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Omaha Magazine

Light Amidst the Darkness

Feb 22, 2024 10:50AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
teri roberts feature omaha magazine march april 2024

Teri Roberts

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

When Teri Roberts makes volunteer rounds at the Methodist Acute Rehabilitation Center, she can identify with patients more than most visitors. That’s because she was a patient there herself after a life-changing event in late 2014 that began as a suspected case of flu but turned out to be group A Streptococcus, a bacterial infection that can cause skin, soft tissue, and respiratory tract infections. 

Roberts’ situation worsened when she developed sepsis and toxic shock syndrome. Her kidneys and liver shut down, and she fell into a coma that lasted 12 days.

Mere hours before life support was scheduled to be removed, Roberts regained consciousness. Mixed with the joy of survival was the devastating knowledge that her hands and feet had turned gangrenous due to lack of oxygen. All four needed to be amputated. Through the amputations, her recovery, and physical and occupational therapy, Roberts’ positive attitude was her secret weapon.

She needed it, too. Only 16 months before developing group A Streptococcus and losing her limbs, Roberts' only daughter, Andrea Kruger, a mother of three, was brutally murdered in Omaha by serial killer Nikko Jenkins.

For Roberts, who believes in silver linings, that tragedy was almost too much to bear.

“I’ve never been a negative person. We were pretty much knocked to our knees in 2013 when we lost our daughter,” she shared. “There were times I didn’t think I was going to get back up off the floor after we lost Andrea. I relied heavily on my faith. I prayed a lot for strength. I guess maybe He’s still there giving me the strength that I need to go on.”

When her daughter was taken from her, Roberts leaned into caring for her grandchildren.

“If I didn’t have them to take care of up until I got sick, it would have been very difficult, I think, to come out of that dark space in my life,” she said.

That experience, combined with her naturally upbeat, can-do personality, helped her choose life a second time when she emerged from her coma.

“I got knocked to my knees once before and got up,” Roberts said. “Through the grace of God, I’ve come forward this much and will just keep going on the ride.”

Embracing life without limbs was a very conscious choice.

“Number one, what’s important is you have to accept the new you, whatever it is. And then you have to decide to move on. I mean, you’ve got two decisions,” Roberts reflected. “You decide to move on mainly for yourself but also for all those around you. Or, you decide to just stay there and make everyone around you miserable. But more importantly, in my view, you’re making yourself miserable. To me, that’s not living.”

Impatient and ever ready to just get on with things, she said, “I never thought of not moving forward. I just kept saying, ‘Okay, what do we have to do? I’m going to have my hands amputated, what’s next?’”

Never one to shirk a challenge or avoid learning new skills, Roberts leaned into learning how to use prosthetic legs. She opts not to use prosthetic arms. Her overriding goal then was clear: to return home and have a functional life.

Occupational therapist Katrina Balak recalled that Roberts was “motivated from the start,” adding, “There weren’t a lot of ‘woe-is-me’ moments—not that she didn’t get frustrated, but she never gave up. With each new issue that needed to be surmounted, Teri was like, ‘How can I get better? How can I make it work?’ She just had a lot of perseverance.”

Self-pity was not an option in Roberts’ mind. “I never remember asking anyone, ‘Why did it happen to me?’ I never sat and felt sorry for myself ever. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I’ll learn that reason one day.”

If there’s anyone she’s leaned on, it’s her husband of four decades, Kent. The pair’s shared sense of humor has helped them get through back-to-back challenges that would have been the end of some couples.

“We’ve had a lot of heartache and tragedy in our lives,” Kent said, “but we don’t sit around and wring our hands and moan and groan about it. All in all, we just move forward and try to have fun.”

When she awoke from the coma, Roberts shared, “I told Kent, ’You can’t get rid of me that easy.’ Humor is, in my opinion, fantastic medicine. I think you need to find a way to laugh every day.”

About being a quadruple amputee, she once quipped, “I’m just letting the other people finally catch up to me.”

Roberts recalled one day in the hospital telling Kent that she was scared. “He said, ‘What do you mean you’re scared?’ 

“I said, ‘Well, you hear these stories of people seeing a white light when they’re that close to death, but, Kent, I didn’t see a white light.’ And he leaned over and said, ‘Honey, did you see flames?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, there you have it.’ And that was the end of it.”

Roberts said she still marvels, “He never complained. He was always there for me. I have an awesome support system between my family and my friends.”

Kent said it’s easy to be there for someone who inspires him.

“She has the most positive mindset of anyone I’ve ever met,” he averred. “She doesn’t seem to get upset about her disabilities. There’re certain things she simply cannot do such as cooking, which is fine, because I love to cook. But most things she can do.

“It doesn’t slow her down, she just keeps going. She finds a way to work around different things.”
Besides the comfort of family and friends, Roberts is active in online support groups. “There’s a community, and I love it,” she said. “I learn a lot of stuff just from reading posts that other amputees make.”

Beating the odds as she did, however, prompted a question that nagged her.

“Most people with the condition I had do not make it. I shouldn’t have made it,” Roberts reflected. “So I kept thinking, ‘Why? Why did I make it?’ I sat for the first year after I got home. I couldn’t take care of the grandkids anymore. I was very limited on what I could do.”

Before her health crisis, she had worked in the insurance field and served two terms on a local school board. Without a job to go back to, Roberts, who had always been very active, sought answers.

