When Kayleigh Ferguson-Walker returned to church for the first time since losing her arms and legs, she wore a bright yellow dress.
She sat in a wheelchair that her husband, Ramon, pushed to the front of the sanctuary. Her legs, missing below the knee, were covered by a blanket. The stump of her right arm, severed above the elbow, was wrapped in a white bandage. Her left arm ended just below the elbow.
The pastor lowered a microphone, and Ferguson-Walker, 31, addressed the congregation of Praise Tabernacle International in Plantation in a soft, slightly hesitant voice.
“Today I’m just amazed to be here, to be able to talk, to see, to praise God,” she said.
“I was in a coma for two weeks. But when I woke up, I woke up. And God, he had a different plan for me. And I looked around, and I said to myself, I can be depressed about this, or I can just go through….
“In the hospital bed, I was talking to God. Sometimes I even questioned him in my early stages. I asked God, why? Why me? But I knew then there was a great future ahead of me.
“I stay positive for my daughter,” she said, looking over at her toddler, Aaliyah, in the first row. “She wants to lift me up, to feed me. She knows my situation.
“I love you all,” Ferguson-Walker told the 150 parishioners present, many with tears in their eyes. “I’m glad to be back in the house of the Lord. I’m going to be walking up in here soon.”
A stunningly quick chain of events led to the healthy, young working mom having a rare quadruple amputation. On a Saturday evening in March, she was six months pregnant with her second child when she suddenly felt her world begin to fall apart.
What had at first seemed like a bad flu quickly turned to chills, vomiting and a racing heartbeat, and Ramon bundled his wife and their daughter into the family car and raced to Broward Health Coral Springs, about 2 ½ miles from their apartment.
In the emergency room, doctors went into overdrive to save her life. Her breathing was labored, her vision blurred and her blood pressure was dropping. With her kidneys failing, she could not provide a urine sample.
“That was the first of so many nights I didn’t think she would make it,” said her obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Linda Green, who rushed to the hospital after being called at home.
When the baby’s heartbeat could not be detected, Ferguson-Walker was given the medicine Pitocin to induce contractions. The child was stillborn. The son the couple had already named was lost.
The losses did not end there.
In the minutes that followed, it became clear to the medical staff that the infection that had claimed the life of the baby also had infected the mother. As septic shock set in, her blood-clotting mechanism began to work overtime, pulling blood from the extremities in order to protect the vital organs, such as the heart, kidneys and liver.
Ferguson-Walker was given antibiotics, sedated and put into a coma. There she stayed in intensive care for two weeks as family and friends huddled over her, praying aloud, and watching helplessly as gangrene set in and the young woman’s arms and legs withered and died.
She had likely contracted sepsis through a complication in her pregnancy caused by a rare condition known as incompetent cervix, in which pressure from the growing baby may cause the cervical tissue to open prematurely, according to Green.
As Green and other doctors worked to keep Ferguson-Walker’s blood pressure up, family and friends massaged her limbs. They stroked her brow. They leaned over her hospital bed and begged for deliverance. “God save these limbs,” they prayed.
Among those who spent hours at Ferguson-Walker’s bedside was her aunt, Maxine Cunningham, who works as a nurse at the hospital. “At first we were hoping she might only lose a hand, maybe up to the wrist,” she said.
But the limbs continued to swell, to become more discolored.
“We were hoping and praying that things would turn around,” Cunningham said. “But reality set in.”
When Kayleigh regained consciousness, she saw what had happened. “My hands and feet were pitch-black, dead,” she said. “But I was not alarmed. I just looked at them. These were my hands, my feet, and I can’t move them at all. It was not a good sight.”
Dr. James Fletcher, a plastic surgeon, explained to her family that he would amputate only as much of each limb as necessary, cutting to where the tissue was still viable. He described Ferguson-Walker on the eve of her first surgery as “peaceful, very accepting. She said, ‘Do what you need to do.’”
This Sept. 2, Kayleigh and Ramon returned to the place they were married, Praise Tabernacle International, for what was billed as her welcome home. “It’s been tough — a little bit fearful,” Ramon, a church deacon, told the congregation. “But today’s an opportunity to celebrate her.”
After Ferguson-Walker spoke and the applause died down, Pastor Dywane Dawkins, who married the couple, picked up the microphone.
“The hands that [Ramon] put the ring on at the altar, those hands are now gone,” Dawkins said.
“There is shock and sadness. Why did God allow this to happen?” Dawkins paused, then continued. “When we don’t understand it, we say, ‘Yes.’ We’re believers.”
While waiting for her limbs to heal sufficiently to be fitted with prosthetic arms and legs, Ferguson-Walker is attending peer group support meetings, and exercises regularly under the guidance of physical therapists. She has learned to feed herself with a spoon or fork strapped to the stump of her left arm. By using an edge of that stump, she can answer and dial her cellphone. She communicates online by manipulating a stylus she holds in her mouth.
Ferguson-Walker is mother to a 3-year-old girl, who is struggling to comprehend what has happened to her mom, who can no longer hug her as she once did.
“What I miss with Aaliyah is braiding her hair, taking her for a drive, making a meal, giving her a bath, putting on her clothes,” she said. “A bike ride, swimming with her.”
When tears come to her daughter’s eyes, or her own, Ferguson-Walker cannot easily wipe them.
“You have to expect me to sometimes not to be ‘happy Kayleigh’ 100% of the time,” she said. “I have my moments. We all have those moments.
“But I have no fear. I am going to find a way. I may take longer than the next person, but I will find a way. I keep fear out of my mind.”
Ramon, who has returned to work as a mortgage analyst for a Boca Raton firm, said, “She’s going to walk, cook, do things for herself. I am confident that’s going to happen. As years go by, she’s going to get the help she needs. It might look like it’s devastating — the worst thing that could happen to someone. But it’s life.”
Ferguson-Walker herself imagines coming home as usual after a day of work at Walgreen’s, and Aaliyah is there to greet her as before.
“Every time I came home from work, I would dance with her,” she said. “So I say to her, when I get my legs, the first thing we’re going to do is dance. And that puts a big smile on her face.”