Nikki Grace Strader

Nikki Grace-Strader shortly after her surgery in January 2016.

By Steve Raymond

News Report Staff

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Nikki Grace-Strader is living proof of that.

But sometimes it takes awhile.

“What doesn’t kill you can also make you angry, scared, frustrated, sad or discouraged,” Nikki explained. “It takes a while to get to stronger. And you only get there by dealing with a lot of other feelings.”

Nikki is stronger today.

But not before she experienced that wide range of emotions while battling a severe spinal cord injury, multiple knee replacement surgeries, a serious bout of sepsis and, ultimately, the loss of her right leg.

Nikki grew up in Northern California. She graduated from high school in Sacramento and attended Stanford University. She worked as a paramedic in San Francisco and also spent time providing primary medical care to remote hill tribes in Southeast Asia.

She and her husband, Dustin, eventually moved to Toledo and Nikki had a job working in the Emergency Room at Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital at Mattoon.

That’s where she was headed early in the morning on Feb. 26, 2009, when her life began to change.

To avoid hitting a deer, Nikki swerved off the road, into a ditch and hit a field entrance. The impact caused her van to move nine inches off the frame. Unfortunately, her body went in the opposite direction, resulting in a fracture in her spinal cord. Her spine is now fused from the shoulder blades to her tail bone.

That accident also reaggravated a knee injury she sustained in 1997.

“I knew I would eventually have to have knee replacement surgery, but it got worse after the accident,” Nikki recalled. “I basically had to learn to walk again. I had minimal function from my waist down. The doctors told me I would never walk again, but I was adamant at proving them wrong.”

She did walk again, but it got to a point Nikki was only dragging her right leg and using it more like a cane. Her leg was literally worn out.

So in August 2014, she had knee replacement surgery. But it failed. Nine months later, she had revision replacement surgery, but she then developed a fever in the surgical site. That infection turned into sepsis, crept into her bloodstream and began attacking her vital organs.

“It started as a fever, but it quickly took over my entire body,” Nikki said. “I started to have organ failure and suffered delirium. My body was in crisis. It became a life and death situation for me.”

She had multiple surgeries trying to remove the infection, but nothing worked. No longer a candidate for a knee replacement, she was faced with two options – have her leg pinned so it would remain in a locked position the rest of her life; or have the leg amputated.

“That actually made the decision a lot easier for me and my family,” Nikki admitted. “I wasn’t going to have my leg locked in position like that. I just had to wrap my head around how my new body – without a leg – would exist in the world.”

The amputation was performed January 8, 2016, at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

“My first real memory after surgery was thinking ‘I’m not going to look down until I think I can handle what I’m going to see,’” Nikki remembered. “My husband looked down and tears were in his eyes. This strong man was brought to tears. I was afraid how I’d react when I looked down.”

It took about 48 hours. Prior to looking, however, she had an opportunity to make a list of all the things she was afraid of and then say them out loud.

Some of the items on that list included:

  • Would my husband still find me attractive?
  • Would I scare small children?
  • Would I be able to overcome this emotionally and psychologically?

“As soon as I had my list and then recited them to my husband, it didn’t seem too big to overcome,” Nikki noted. “By the time I looked down, I was OK with what I was going to see.”

Another thing that helped was the fact she was feeling better.

“With my leg still on and with the sepsis, I was battling kidney failure and liver function,” Nikki added. “Within 48 hours, I was feeling better than I had felt in a long, long time. I went from being pale yellow to having color in my cheeks. I started having energy.

“Losing my leg saved my life. This was clearly a case of life over limb.”

Nikki was transferred to Carle Hospital in Champaign just 10 days after the amputation. She spent three weeks in rehabilitation there.

“It’s the best thing I ever did,” she said of her stay in rehab. “They helped me develop expectations, formulate a plan and establish realistic, achievable goals. Plus, rehab gave me the opportunity to forgive myself for not doing it right the first time after my spinal cord injury. I could now start fresh.”

She learned how to go up and down stairs; how to get in and out of a bath tub and a car; and how to load a 57-pound wheelchair on her own.