“After sitting around for a year, I said to myself, ‘There’s a reason I’m here, and I need to figure it out.' And that’s when I thought, ‘I want to give back.’”

What better place to give back than at the Methodist Acute Rehabilitation Center, the center that helped her transition to her new life?

“I asked, ‘Do you ever have volunteers come out and talk to your patients?’” Roberts recounted. “After making that initial call, I think I was up at Methodist Hospital within a week. I was thrilled. I didn’t know it was possible to do the volunteering I wanted to do.”

Her goal is to be a positive light in a patient’s day.

“Driving in on Wednesdays when I normally do my volunteering, I will shut the radio off in the car and pray that maybe I can bring some encouragement,” Roberts shared. “I pop in on patients when they have down time to say, ‘Hi,’ tell my story, ask what brought them there, and hopefully, bring some encouragement and friendship. That’s the main thing.”

That encouragement extends to staff having a bad day. “She just puts a bright light on the day and gives us more motivation to do the work we do,” Balak said.

Roberts wishes that every patient had the family support she does, but she acknowledges some simply don’t. 

“After doing this volunteer work for four years, I realize not everyone is as lucky as I am as far as having a support system,” she said. “Unfortunately, several folks I’ve met are alone in life. They don’t have anyone. It’s those people my heart goes out to. I wish I could do more.”

Roberts wants patients to know, though, that they are in good hands. “I tell them that they’re in the greatest spot they can be. You can tell the therapists at Methodist genuinely love their jobs. They want to help these people. The therapists there are awesome and extremely caring. 

“They’re the very first step. Whether it’s a stroke patient or a heart patient or a diabetic or an amputee, the therapists are the first people there to encourage someone who’s gone through something very traumatic. They’re there to encourage them that there still is a lot of good ahead of you and ‘Let’s work together to get you there.’”

With the help of therapists, Roberts said that she has learned that “you have to move forward and work. It means pushing yourself and finding adaptive new ways to do things. Every day, you’re figuring out how to accomplish something else.”

With practice, she now drives, does laundry, mows the lawn, works in the garden, and more.

“Whatever my limitations are, those are my limitations. I just needed to learn to deal with them,” Roberts reflected. “Life is still good. I certainly believe that. Every day I believe that.”

She carries that same message to patients, but she also “doesn’t sugarcoat things. She tells them that it takes a lot of hard work and grit,” Balak said.

“There’re going to be days when you’re going to be in pain,” Roberts said. “We’ve earned days where we can feel a little sorry for ourselves. But it’s very important not to stay down. You’ve got to pick yourself back up and move forward. You can do whatever you set your mind to. You may be doing it differently, and it may take you longer than in the past, but you can still do it.”

Balak said she and her colleagues treasure Roberts’ work with patients. 

“She’s an amazing story and an amazing person to work with our patients. It’s one thing from a patient’s perspective to hear from us that they’ll get better, but it’s a whole other perspective to hear it from someone who’s actually gone through these experiences.

“We’re very impressed that she can make a connection with patients so quickly. Hopefully, she can be a picture for them that they do have something to look forward to.”

Roberts also does peer counseling at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital and at QLI, where she continued her recovery and rehabilitation after leaving Methodist Hospital.

About engaging with patients, she said, “I get more out of this, I believe, than what I ever give back. It’s therapy for me. It just makes my heart full. Being able to talk to people, listen to their stories—I love it.”

Kent said what started as just something to do has evolved into the highlight of his wife’s week. “She pretty much wears her heart on her sleeve. What you see is what you get. She’s just a very caring person and has a real loving heart. I think she was cut out for this. It’s right up her alley.”
When Roberts missed several volunteer stints to care for her dying father, she found herself getting depressed.

“Boy, did I need it,” she remembered. “But since returning, it’s helped my attitude. Methodist saved me again.”

Roberts has delivered her message of hope and resiliency as a public speaker, but she prefers more intimate exchanges with patients and students. For example, she speaks regularly to Nebraska Methodist College occupational therapy classes.

In many respects, Roberts’ approach to her life remains unchanged from when she was fully able-bodied.

“I’m constantly out in public. When I’m out doing my stuff, running my errands, whatever it may be, I guess I don’t even think that people are looking at me differently,” she reflected. “It’s not until I go to pay for something, and the clerk asks if I need help, and I go, ‘No, no, no! I’ve got this!’ I tell them, ‘Believe me, I learned how to eat and spend money right away after my amputations.’”

Those occasions also present teaching opportunities.

“Little kids will look at me. Their parents say, ‘Don’t stare at her.’ And I go, ‘No, that’s fine. They’re just curious,’” Roberts shared. “When I’m asked, ‘What happened to you?’ by a child, I try very hard not to use the words ‘I got sick,’ because I don’t want those kids to think they’re going to lose their hands and feet if they get sick.”

She reminds people that no one should be defined by their disabilities. Spreading positivity seems to be one of her gifts. That, along with taking charge of her life and moving on, is just the way she’s wired.

Always looking to maximize her time to help others, Roberts said, “I guess I’m still continuing to search. Is this why I’m still here? Do I need to find more to do?’” 

To see more of Roberts’ story, view her Methodist video at bestcare.org/volunteerimpact. For more information on Methodist’s rehabilitation program, visit bestcare.org/specialties/acute-rehabilitation.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Teri Roberts

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

 

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