Kristan Seaford was a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom with five young children when a catastrophic illness struck. What began as the flu and strep throat turned into pneumonia and a life-threatening condition called septic shock. After 100 days, a medically-induced coma, six hospitals, and a miracle, she survived. She lives as a triple amputee, with her remaining foot missing the toes and heel. Today, Kristan is as busy as ever working as a motivational and faith-building speaker, a personal counselor, blogger, and writer.
Watch Kristan’s journey here:
Kristen : If I can spread some of those life's lessons, and if I can teach people those things and they can learn them without having to go through what I went through, then it brings purpose to my pain. And you can get through anything if you have purpose for it.
Dave : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend, Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. I happened to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way and not unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exist a map. That map that way forward is what we call no barriers.
Erik : Today, we meet Kristan Seaford, who is a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom with five young children when a catastrophic illness struck. What began as the flu and strep throat turned into pneumonia and a life-threatening condition called septic shock. After 100 days in a medically induced coma, six hospitals and a miracle, she survived. She lives as a triple amputee with her remaining foot missing the toes and heel. Today, Kristan is as busy as ever working as a motivational and faith building speaker, a personal counselor, blogger and writer. Enjoy the conversation.
Dave : Well, welcome everybody to another No Barriers podcast. Today, we are joined by Kristan Seaford and my co-host Erik Weihenmayer. Welcome to the show, Kristan.
Kristen : Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to talk to you guys, and it's been a while. It's fun to catch up
Dave : Kristan, I have a question to open up with, because I've watched a ton of your videos, or I should say listen to them. You've said, people will look at me, and they don't really care as much about being a triple amputee as being the mom of five kids. That's totally true. I think because you got two more kids than limbs that you've lost, by the way.
Kristen : This is very true. People are far more impressed by the fact that I have five kids, and they'll often say, "Oh my gosh, you've got your hands full." Then I come right back and I say, "Yeah, if only I had hands, right?" Then, of course, anytime there's a joke about hands, people want to just put their hands in their mouth because they're like, "Oh, I didn't mean that."
Dave : They're mortified. That's great.
Kristen : They are. They are.
Dave : You could say I have my prosthetic hands full, but maybe that's a little too much of a mouthful.
Erik : Too mouthful.
Kristen : Prosthetic or prosthetist that's even more of a mouthful. It took me a while to get that one. They tell me in the beginning that I should not think of my prosthetic hands as hands. They told me, I need to think of them as tools because they will never be real hands, but they do allow me to function and they are amazing in that way. They're electric. They're battery powered. I charged them right next to my phone every night. When I run out of charge, it's a much bigger deal than when your phone runs out of charge, because then I'm out of charge for the day. Sometimes I'm like, "Oh, that means that I've done enough for the day."
Dave : Or sometimes your hand gets stuck on the grocery cart or on the door handle.
Kristen : That does happen too.
Dave : Tell us about that.
Kristen : Oh my gosh, I have so many funny stories about things like that. Sometimes I think about it, I'm like, "Oh my gosh, this is my life." You can't make this stuff up. The hands they will run out of charge or they'll break at the most in opportune times. The first time that one of them got stuck on the grocery cart, I was in disbelief. Luckily I had my phone right there, and I called my husband because this was before I was driving. He had literally dropped me off at the grocery store, and then he'd gone home to have a conference call. I called him and I said, "Brook, you've got to come get me. My hand, it broke, and I'm stuck to the grocery cart." He said, "Well, Kristan, I'm on a call. You're just going to have to keep shopping." I said, "No, honey, I don't think you get it. I'm stuck to the cart. I can't open the grocery fridge or freezer." Then that's not the only time that that has happened.
Kristen : At one point, I had the bag packer and the cashier holding onto the cart and I had my leg against the bottom of the cart. I was trying to just tear my hand off of it because once it's closed, it's really closed. Then my new funny story about it is that…
Dave : Hold on a second though, before you get to the new funny story, did you he come in and charge it and then you're able to open your hand again, or what's the solution there?
Kristen : Well, he ended up prying it off the grocery handle.
Dave : The old fashion way.
Kristen : Yes. Now, the newer hands, my left hand has a quick release button, and it comes in handy a lot. Except the stories aren't quite as funny when I can hit the quick release button and get out of the situation.
Dave : What's the new funny story now?
