“One would expect a story of quadruple amputation to be filled with sadness and nostalgia. Listening to Will, I was moved by his positive, yet pragmatic, outlook on life and by his ability to continue to do the things that are fulfilling to him. His fortitude, humor, and appreciation of life is truly inspiring.”—Dina Moumin, second-year medical student
HEMPSTEAD, NY—Eight years ago, then 37-year-old Will Lautzenheiser was enjoying a fulfilling career as a filmmaker and college lecturer when he started to feel a strange twinge in his right leg. Perhaps a bad muscle pull, he thought. After some time without relief and intermittent fever, while on a hike, the pain became so bad that he went to the emergency room. There he was diagnosed with an invasive group A streptococcus infection, which sent him into septic shock.
Drastic measures were taken to stop the spread of infection and save his life. A necrotizing fasciitis rendered the leg with the painful twinge essentially dead along with the rest of his limbs. Within a week, Lautzenheiser was a quadruple amputee.
“Your body doesn’t always let you know how sick you are. When I entered the hospital, I thought they’d figure out what’s wrong, and I’ll be back in the classroom next week,” said Lautzenheiser, who underwent a successful double-arm transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2014. “I didn’t know how much life would change and how grateful I would be to have lived through it.”
Lautzenheiser and his journey through loss and restoration is the subject of STUMPED, an award-winning documentary combining tragedy with comedy that was recently presented by the Osler Society of the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell on November 13. Clips from his performances as a stand-up comic, something he began doing in recent years as a way of helping others talk to him about his disability, are woven through the documentary, providing lighter moments during Lautzenheiser’s arduous journey.
At the event, Lautzenheiser spoke candidly to a packed medical school theater of students and guests about his life-altering experience and his quest to raise awareness about disability rights and access, organ donation and transplantation, and patient care issues.
“In the immediate stages of my trauma, I thought to myself that I could approach it in different ways. I could either cry all the time or try to acknowledge that it happened, and I can’t change it,” recalled Lautzenheiser in his talk. “That’s when I consciously said to myself that I am going to be the best patient I can be in this process. I wanted to fully understand what was happening to me and be involved in my healing. I am teaching again, but in a different way.”
The caregiver perspective is equally important.
“At times, it has been difficult to distinguish between when am I his helper and when I am his partner,” said Angel Gonzalez, together with Lautzenheiser for ten years. “But even from the beginning, I never doubted that he would have been there for me in the same situation.”
In his talk, Lautzenheiser also highlighted the issue of health care access. Unlike so many in the country, he said he was fortunate to have signed up for good insurance and live in a location that offered the best health care resources possible, including nearby institutions that prioritize experimental treatments.
“I was covered for my treatment and was fortunate to have my limb surgery donated by the hospital since it was part of a study. The best care should be available to all and available no matter where you live. Where you decide to go as doctors will determine what kind of care you can offer to your patients.”
Special thanks to the Orthopedic Surgery Interest Group at the Zucker School of Medicine and the following Hofstra University programs: Master of Public Health, Disability Studies, Student Access Services, and the Medicine, Culture, and Society Program.
For more information about the Osler Society at the Zucker School of Medicine, please visit medicine.hofstra.edu/humanities.