Candice Davis wheeled out the front door of Good Shepherd Penn Partners on Friday to raucous cheers.
Her brother Starr was there. So was her father, who’d driven from New Jersey. Her mother in Colorado was there on FaceTime. Friends from her church group, and her pastor’s wife turned up. And the physical and occupational therapists who have spent months helping Davis adjust to her new normal cheered as hard as anyone.
Davis, 30, lost portions of all four limbs during a severe bout with COVID-19 last August. Ever since, she’s been defying expectations — first by surviving the virus, and then by pushing hard to learn how to live independently. On Friday, she was finally cleared to go home to Southwest Philadelphia, where Starr will help care for her as she continues physical therapy and grows stronger.
“I feel amazing,” she said outside the rehab clinic, swaying to music on a boom box someone had set up. “It’s a beautiful celebration. I feel stronger, and this just encourages me more, having people like this around me.”
Davis and her family credit her recovery in part to her unflagging positivity, apparent even when she woke from a coma in Penn Presbyterian Medical Center last fall to hear her mother, Paige, explain that her survival depended on the amputations.
It was a rare complication from the COVID infection, which can affect the vascular system, causing clotting that leads to circulatory crises, diminishing blood flow to the limbs. Her case was especially surprising because she is young and had no underlying medical conditions.
Davis was stunned at the news, but quickly adapted: “I was sad, but I’m more than my arms. I’m more than my limbs,” she said in an interview last fall. At the time, she was looking forward to rehab, and urging people to get vaccinated. She was unvaccinated when she contracted COVID.
”Oh, I got that shot, girl,” she said, laughing, on Friday.
After transferring to Good Shepherd, she began working with occupational therapist Julie Parana and physical therapist Chris Gorrell, who had heard of Davis long before she arrived.
“We haven’t treated many patients with this many amputations,” Parana said. They worked to help her use prosthetics — including the one designed for her right arm, amputated in a tricky position at her elbow — and build the strength it would take just to sit up. Complicating matters was another diagnosis Davis received after recovering from COVID: transverse myelitis, a spinal cord inflammation that can cause muscle weakness.
Still: “There was never a time when she said she couldn’t do something,” Gorrell said.
At first, Davis could barely balance on the edge of her bed. But before long, she could transfer herself from the bed to a wheelchair. On Monday, Gorrell and Parana supported her as she stood, for the first time, on her prosthetics, sobbing with joy.
Outside on Friday, Gorrell, Parana and other Good Shepherd staff beamed and snapped photos with Davis as her family looked on.
“I know it took a while, but I knew she would pull through,” her father, Charles Davis, a former Army sergeant, said, misty-eyed. “Being a vet, they tell you, ‘Don’t cry, be tough.’ But when it comes to your kids, it’s a different story. I’m so happy I don’t have any words.”
Starr Davis, who shared an apartment in South Philly with his sister before COVID, has spent the last few months learning how to care for Davis and searching for a home more suitable for his sister’s needs. After considerable effort, he found a single-story house in Southwest Philadelphia: “It’s the most difficult thing in Philadelphia,” he said. “Everything has stairs, some apartments don’t have elevators, even this house has some stairs to get up.”
Friday afternoon, he wrestled Davis’ motorized wheelchair up a ramp that was just too short to clear the steps. Davis, watching from a hospital bed in the back room, sighed. “We’ll have to figure this out,” she said.
Though her optimism is her signature feature, she’s realistic about the challenges ahead. Already, she is wrangling with insurance companies for improved prosthetics. ”You have to show insurance companies why you need them, and they’re like, ‘As long as you can feed yourself, you’re good.’ But life is more than feeding myself,” she said.
Her goal for the year is to walk on her own.
“I still have days where I might cry — usually when I feel like my independence is gone,” she said. “But then I think, what can I do? I think of creative things to get the job done. And I’m learning to love this body all over again.”
In rehab, Davis said, she finally had the space and time to truly grieve over what she’s been through. “When everything first happened, so much was happening so fast. At rehab, I bawled my eyes out to my boyfriend — saying, ‘Oh my God, my arms are gone.’ And then after crying, I tried to get out of that space. I can still do anything people with regular limbs do.”
Long-term, she wants to help others in her situation and to make people living with disabilities more visible. “People don’t really know how to look at amputees — you get dismissed,” she said.
“I’m part of this community that gets overlooked a lot. There’s a lot of young and disabled people, and I think we should be seen more. I don’t want to be overlooked.”