Kristen : Back before I had the quick release button, my husband is a pastor and it was a new thing. He was a second career pastor, and he was doing his internship. Gosh, it was probably two years into my life being disabled. I never wanted to be a pastor's wife. I grew up Catholic. Being a pastor's wife, not in my wheelhouse, I had never considered it. One of the things that I really dreaded about being a pastor's wife is that I never wanted to have to sit on the front row with my five crazy misbehaving children there for everyone to stare at. I dreaded it because people do judge you by the behavior of your children. I just assumed that people would be looking at me like I was the worst mother in America. We're sitting in the front row and my children weren't that bad that day.
Kristen : On that day, they started to pass around the collection plate. You can probably imagine the story that is coming, but the collection plate got to me and I went to grab it and pass it onto the next person, except my hand was stuck on said collection plate. It looked like the new interns wife was trying to steal the collection plate. I said, "No, I would never have sat in the front row if I was trying to get the money out of the collection plate. I would have sat in the back." Oh my gosh, I was mortified. Absolutely mortified.
Dave : It's like one of those hands that you see at Halloween that's right above the candy jar.
Kristen : Yes, absolutely.
Dave : I'm envisioning your hand stuck to the collection plate.
Kristen : Worst thing about Adam's family.
Dave : Exactly.
Kristen : That is what my hand looks like. I forget that it looks pretty weird, but sometimes it will be laying on the floor at my house and then I will lose it literally. Because I'll take it off mostly because my hands are not touch screen compatible. Which gets me into a lot of difficulties. Checking out at the grocery store or at Target that's hard, or using a mouse on a laptop, things like that.
Dave : You're saying, if you take your finger and move it around the screen moving the mouse, your prosthetic finger will not do that for some reasons.
Kristen : Exactly.
Dave : Interesting.
Kristen : Exactly.
Dave : I never use a mouse anyway.
Kristen : You would think that if they could figure out how to make a hand open and close, they could figure out how to make it touch screen compatible. They do talk about we want you to be functional, and I've tried so many different things to make it work that way.
Dave : I'm curious, Kristan, as a relatively new amputee, relatively speaking later on in your life, do you find that you're surprised by the lack of advancement in prosthetics or you're surprised by, "Oh my God, look at what these things can do." Or somewhere in between.
Kristen : I think that when I first knew about these hands, especially my husband, who's a gadget guy. He saw videos of these hands and he kept saying, "Oh, honey, if we can just get you these hands, these are going to be the cure all to all of our problems." They really were that for us. They make me functional. They make me able to drive. They make me able to get dinner on the table. Although sometimes there's some funny stories with that too. For the most part, they help me get dinner on the table. They helped me do my job as a counselor as well. I am amazed by that. However, I do get irritated when they break and they break a fair amount of the time. I'd say once every three to four weeks. As I mentioned, I'm off duty. When my hands don't work, I have a hard time functioning. I find myself getting irritated in that moment, but then I have to remind myself how lucky I am to have them.
Kristen : In this relatively short amount of time that I've been an amputee, I already take them for granted. Isn't that the way we all are in life? I envision you in the kitchen, let's say, just like I'm thinking about all the tasks that you do in the kitchen, holding a pan, grabbing plates, grabbing glasses. How hard was that to learn how to do that? In the movies, you don't know your own strength and you just break the glass, shatter the glass.
Dave : How hard was it to learn how to function and do all those subtle tasks?
Kristen : Well, I'm still learning. I like to think that I'm still improving, but it was very difficult. I went back to the rehabilitation hospital for 10 days so that kids weren't around. I didn't have any other distractions. For 10 days I learned how to open them and shut them. There are electrodes that are inside the prosthetic arms. What happens is I'm able to move the muscles on my forearm that will open and close my hands. Essentially I've had to retrain my brain how to open my hands by using different muscles on my forearm. The electrodes, there's not a good way to tell this story via audio. It's difficult because, well, I can hold my hands up and show people how they work. It is easier. At any rate, when
Kristen : I moved those particular muscles, it hits the electrodes, which then signals to the battery, which then signals to the hand to open. People say, "Well, how do they work?" My first answer is, magic. My second answer to people is always, well, they say, "Do you do that with your brain?" Sort of I do, but don't we all open and close our hands with our brain at the end of the day? It was difficult to learn how to just open and close, but then imagine if you want to open them just halfway or a fourth of the way. Then you have to learn to grab something without squeezing it too tightly. I have had many the can of soda that I squeeze a little too hard. Then we have a geyser, which is a great party trick, but very difficult to just drink soda or a beer or whatever it is.
Dave : Kristan, I'd love to take our listeners back to the story of how this all came to be for you and your life. I know that you were an athlete, a mom, you had a career going, and this was a very sudden and unexpected thing that happened to you. Can you tell our listeners that story?
