- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) - Mary Demrow sat in her wheelchair and studied the obstacles on the floor in front of her.

“I have to think everything through first,” she explained. “I have such a fear of falling.”

Then she stood up on the artificial legs strapped to the thigh on her right leg and below the knee on her left leg.

Carefully, she stepped over the tops of exercise bands and jumbo balls.

Physical therapist Al Hudson scattered them on the floor to challenge Demrow’s walking skills and to build her confidence.

“We take so many components of walking for granted,” he said, “like balance, feedback from our feet and all the different muscles that make it possible.”

When Hudson met Demrow almost two years ago, she was driven to move beyond a wheelchair.

Earlier this month, Demrow walked more than 150 feet using only a cane, artificial legs and dogged determination.

“You don’t see me helping her,” Hudson said, as he followed closely behind Demrow during a physical therapy session at Janesville’s Dean Clinic. “She is motivated to reach her goal.”

Ever since surgeons amputated Mary’s legs, she has been tenacious in her recovery.

The third-grade teacher at Janesville’s Madison Elementary School hopes to walk with a cane in public places by the end of the school year.

“I can do it now,” Demrow of Footville said. “But I can’t have too many distractions.”

The first time she walked on artificial legs in front of her students, she used a walker and another teacher spotted her.

“I told them they needed to be quiet or they could distract me,” Demrow told The Janesville Gazette (https://bit.ly/1lxt1Cq ). “They love me and want to see my progress.”

Students encourage Demrow to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

By doing so, she provides a powerful role model.

“I show them, if they persevere at something, they can do it,” said Demrow, who is in her 31st year of teaching.

Principal Stephanie Filter has known Demrow for nine years.

“Through this whole process, Mary has been positive and upbeat,” Filter said. “She exudes hope every day, and it grows on our kids. She is an inspiration to all of us.”

Filter praised Demrow for being open with students.

“She has done a nice job of talking to our kindergarten children every year so they understand her journey,” Filter said. “Mary says it is important for them to ask questions. Kids are always curious, and she encourages curiosity in a positive way.”

Demrow has been an achiever since childhood, when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 10.

“I did not let people tell me I could not do things,” Demrow said. “I don’t limit myself. It’s all about choosing your attitude for the day. I don’t wallow in self-pity.”

About five years ago, her left foot became infected. Doctors discovered Demrow was allergic to antibiotics, and the foot would not heal. Eventually, they amputated her leg below the knee to remove the infection.

More than a year later, Demrow’s right foot became infected.

“The infection was fast-moving,” Demrow recalled. “There wasn’t much time in between me getting the wound and deciding the foot could not be saved.”

This time, surgeons amputated above the knee.

Demrow was off school for three months in fall 2013.

“Students sort of knew what was going on,” she said. “I talked to them and let them know I was coming back.”

When she returned, she explained that surgeons had to take off her legs to save her life.

“We talk about what happened to me and how I do things,” Demrow said. “The kids ask questions. I answer them. Sometimes they see people in wheelchairs and fear them. I don’t want them to have that fear.”

She knew from the start that she wanted to walk again.

Demrow’s right prosthetic leg fits onto her thigh with a specially designed socket. The leg contains a computerized knee, an ankle that flexes and a metal foot covered in foam. The left prosthesis attaches below the knee.

At first, Demrow could hardly lift her feet and focused on building strength in her thighs and back. Wearing a harness, she walked on a treadmill. If she fell, the harness caught her.

“It was a lot of hard work,” she said. “But you keep trying.”

Demrow progressed to standing between parallel bars while using both arms for support. Then she took small steps with a walker. Today, she opens and closes doors while gaining confidence on her new legs.

Walking in public is not easy.

“When my friends take me shopping, people look at me,” she said. “But I won’t let them stop me from what I want to accomplish. Just because I am handicapped I am no less a person.”

Demrow advises others in difficult situations to be fierce advocates for themselves.

“Ask questions,” she said. “If the status quo isn’t good enough, ask how you can go to the next step. You have to ask: Is this the best I will ever be?”

She thanks many for her progress, including her physical therapist, family, friends and colleagues at work.

“I’ve been wonderfully blessed with people who have helped me,” she said. “I also believe strongly that God made me a problem-solver so I can live with the way I am now.”

She has had milestones along the way.

More than a year ago, she got a van with hand controls and passed her test to drive again.

At her niece’s wedding in August, Demrow did a slow dance with her husband, Doug.

“It wasn’t a polka,” she said. “But it was such a good thing to be out there and dancing.”

Doug is proud of his wife’s achievements.

“People look at her and say how amazing she is,” he said. “That’s just the way she is. She is not going to be restricted in what she can do in her life.”

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Information from: The Janesville Gazette, https://www.gazetteextra.com


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