“It took a while, but I learned how to do these things and how to do them safely,” Nikki said.

She also learned how to get around in a kitchen.

“I love to cook,” Nikki emphasized. “So learning how to maneuver safely around a kitchen was important to me. I needed to do prep, cooking and cleanup using my energy wisely and not turning the kitchen into a war zone.”

She spent one day in Carle’s Guest House and made several batches of homemade cinnamon rolls.

“It was exhausting, but I needed to know I could do that,” Nikki added. “Normally, that would take me two hours. That day, it took me seven hours. But they let me figure it out.”

Nikki also started considering a prosthetic leg.

“I didn’t know how you got one,” she said. “Do you go down to the store and pick one out? I Googled it and learned a lot.”

She had two revision surgeries before getting her first prosthetic leg. But 265 days after her leg was amputated, Nikki did receive it.

Nikki’s amputation was above the knee. The average time to learn to walk unassisted is six months. Nikki did it in 10 days.

“You lose a fundamental sense when you lose a limb,” she explained. “When you take a step with a prosthetic leg, you don’t feel the floor; you don’t know when you’re stepping on a rock or a marble or on ice. I cannot walk safely with my eyes closed.”

Nikki admitted she fell quite a bit early on. She said learning to walk on stairs was difficult and that walking on ice or slick surfaces “still make me nervous.”

“It was about 8 to 10 weeks before I had the confidence I needed to go out by myself and do things that required walking,” she recalled. “Even then, I was careful about where I went and how long I was planning to stay out.”

Her husband and twin 10-year-old sons – Maximus and Dominik – were tremendous support for Nikki.

“My husband was with me every step of the way and I got to talk to the boys on the phone,” she said. “But it was about two weeks before they saw me as an amputee.”

As you would expect, it was difficult for the boys. In fact, their class Valentine’s Day party was coming up, but they asked their mom not to come.

“They were afraid they would be embarrassed,” Nikki remembered. “I said, ‘Of course.’”

But Nikki and Dustin have been open and honest with their sons from the beginning.

“We even interjected some humor,” Nikki added. “They’ve gone from being embarrassed about me losing my leg to being a part of every aspect of this. They have learned so much and have been so involved. Now they’re like little ambassadors for limb loss awareness.”

And Maximus and Dominik got to pick what the prosthetic leg would look like.

“We gave them complete freedom to make their choice,” Nikki said.

They picked Ironman.

And what about the Halloween Party the following October?

“They couldn’t wait for me to come to school with my leg. I became the coolest mom in third grade.”

Nikki’s “leg” weighs 27 pounds.

“It requires 70 percent more energy to walk with a prosthetic leg than to walk normally,” she noted. “It’s exhausting.”

It also includes a micro-processor in the knee and holds a charge for about 48 hours. And it constantly learns from Nikki’s walking patterns. If Nikki stumbles for some reason, it will establish a stumble control and automatically correct if it happens again.

The leg is water resistant, but not water repellant. “I can’t go swimming with it on,” Nikki said with a laugh.

It cost $115,000.

Nikki’s story is remarkable. Her determination and will to overcome what she has is absolutely awesome. If there was no more to her story than this, it would be incredible.

But it’s only part of the story. Nikki is now a Certified Peer Support Volunteer. She meets with about six amputees each month, doing what she can to help them through this difficult time. Nikki has a desire to help others.

She has also founded Central Illinois Amputees. Her first group meets monthly at Carle Hospital in Champaign. Approximately 25 amputees meet for support, plus hear presentations on a variety of issues, like how amputees can conduct workouts, diet properly and even handle panic attacks.

Now, Nikki wants to start a support group in Effingham County.

“I’ve already had over 30 people from this area contact me and say they are ready, willing and able to help start a group,” she said. “And I’ve made contact with people from St. Anthony Hospital.”

(Please see separate story on this page.)

To learn more about Nikki or CIA, email nikki@centralillinoisamputees.org; contact her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or visit her web site www.centralillinoisamputees.org.

“I liked being a paramedic and I was good at it,” Nikki said. “There’s just nothing like helping someone else. That’s what charges my battery. I can’t get enough of it.”