Kristen : Yes, absolutely. It was back in November of 2013, and I was preparing to have people for Thanksgiving dinner. I was having like 32 people. I have a big family. I was doing all the things that you do to prepare. Plus I was a mom, plus I was a group exercise instructor, plus everything else that I was trying to do. My kids, they're like little Petri dishes. They bring in all kinds of germs. As expected they did, and that particular week they'd been passing around the flu and strep throat. I could have seen myself getting one of those things, but moms don't really get sick. I just kept going and going and trying to ignore any symptoms. Then on Saturday night before Thanksgiving, I started to feel really awful.
Kristen : One of those fevers where you are burning up and sweating one minute and then freezing cold the next, and then the next minute you're sweating again, and you're taking every blanket off of you. My throat hurt and I was coughing. It was just such a long night. Then the morning finally came around and I called my running partner and I said, "Look, I can't run this morning." Because every Sunday morning I went for a run 10, 12 miles, depending on what I was training for. I canceled with my running partner and turned back over and I told my husband that I was canceling. He knew in that moment that this was serious because I do not cancel things like that. I told my husband, I asked him if he could take the kids to church that morning.
Kristen : I stayed home and I rested, and I closed my eyes to go to sleep. When I opened my eyes again, it had been three and a half weeks. I'd been in a medically induced coma. By the time it was all said and done, I'd been in six hospitals. I was hospitalized for something like 104 days, but I made it. I'm a fighter and I kept fighting and here I am. I'm normal, really.
Dave : Sort of normal.
Kristen : Most days.
Dave : That's amazing. That's our best hope is to be normal.
Kristen : That's exactly right.
Dave : When you woke up from that medically induced coma, were you missing your limbs at that point or did that happen later? Did you make that decision later?
Kristen : That came a bit later. Although there wasn't really a decision to be made because when I woke up my hands and feet were essentially dead. They were black and necrotic. They were gangrene and twisted and incredibly painful. What had happened was some of the medications that they had given me in order to save my life actually took the nutrients, blood, oxygen away from my limbs and towards the midsection of my body where our organs are. They were able to save my organs, but in effect it killed my hands and my feet. About a month later, once I was a bit stronger and once they could find the best hand surgeon and the best foot surgeon around, and get that all scheduled, then they did one big quadruple amputation.
Dave : How is your mental state at that point? They're saying you're going to lose three limbs, maybe four. What's going through your brain at that point as a mom and as somebody who's athletic and has this really active lifestyle?
Kristen : Well, I was told that I was going to be able to get back to running if I fought hard enough. I was told that I was going to be able to get back to being a mom, if I fought hard enough. I am a fighter. I have three sisters. Our maiden name is Graham. Our motto is Graham girls got grit because-
Dave : Nice.
Kristen : We have all been through a lot, and we're all fighters, maybe myself being the biggest fighter of all. I just kept fighting. When I was in the hospital, they hung up photographs of my five kids on the wall next to my bed. In the morning, when I woke up, that's the first thing I saw. At night when I went to sleep, that's the last thing I saw. That kept me going.
Dave : It sounds like you had a good medical team. They didn't do the typical thing you hear about like, "You'll never walk again." You know that kind of thing. They believed in you, said you'd get back to...
Kristen : They did.
Dave : Get back to full capacity.
Kristen : They did believe in me. You're right. I think my husband and my family, they all believed in me as well. We had an amazing community around us and no barriers. We talk about having a ropes team, and I had an amazing ropes team around me. I had my neighborhood, my friends, I mentioned my family, my church, the YMCA, where I worked and just the community at large and perfect strangers who came in and helped.
Dave : Kristan, I'm curious. It sounds like it was a combination in that time of strong rope team and this fearless belief that you could get back to exercise that you'll be there for your kids again. I know you also do a lot of public speaking in the faith-based community. What role, if any, did faith play in that process?
Kristen : A really big role. I grew up being a Christian, and I believed in Christ. I believed in church. I believed. I read the Bible and I knew that Christ was my greatest companion, but I thought I knew it. I didn't know it. You don't really feel a fate until you're in a situation like I was. I wish that it didn't have to come to that for me to believe so strongly. I learned a lot of lessons during that time. My faith saving me was a wonderful lesson. All the lessons that I learned that's why I have started being a speaker. That's why I got back to counseling because if I can spread some of those life's lessons, and if I can teach people those things and they can learn them without having to go through what I went through, then it brings purpose to my pain. You can get through anything if you have purpose for it.
Dave : Was that one of the lessons having to let go? Having to go from a helper to somebody who accepts help? What was that like for your brain?
