Health & Medicine

Second movement: Lexington Philharmonic cellist adjusts to 'new normal' after bicycle accident resulted in leg amputation

Cellist Lisa Svejkovsky-Schaeffer was involved in a bicycling accident with a tractor trailer in November 2013 that resulted in the loss of her right leg. She has since returned to performing with the Philharmonic but still faces large bills for prosthetics and other care. She was photographed at a rehearsal for the Philharmonic's New Year's Eve concert on Dec. 29, 2014, at the Lexington Opera House. Photo by Rich Copley | Herald-Leader staff.
Cellist Lisa Svejkovsky-Schaeffer was involved in a bicycling accident with a tractor trailer in November 2013 that resulted in the loss of her right leg. She has since returned to performing with the Philharmonic but still faces large bills for prosthetics and other care. She was photographed at a rehearsal for the Philharmonic's New Year's Eve concert on Dec. 29, 2014, at the Lexington Opera House. Photo by Rich Copley | Herald-Leader staff. Staff

Lexington Philharmonic cellist Lisa Svejkovsky Schaeffer has enjoyed the fact the orchestra has programmed several concerts this season at the Lexington Opera House, within an easy walk of her home.

But it isn't just the pedestrian lifestyle that appeals to her.

She is thankful to be able to walk at all. Less than a year ago, she couldn't walk half a block without excruciating pain that required powerful medicine to manage.

Schaeffer was riding her bicycle on Winchester Road on Nov. 6, 2013, when she was in an accident that pinned her under the wheels of a tanker truck. After months of surgery to try to save her right leg, she had it amputated below the knee.

Since then, the cellist has arrived at what she describes as a "new normal," and a new appreciation of her craft.

"I enjoy every bit of it," Schaeffer said of playing the cello. "There are a lot of people that are jaded that sit in an orchestra, and knowing that it was almost taken away completely changes the way you think about it.

"I appreciate it a lot more ... It's easy to get jaded and hit a rut, get frustrated. A lot of people look at a pops concert or a Nutcracker and say, 'Oh, I can't play it again. I can't hear it again.' But I tell you what: I have the biggest smile on my face when I'm doing that, because I can."

Schaeffer started playing cello at 9, when she was growing up in Minneapolis.

The key moment was when a string quartet came to her school. After playing, the students got a chance to try some of the instruments.

"I stood in the cello line, and that was it," she recalled.

"I went and told my parents, 'I want to play the cello!' My mother said, 'Wasn't there anything smaller?' And I said, 'Yeah, but I want to play the cello.'"

She went on to study at the University of Louisville and came to the University of Kentucky for graduate school. That's where she started getting involved with the Philharmonic, first being hired as a substitute, then winning an audition for a position in the cello section. She also worked as the orchestra's librarian until a few years ago.

"I love Lexington, I love it very much," Schaeffer said of her adopted town.

Trapped

She was enjoying a mild, sunny November day when she went out on her bike to run some errands, as her husband Jon Schaeffer was away on business. She had just noticed some items in the window of Clark Antiques she wanted to come back to see. But she continued down Winchester Road toward downtown, aware of a tanker truck on her left. She had pulled out ahead of it, "to make sure he saw me, because I'm little, and it's big."

At the J.M. Smucker plant, she saw his turn signal flashing, and was aware he was coming over into the bike lane. She tried to jump the curb onto the sidewalk.

"Whether it was my wheel or handle, it touched the edge of the tanker, and because we were both propelling forward, it shot me forward onto the sidewalk, knocked me down, trapped my right leg under my bike," she said. "I spider-monkeyed up to try to pull myself away with my body and my left leg, and by the time I got my whole self up and was crawling and looked to my right, the fourth axle was running over my tire, and it trapped my right leg."

She thought at that moment she would just suffer broken legs and everything would be fine. But then the truck stopped, still on her leg.

"That whole thing about passing out from the pain? Didn't happen. I was wide awake for the whole thing," Schaeffer said.

In the ordeal that followed, the trucker was told by a good Samaritan nurse — who had stopped to help — not to move the truck for fear that could create a potentially fatal medical crisis for Schaeffer. So she spent more than 20 minutes trapped until rescue workers from the Lexington fire department were able to raise the wheels of the tanker off her leg.

"It was forever," Schaeffer said. "I remember this Hispanic man dressed all in red who prayed over me, and another man gave me his jacket to rest my head until the paramedics arrived."

A man who called her husband in Mississippi walked a block to make the call so he wouldn't hear his wife screaming in the background.

