Laurel County tornado survivor determined to overcome injury, loss

Amputee discovers inner strength during recovery

ctruman@herald-leader.comMay 27, 2012 

LONDON — It got so dark, Amy Harris thought the world was ending.

For her, it almost did.

The March 2 tornado was barreling through East Bernstadt, and she was in a trailer with her boyfriend, Eric Allen, and his parents. Harris was talking on the phone to her mother, Carolyn Hobbs, who was begging her daughter to get to safety.

Sherman Allen, her boyfriend's father, suggested they all get under a mattress. There wasn't time.

Eric later told Hobbs he heard a sound like an explosion. Harris doesn't remember any noise, only the dark.

Sherman Allen and his wife, Debbie, died when their trailer was blown apart. Eric was found nearby and was taken to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, where he was put in intensive care and was treated for an eye injury.

Harris and Allen had met at North Laurel High School and had bonded over their physical challenges: Allen used leg braces; Harris had an esophogeal malformation and two curvatures in her spine.

During the tornado, Harris, 23, was hurtled through the air. Emergency medical workers had to cut her long dark hair, of which she was so proud, to free her from a tree. Her chest took such a beating that, for weeks, it was uncertain whether she would live.

The Laurel County tornado was part of a system of storms that damaged 48 Kentucky counties on March 2, leaving 19,000 people without power and hitting counties including Magoffin, Menifee and Morgan especially hard, with winds of 136 to 165 mph.

The tornado that hit Laurel County had wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph.

Statewide, 24 people were killed and at least 300 were injured.

As Harris was brought out of the wreckage, she told her mother she was sorry she hadn't come home. Carolyn Hobbs didn't care about that; seeing her daughter alive was the best she had hoped for.

Harris spent six weeks at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital. Her left leg had to be amputated below the knee. A special bed was installed at the hospital to help heal her battered lungs. At one point, her kidneys appeared to be shutting down, which can be a sign that death is approaching.

But Harris held on. Her mother rarely left the side of her only child.

Harris remembers little of her experience at UK Hospital. She vaguely remembers her beloved UK Wildcats men's team winning the national championship.

She does remember the two weeks she spent later at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

Since Harris was released from Cardinal Hill, her family has moved into a house where she can watch some nearby cattle and cuddle with her constant companion, a fireball Yorkshire terrier called Sophia.

Every day she gets stronger, she said, although strong is a relative term. She's not even 5 feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds. She's eating more, and she likes comfort food: macaroni and cheese, pizza and toasted sub sandwiches, she said. And she can't wait to get her orthopedic leg fitted and start trying it out.

"I don't like sitting in this chair," she said, gesturing to her wheelchair.

She wiggles her legs, the one that is whole and the one that is awaiting orthopedic intervention, and she laughs. She recently got a pedicure and joked that she expected to get the beauty treatment for half price.

"Better to laugh than cry," Harris said. "It happens."

Harris was born prematurely in 1988 with the esophogeal malformation and two curves in her spine. She has a scar in her throat from the tracheotomy tube. She's familiar with working hard to get well.

Now, she has a carefully layered new haircut, a look that recalls Jennifer Aniston's Rachel character from early episodes of Friends. She plans to go back to school next spring, or next fall at the latest. She has a new interest in physical therapy as a possible career.

She is grateful to be alive and amazed to find her own inner strength as she recovers: "I'll overcome all of this," Harris said. "You can overcome anything you set your mind to."

She does not like dark skies anymore.

But she is with her mother and her dog, in a new house. She has always loved the warmth of summer, and to be alive again for this season makes the day seem very bright.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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