Graduating with gumption

Friday, May 14, 2004

First came the dizziness, then the trembling and the numbness. Then came the coma.

Ten days later, Amber Lackamp of rural Jackson woke up in a St. Louis hospital bed. She couldn't move her arms or her legs. She couldn't talk. She depended on a feeding tube for nourishment. She could communicate only by blinking her eyes.

That was November 1998.

Doctors told her parents she'd suffered a brain stem stroke from a blood clot and would never recover. They said she likely would linger on for a couple of years, contract pneumonia and then die.

But Amber Lackamp surprised the doctors. "They now call me their miracle," said Lackamp.

She remains burdened with stiff muscles, a strained voice from damaged vocal chords, and a weak and largely immobile right arm and hand. She walks with braces with difficulty and stills uses a wheelchair to get around. But nothing's wrong with her mind or her will power. On Saturday, dressed in a black gown and mortarboard, Lackamp will steer her power wheelchair in front of the Show Me Center stage and receive her diploma along with 1,118 other graduates from Southeast Missouri State University.

At 28, she is graduating with a bachelor of science degree in human environmental studies with an emphasis in child development.

"I wasn't going to let a little thing like a stroke keep me down," said Lackamp, cracking a smile. "I've always had a positive attitude."

Warning sign

She was an energetic 23-year-old college student, little more than a semester away from graduating from Southeast, when she suffered the stroke. She felt dizzy two days before she went into a coma. She remembers joking that it was a warning sign for a stroke.

"I laughed about it," she said.

Two days later, her family doctor in Jackson diagnosed her with an inner ear infection. A short time later, her right arm and right leg went numb, and her mother drove her back to the doctor's office.

"The last thing I remember was they put me in the ambulance," Lackamp said. "I remember praying, Don't let me die."

She lapsed into a coma.

Lackamp was hospitalized at St. Francis Medical Center for three days before, at her parents' insistence, she was flown by helicopter to Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis.

The news wasn't any better there. Doctors told her parents she wouldn't survive the night.

She was transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Doctors predicted she would remain paralyzed.

"I just went numb," recalled Sandi Lackamp, Amber's mother.

Gradually, some movement returned to her arms and legs. It started with the little finger on her left hand. Swallowing was hard at first. She couldn't even drink liquids.

She was still on a feeding tube. "It was really questionable if she could ever speak or be able to eat or drink," Sandi Lackamp said.

But her daughter gradually began talking again. Her first word was "Mom."

Amber was in the hospital for three months, receiving speech and physical therapy.

Progress was slow.

"The day she got discharged was the first day she could actually push the nurse call button," Sandi said.

After being released from the hospital, Amber and her parents stayed at an apartment in St. Louis. She returned home to the family farm for the first time in March 1999.

She gradually regained her ability to eat food and swallow liquids. The feeding tube was removed in the summer of 1999.

She began taking college classes on the Internet a couple of years ago, first through a St. Louis community college and then at Southeast.

Lackamp types on a computer keyboard, but can only use her left hand.

She didn't return to an actual classroom until this semester, when she took an infant and toddler development course taught by her faculty adviser, Dr. Shakrokh Shafaie.

Shafaie was impressed by her attitude.

The stroke, Shafaie said, hasn't changed her mental outlook. "I realize that she is now the same tiger as she was before."

She did well academically in his class, earning the highest grade of any student.

Before her stroke, Lackamp had her heart set on operating a day-care center. She still loves children but is interested in a slightly different career path. "I am interested in working with disabled children," she said.

Lackamp, who professes a strong faith in God, said she didn't listen to doctors who told her she would never walk or talk again.

Such bleak talk only made her try harder. "They call it determination. I call it stubbornness," she said.

335-6611, extension 123

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