Ask Karen Larsson her story, and you will hear about how, as a kid, she was more often wet than dry, living near the water in Warwick, Rhode Island.
You will hear about how her dad worked as a square dance caller on the side, so Karen spent many a weekend in the middle school cafeteria, hearing, “… back to the corner, now, do-si-do!”
You will learn that she was painfully shy and self-conscious, particularly since she was always the tallest girl in class: She was 5-feet-9 by the time she was in the eighth grade, and
6-feet at her tallest.
You will hear about her dreams of becoming a flight attendant so that she could travel the world, how she found true love, and the immeasurable joy of being a grandma.
The fact that Karen tells her story from a wheelchair doesn’t really come up, until she’s probed.
“I guess it’s one of those, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” she says with a chuckle. “I always desperately wanted to be shorter.”
Karen was a single mom to Tyler, working for a computer database company, when her joints started hurting. Her father had arthritis and underwent multiple surgeries during the course of his lifetime.
So when Karen’s left hip started bothering her in the 1990s, she suspected she was in for a rough road.
Just how rough she couldn’t have known.
The first diagnosis was osteoarthritis, which involves the breakdown of joint cartilage and underlying bone. In 2002, she was told she had scoliosis, or a curved spine. A rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis followed, and that’s the most difficult for Karen to manage. This autoimmune disorder results in swollen, painful joints, and affects her hands, knees, feet, neck, and spine.
Karen’s surgeries are almost too numerous to list, and include the insertion of screws in her feet and ankles, rods in her back, knee and hip replacements, joint fusions, and multiple reconstructions.
At some point during a hospital stay, she caught an infection caused by staph bacteria that makes treatment with standard antibiotics very difficult. It compromised her immune system in such a way that she can’t take many of the medications typically prescribed for arthritis.
“I was really stubborn about the wheelchair,” Karen said. She had rods put in her spine in 2006, but didn’t stop walking until 2011, when her knees gave out.
Over the course of five years, Karen’s beloved second husband died of heart failure, both of her parents and her only brother died, and Karen was facing the fact that her body was utterly and completely turning on itself, with no end in sight.
“I had to make a decision,” she said. “Was I going to be mournful and stay in my house? I decided it’s all a choice. How you look at your life is all a choice.”
So Karen lives her life largely as if she wasn’t in a wheelchair: volunteering in the church office, at a neighborhood recreation center, and the hospital. Two years ago she decided she was ready to try dating again. She met her fiancé, Bruce, through an online match service. She walks the couple’s newly adopted dog, Riley; delivers food to homeless families in Fairfax; travels to retreats, beach vacations with girlfriends, and California whenever possible, to visit her son’s family.
“I don’t want my health to be the predominant thing in my life,” she said. So even on the toughest days, like one recently, when she learned that her right shoulder literally has dissolved, she remembers the choice she made years ago to stay active.
“God’s got me,” Karen said. “I’ll be honest, sometimes I forget that. But God’s got me.”
Her one fear in telling her story is that people will feel sorry for her. Instead, she hopes it gives people the “in” they need to reach out to her if they need to talk.
“If you are someone who needs an ear, or you know somebody who is going to through a really tough time, I have been there,” she said. “I am here. They can turn to me.”