"The pictures they took at the scene were graphic," Schaeffer said, recalling images of tissue and muscle torn away from her leg by the friction of tires against the pavement.

And that was just the beginning.

While she was in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, Schaeffer said she received excellent care and had regular visitors, including many Philharmonic members. Former Philharmonic administrative assistant Maureen Kochmann recalled, "Even when she was in a tremendous amount of pain, she was always very upbeat."

And that, Kochmann said, is what Schaeffer was always like: upbeat and on the go.

But that was a brave face.

"They technically saved the leg," Schaeffer said. "They never promised me a rose garden, they never said it was going to be perfect, and I knew that going in. But I didn't know it was going to be what it was going to be, when it wouldn't heal, when open wounds — I was dressing open wounds months after I was home."

She was in constant pain that was manageable only with narcotics, and she could barely walk.

"The more I read into this, I thought, 'Long-term, this is not a plan,'" she said. "I'm going to lose my liver. I'm going to lose my kidneys. This is not going to fly."

It got so bad that Schaeffer, who at the time lived on the 16th floor of the Park Plaza Apartments, said, "I can't tell you how many times I stood on my balcony and thought, 'Will 16 floors do it?' because there was so much pain, that the amount of narcotics I was on, any normal person would be drooling in a corner. But it made me able to function. It was no way to live."

The decision

So, she decided to have the leg amputated.

Through 10 surgeries over 70 days at University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center, no one had actually talked to her about amputation.

"The whole aim was to save the leg, save the leg, save the leg," Schaeffer said.

An offhanded comment about amputation planted a seed, and she did research into amputation.

Everyone, including her doctor, husband and Kochmann were shocked when Schaeffer announced she was going to amputate.

"We said, 'But you've come so far,'" Kochmann said. "I was disappointed it had come to this, after all she had been through.

"But we all eventually came around. You can understand, it's not that much of a life if you're always going to be in that intensive pain."

After the amputation surgery on May 21, Schaeffer said all the pain was gone, save some bouts of phantom pain.

"Is it ideal? No. But I tell ya, I'm going to be riding a bike again. I go to the gym, I swim. I drive. I can do just about everything," Schaeffer said. She and her husband used to bike 35 miles a week, and she intends "to be on a bike. Bike by spring."

The Schaeffers were part of West Sixth Brewery's Pedals and Pints Bike Club, and in the spring the club is having a fundraiser ride for her.

Schaeffer and the trucking company Hilco Transport Inc. settled out of court last year, but she said the funds don't come close to covering the expenses of her treatment, particularly the cost of prosthetics, which need replacement. Schaeffer said it can take three years for the residual limb to reach its final form and for her to be in her final leg.

To help support her prosthetics, Schaeffer has set up an account at Gofundme.com where people can contribute to the cost.

A basic prosthetic costs $14,000, she said. Insurance pays for one, and then it's a fight for anything after that, like a water leg she can use in the shower. She said the cap of $500,000 on her fundraising effort is because it is meant to help cover a lifetime of prosthetics.

But Schaeffer also is getting on with her "new normal" life.

Just Wednesday night, at the Philharmonic's New Year's Eve concert at the Opera House, she was wearing a new adjustable foot for high heels that she has worn only a few times before.

"I did manage pretty well in it," she said.

Filling a void

When she returned to the Philharmonic for August's Picnic with the Pops concert at Keeneland, she warned music director Scott Terrell and her fellow musicians that, due to discomfort, she might have to take her prosthetic off to rehearse.

"Nobody cared," Schaeffer said. "They were just happy to have me back. They knew what I had been through."

Since then, she has played all season for both the Lexington Philharmonic and the Bowling Green-based Orchestra Kentucky.

During her time at the hospital, Schaeffer said she got excellent care and attention, including from hospital director Michael Karpf, whose wife, Ellen Karpf, is a former Philharmonic board president and still serves on the board. Still, there is a void Schaeffer said she might be able to fill.

"I went back to tell Dr. Karpf that even though I got excellent care at UK, the one thing I didn't get was, there was no one that came to me that was an amputee," Schaeffer said. "There are a lot of nurses and doctors and PT people, and they're all good at what they do. But it would have been great to have someone who was an amputee say, 'You know what, I've been there, it's scary and you're going to get through this. And I'll be here to answer any questions because I was there, too.'"

She said Karpf has asked her to put together a proposal for a service like Schaeffer suggests.

"I like to help people," Schaeffer said. "Now that I have been through this, I want to be that person that helps."

Kochmann observed, "She's not someone who sits down and feels sorry for herself. Even if it's not like she planned, she's going to try to make a better life for herself and others."

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