Kristen : It's not easy. My husband calls me fiercely independent, meaning I'm going to come and elbow you, if you try to help me like I'm a two-year-old. No, I'll do it myself. I have learned to accept help. It hasn't been easy because I'm always the one that wanted to bring you a casserole if you were sick. I'm the one that wanted to take care of your kids, if you wanted to go out on a date with your husband. All of a sudden, I can't be in that role anymore. My whole life law I've been a helper. I'm a counselor. I am a professional helper. I was in this spot where I couldn't even help myself, let alone help others. I thought to myself, "Gosh, being able to help others, that's actually a really big gift because helping others makes you feel good."
Kristen : Doesn't it? We all feel good when we're able to help someone else. The way that I worked it out in my head was that if I could let someone else help me, then I was giving them that gift of helping someone else. Today, when I go to the grocery store, and I'm trying to get my credit card out of my wallet, sometimes I struggle more than others. I can always look up and see on the cashier space that they are dying to jump over that cash register and get the card out for me. They want to help so badly. Even though I really can do that for myself now, oftentimes I will say, "Hey, do you think you can help me get this card out?" It makes everybody feel good when they can help. Especially when we see somebody that's in need. Now that I'm back into a place where I can help others, I tell people that as well, because we all need help. Life just doesn't turn out the way we planned. We all get a curve ball eventually.
Dave : That's the external world. What about your family? Like your husband, your kids, how has the dynamic changed in terms of how you give and receive help through your family?
Kristen : Our family does operate a little differently than others. My poor sweet husband does so much for us, and he so sweet. He said, "Kristan, you have the first 12 years of our marriage. I'll get the next."
Dave : Nice.
Kristen : I've only got a few more. We're about to come up on our 20th wedding anniversary. I've got to get my act together soon.
Dave : You've got two more years to go.
Kristen : I know, right? He does a lot more than most husbands and fathers, I would say. I also think that he's better off for that, and my kids are better off for that. I see the strong relationship that each of my kids has with their dad. The other thing that's different about my house is that my kids probably do a lot more chores than other kids. Right now, I have a rule where each kid, except for the eight-year-old, she needs a little bit of help still, but each of the older kids have to cook dinner one night, a week. The only rule is there has to be a vegetable. Every Sunday I say, "Okay, I'm going to the grocery store. Everybody needs to tell me what their ingredients are that they need." Each kid's a little different.
Kristen : My oldest girl who looks at Pinterest and tries to find a brand new complicated recipe, and then there's my son who gets a frozen pizza or some Totino's pizza rolls, and then he gets a bag of carrots and hands them out like chicken feed. You know what, he followed the rule that you just needed to have a vegetable. It works out really nicely because I've got four kids that cook and then we get pizza on Friday nights. My husband cooks on Saturday and I cook on Sunday. I only have to cook one night a week. That's pretty nice.
Dave : It sounds like you've become a way better delegator.
Kristen : Absolutely. In theory, I have a staff. In fact, if you think about a hundred years ago, that's why you had kids is to go to the farm.
Dave : Although my friend who's a CEO says you can't fire your kids though. That's the hard part.
Kristen : I have to think about that one.
Dave : You're not allowed to fire them.
Erik : Kristan, you've got such an uplifting and positive spirit, even when we asked you about in the moment where you're realizing you're going to lose your limbs. You talk about the rope team. You talk about the belief in your family, but there must be some dark moments still whether it's a struggle on a given day, which I'm sure every day has them. Can you tell us about those dark moments if you have them and how do you get out of them?
Kristen : Well, certainly in the beginning it was when I first got home, that was a darker time for me. My husband carried me over the threshold and then he put me on the couch. I was off in the corner watching the world happen. Watching other people take care of my kids. Oh, I hated that. I hated it so much. I started to feel the really big, just a big struggle of feeling like I was going to be a burden and certainly not what I saw for my life ahead. I did come out of it, and I think we all do. I still have days that I struggle. Absolutely. Dave, you mentioned that there are struggles every day, big or small and nobody's struggles are any bigger or any smaller than anybody else's.
Kristen : There's different, but we all have struggles. If there's one thing I've learned is that everybody's got something, everybody's got something. People give me a past so often because my struggles are in your face. They're physical. Everybody can see me struggle, but there are so many invisible disabilities out there that we don't see. As a mental health therapist, I get to see them in my office, but people don't walk around with a sticker on their forehead saying I suffer from depression, or I'm a victim of domestic violence. People give me a pass. People expect me to be a little late or they expect my house to be a mess, or my handwriting to be messy. Would it be great if we just all gave each other a pass? Back to another question you asked, Dave, is how do I get out of those dark moments?
