It’s been four months since a 16-year-old Bethesda girl contracted a flesh-eating virus that could have killed her. Now she’s back in class and taking steps toward a normal life.
In a sunny physical therapy office on a busy street in Chevy Chase, Alexis Hanford laughs and then flinches in pain.
“Oh just kidding!” she laughs. “This is the hardest one!”
This is where she spends most of her time.
“It used to be three days a week, but it switches to five after Thanksgiving so I’ll be here every day.”
She has hours of physical therapy to regain feeling in her foot and strength in her leg.
“Right now my foot hurts,” she says. “Have you ever seen one of those electric balls where you touch it and the shocks go to where you’re touching? That’s what happens with my foot but with actual shocks.”
The Walt Whitman junior is slowly healing. Four months ago she plunged into a remote California lake and contracted a rare form of flesh-eating bacteria that nearly took her left leg. Seventeen surgeries later, the former athlete has lost part of her leg muscle and the ability to run or walk.
“Whenever you’re in preseason sports training there’s an aspect where you can just push through and so that’s never been the biggest problem. The more frustrating problem is when you have to wait and not being able to push through,” she says.
But the former athlete hasn’t lost her spirit.
“She’s just so driven that she does everything we want her to at home so her skin is healing great,” says Kristen Handy, a physical therapist. “Her progress is getting better and better.”
“I don’t really have breakdowns about it because if there was something I could do to change it, I would, but I can’t so good lesson to learn? Something like that? But it’s a long process,” says Hanford.
Progress comes in waves.
“There’s just little things,” she says. “I got to take a shower yesterday.”
On Tuesday she’ll get a walking brace to help navigate her high school on foot.
“We thought we taught her to walk once and that would be it for her. It’s hard to watch as a parent,” says Lynn Knieriem.
But Hanford feels lucky.
“I wish I could walk, of course I wish I could walk, but there are so many positive things that have come out of this.”
In a year she’ll apply to college. Her fingers are crossed for Duke. She hopes to pursue a biomedical engineering degree and life as a normal student.