going to attract my husband no matter what. I am going to be fun loving no matter what. I had the confidence and faith in myself that I would do the best I could to make myself kind of back to my old self the best I could.

INNER CONFIDENCE: Even when I was modeling, I was pretty relaxed and was never hyper focused on my looks. I was usually hired by agencies that knew me. A lot of it, of course, was my personality, my style, and my individuality. I wasn’t an amazing student and I wasn’t an amazing athlete, but the one thing I always had in my back pocket is that people liked me. My personality, my outgoingness, my silliness, my style—it was all of it. So I already had the perspective that looks are going to come and go, but it’s really about who you are.

A NEW LOOK: I used to be one of those girls that could kind of just roll out of bed, throw on a short dress and flip flops, and leave the house. Now I have to really work it! I had to kind of change my style. I had to say, So, I don’t have pretty legs anymore to wear sandals and a sundress, but I could wear really cool gypsy long dresses and great jewelry. I kind of just readjusted and changed. My husband always makes me feel great and my friends always do, too. Once I got my hair extensions put on, I never felt insecure again. Even with the fingers missing, even with the foot, it was all about the hair!

SKIING, BIKING, AND MORE: Before all this all happened, I was working out intensely.  The doctors said that’s why I was so strong physically and mentally. Now I still can swim and do yoga or Pilates. My body is better than it was before. I am slimmer and leaner.  Walking around with the prosthetic is so intense on your stomach, you’re essentially doing Pilates to walk gracefully; I am like a walking Pilates lesson. I also love skiing. I am able to slip my foot in and the stiff boots hold me up. 

SEEING THE HUMOR: My prosthetic fingers have a tendency to fall off. I wave my hand when I’m talking to someone and my finger goes flying off! Those are the things that happen and you just have to laugh.

FINDING MY ACT TWO: I would like everyone know that there is always an act two.  Even when things seem insurmountable, you figure it out. For me it was, How am I going to manage? How am I going to walk? How am I going to move out of this bed? But all is not lost. Things like this, you can work with it. You can make a new life for yourself. You can empower yourself to be thicker skinned, not to be so sensitive.

VALUES, STRENGTH, AND DEPTH: I feel more secure about my value as a person now. Even though I like to look nice, I don’t focus as much about my looks. I am doing things that I feel great about, like writing, mentoring and heading up a charity called Adaptive Adventures. In the past, I felt misunderstood. I felt that people just saw me at face value not necessarily for my values, strength or depth. I now feel that I have earned people’s respect as well as my self-respect for what I’ve accomplished. I always embodied the same attitude and qualities before, but it was largely overlooked.