Kristen : I do tell my clients, I say, "You know what? You are allowed to have a pity party." Everybody is allowed to have those days allowed to have a pity party. You just have to make sure there's a curfew. There's something to be said for, you know what, I'm going to give myself this day, or even this week or longer. You think about grief losing somebody and how they call it the widow's year of when your community will always look out for you for that year. The diagnostical, statistical manual for psychological illness says that grief is allowed to be one year long. If it's 366 days, then it's depression. I used to think that was arbitrary. In my experience of helping people through grief, I've learned that there is something to be said for that year. I just think that sometimes we do need to be gentle with ourselves, and we need to give ourselves some grace.
Erik : As you're saying, you have to immerse yourself in the grief for a while and not try to hide it or ignore it or just push beyond it. It's like fully go down into the hole and feel it fully because if you miss that step, you may never really heal.
Kristen : I agree with you, Erik.
Erik : Is that true?
Kristen : I do. I do agree with you. Some people just deny that it's even there and keep going. We admit-
Erik : That pride bites you down the road.
Kristen : It does. It comes up sooner or later. It does. You may as well just feel it, feel it, feel it a lot in the beginning. Because eventually you will have to. But like I said, we all have this struggles. You don't always have to be the strong one.
Erik : In your private practice, your counseling, I was actually thinking because I was in counseling the other day and I was telling my counselor. I said, "You know, with all the violence and struggles in the world, I feel like my little problems are so silly." He's like, "No, no." He said what you said, which is everyone's struggles are important to them personally. When people come into your practice with a problem and then they see that you're a triple amputee, does it throw them for a little moment? Like, "Oh, boy. How do I talk about my hang nail?" Does it work to your benefit or has it changed your dynamic in terms of how you serve people?
Kristen : You know it's interesting because when I thought about going back to counseling after I became disabled, I thought exactly what you were saying. That if I ask someone to come into my office to see me for counseling, they're going to look at me and be like, "How on earth is this lady going to help me, or else, how can I tell this woman that I got into a fight with my husband this morning, before work." I always know if a client has read my bio before they come to my office for the first time, because there is a look of surprise that I see. I do think that it works for my advantage though, Erik. Because I think that people see me and they know that I've been through something.
Kristen : That I'm not just this suburban mom that's never had a problem in her life. That's just going to tell them, "Suck it up." It's almost like an addictions therapist is given a lot more credibility if they've been in recovery themselves. I think that since I have struggled, and since I do have struggles every day, that I'm able to help people more. I think that I'm not only a good counselor despite what I've been through, but I think in a lot of ways, I'm a good counselor because of what I went through. I feel empathy and compassion in a whole new way.
Erik : The counseling being a mom speaking, all that's totally amazing. Have you gotten back to teaching classes at the YMCA?
Kristen : You know what Erik? I did, actually. I got back to a place where I was teaching. I was even teaching step aerobics, believe it or not. More funny stories because prosthetics tend to slip off when you sweat. One time I was teaching a class and all of a sudden my whole arm flew across the room. The other person was like, "Oh my gosh, what do you do? What do we do?" I said, "Just laugh and keep going." No, I did. I did get back to it, Erik. I finally got to a point where I had to let go of that because I needed every ounce of energy to go towards being a mom and being a counselor.
Dave : Well, Kristan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and sharing your personal journey and for being such a wonderful member of the No Barriers community. We're looking forward to having you again at some future event when we're all coming together in-person again.
Kristen : Oh, Dave, I can't wait.
Dave : Oh my God, we're all anxious for that.
Kristen : I have missed that community so much. I really have, so I can't wait.
Dave : Well, thank you. Thank you, Erik. Another great conversation today.
Kristen : Yes, thank you so much.
Erik : Thanks, Kristan. Appreciate it.
Kristen : Thank you, Dave.
Dave : As always, you can find any of the things referenced in today's conversation in our show notes. If you'd like to learn more about Kristan and her story, you perhaps book her for a speaking event. Where can our listeners go, Kristan?
Kristen : I do have a website, and it's www.kristanseaford.com.
Dave : Check it out. Thank you all for listening. If you enjoy this conversation, share it with someone you know.
Erik : Cool everyone. Thanks Kristan. Thanks Dave. No Barriers to everyone.
Dave : We would like to thank our generous sponsors that make our No Barriers podcast possible. Wells Fargo, Prudential, CoBank, Aero Electronics, and Winnebago. Thank you so much for your support. It means everything to us. The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Shaffer, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman and marketing support by Heather Zoccali, Stevie Dinardo, Erica Howey, and Alex Schaffer. Special thanks to The Dan Ryan band for our intro song, Guidance. Thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.