NISKAYUNA — Marisa Akley got sick a few weeks before the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in New York. The virus had already been detected in Washington state, but Akley, like most people in the United States at the time, wasn’t overly concerned. She was in Baltimore in February 2020 at an international conference for her work in technology sales when she started to feel a little off.
By the third and final day of the conference, Akley, now 50, could barely get out of bed. She managed to get to the airport and fly home to her husband and two school-aged children in Loudonville. But, a few days and an Albany Memorial Hospital emergency room visit later, she still wasn’t better. Her fever had reached more than 103 F and refused to drop.
A few days later, she went back to the ER and was sent to St. Peter’s Hospital. Akley had atrial fibrillation, pneumonia and tested positive for Influenza A. She never actually tested positive for COVID-19 until contracting it recently.
Within 24 hours of arriving at St. Peter’s, Akley completely crashed. Her liver and kidneys failed. Her lungs were basically useless. When the pulmonary doctor scaled her lungs, the doctor described seeing a ”pink Bondo material” that she’d never before seen. Akley remembers miming a neck-slitting gesture to her husband, Brian. Akley’s husband reassured her that she wasn’t going to die, but that’s not what she had been trying to communicate. Akley had been trying to say she couldn’t breathe.
Doctors put Akley in a medically-induced coma. Brian was told his wife wouldn’t make it. Their priest even came to the hospital to read Akley her last rites.
When Akley came out of the coma after a week, she was euphoric. She was alive. But she remained on a ventilator. Perhaps more troubling, the vasopressor medication that she was on to keep her vitals functioning constricted blood flow to her extremities.
As doctors tapered the dose and eventually took Akley off the medication, tissue function returned in her hands and fingers.
“But my feet were too far away,” she said.
Under the blanket in her hospital bed, her feet felt heavy and lifeless — like dead stumps, she said.
When doctors finally removed the sheet, Akley said her feet looked like, “you stuck something into a fire and pulled it back out. I mean, my feet were black.”
Akley underwent a double, below-the-knee amputation on March 20, 2020. She began her rehabilitation at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital three days later.
Akley said the hardest part of rehab was relearning the tasks she used to take for granted: getting from the bed to the commode and eventually the toilet; bathing; putting compression socks over her amputated legs.
She was fitted for a prosthetic at the end of April 2020 and took her first steps over Memorial Day weekend that year.
“I used the aid of the double bars and tried to envision putting one foot in front of the other,” Akley recalled. “It was awesome, but terrifying.”
She went from using a walker to using two canes to using one.
“And by Thanksgiving, I was off to the races.”
On Monday — less than two years later — Akley strutted down a catwalk wearing a Chianti-colored maxi dress. She was participating in Sunnyview’s “A Sunny View of Fashion” fashion show and luncheon at the Mohawk Golf Club in Niskayuna. The annual event is a major fundraiser for Sunnyview, where Akley serves on the Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation’s board.
“The first time I heard her speak, I was just blown away by her and her courage and the fact that she fought her way through,” said Judy Nocera, president of the Sunnyview Auxiliary, part of the hospital’s fundraising effort. “The fact that she is willing to model for us today, it’s going to show people the kind of work that happens at Sunnyview.”
Prior to participating in the fashion show, Akley said she couldn’t believe how far she had come since getting sick. She’s back to regular exercise, back to work (she actually went back to work just two months after surgery), and back to being an active mother for her kids, now 16 and 14. She credits Sunnyview’s expertise and technical skill, but also the staff’s love for its patients and its work helping her reach such a solid place so quickly.
Of course, Akley’s determination no doubt played a big part. Even prior to her amputation, she remembers thinking, “I was going to do whatever I could to give me a chance at life.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.