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SSJ Spirit of Courage Honoree
A Woman of Courage
People who’ve faced challenges and triumphed over catastrophes are often humble in their self-assessment. Many of these exemplary figures attribute success in overcoming personal trials and tribulations to their faith in God and the devoted support of family and friends. Most are unassuming victors who willingly accept and even embrace the challenges they encounter as part of humans’ inevitable struggle, a way to serve God and humanity. Susie D’Aurora is one of these people. Quiet and devoted, a “woman of tenacious faith” according to Msgr. Hagerty, she’s faced a myriad of life challenges, never pitying herself or calling attention to her plight. Her extraordinary accomplishments have not, however, gone unnoticed by family, friends, or co-workers – faculty and staff at McKinley Elementary School and Sandcille Demi Spa. Many have stepped forward, in fact, to give witness to Susie’s selfless nature and to celebrate the courage and character she’s displayed during the illnesses, hospitalization, and surgeries she’s confronted over the past year and a half. A teacher’s aide at McKinley school certified to work with students in grades one through five, Susie loves everything about her job, especially working with the students, encouraging them to tackle setbacks, to believe in themselves, and to celebrate each day’s opportunity. When Mrs. Morgenstern, a 5th grade teacher, asked her students to describe Miss Susie even though they hadn’t seen her in nearly a year, Jerome replied “Miss Susie is a person you can go and talk to when you are down. When you are done talking to her you ain’t down no more.” Clearly, Susie is a caring confidant for the students, a source of comfort and understanding. Reinforcing this child’s perspective, Mrs. Ryan, Assistant Principal, shares that “Susie has always treated the special education students with great compassion and dignity. Susie enjoys watching the students’ small successes and assisting them to build confidence.” Blessed with Susie’s presence in the school community, Mrs. Arnold (3rd grade) notes that Miss Susie “always sees the best in every child and starts each day fresh”; Miss Marinelli (Learning Support) adds that Susie is “willing to go above and beyond to help those around her.” Susie spends the greater part of her days in the classroom of Ms. Riggle who echoes the previous tributes and shares that Susie is selfless. She puts all others before herself and is the sunshine in every life she touches. Even after all she has been through, a lesser person’s light would have dimmed, but her light is even brighter. She continues to inspire all those around her and touch every life she encounters. Without question, administrators, teachers, and students have all been moved by Susie’s positive manner; she’s a woman who inspires and encourages naturally and effortlessly, by word and example.
The Struggle Begins
Just as the days began to signal summer’s promise in 2011, Susie anticipated the arrival of Erie’s premier season, anxious to bask in the companionship of family and friends; unfortunately, she spent the first weekend in June suffering from constant, unexplained, and intense flu-like symptoms including severe dehydration and breathing difficulties. On Monday, June 6th, she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at UPMC Hamot suffering from severe sepsis, Septic Shock. The cause of Susie’s condition was unclear, yet so perilous that physicians put her in a coma; she has no memory of the events of the next two and a half weeks. Later, Susie would learn that just as her husband Tony was explaining her symptoms to relatives in the waiting room, a Code Blue signal alerted everyone that her condition had truly become life-threatening when her heart stopped beating for seven seconds. Apparently, streptococcus in her blood stream had forced some of her organs to shut down, creating renal failure.
For a week, the family – her husband Tony and the couple’s three children, Angela, Jennifer, and Anthony – literally camped out in the waiting room of MICU, praying and monitoring every moment of Susie’s struggle. Relatives, as well as friends and co-workers regularly stopped by, offering prayers, love, and emotional support. Every day brought new struggles. Susie, on a ventilator, still spiked fevers periodically. Though she opened her eyes from time to time, Susie was incoherent. She suffered from an increased liver count and jaundice; she also had a urinary tract infection. Finally, because her kidneys weren’t functioning properly, Susie required dialysis. Her entire physical being confirmed the seriousness of her plight: from sores in her mouth and blisters on her body to purplish areas emerging on her limbs, especially her feet and toes. Ultimately, since her liver function was not improving, on June 14th, local specialists decided to Life-Star Susie to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh for further evaluation and treatment. Her husband and the couple’s children packed and sped down I-79 to be at her side.
New Setting, Continuing Concerns
The following day, Susie’s new medical team, a staff of six doctors, began to reduce her medication and carefully monitor the effect of these changes. Susie’s appearance began to show some improvement; however, her count and fever had not yet stabilized. Studying her purplish toes and feet, her team of physicians raised the possibility of needing to amputate some of her toes. Still, as days turned into weeks, Susie continued to show improvement: a chest x-ray was good; her temperature normalized; and she began to spend more time awake – even watching TV. Though she was still on dialysis and faced a variety of serious problems, visitors began to glimpse the return of a twinkle in her eyes, albeit tinged with a disquieting yellowish hue. Finally, though it was time for Susie’s breathing tube to be removed, surgeons needed to be certain that Susie was alert and responsive for this life-threatening procedure; they wanted to perform a tracheotomy, but Susie was resistant, certain she could breathe on her own. After being transferred to UPMC Montefiore Hospital, she was prepped for surgery. Following several blood transfusions and hydration, Susie was heavily sedated, and the breathing tube was successfully removed. The end of June approached, and since Susie’s kidneys were doing well, her catheter was also removed. As her liver levels had normalized, the need for a feeding tube had also been eliminated – she’d even been able to eat and drink a bit – and her vital functions all showed improvement. July 1, 2011 was indeed a day to celebrate! Though the family had been told Susie would spend months in Pittsburgh before returning home, she traveled to Erie by ambulance and was admitted to the transitional unit at Millcreek Community Hospital for rehabilitation just one month after hospitalization in the steel city.
Susie remained in the Millcreek Community Hospital until the beginning of September, undergoing an intense program of rehabilitation in an effort to regain the hand movement she had lost, first re-teaching her body to perform life’s little tasks – like holding and drinking a cup of coffee – and then focusing on intense challenges such as rebuilding strength in her upper and lower extremities and learning how to walk on her painful feet – toes and soles still hard and black from the loss of blood flow at the outset of her illness. Though her therapy was exceedingly painful, Susie “viewed each new obstacle as an opportunity to get one step closer to returning to a job she loves as a teacher’s assistant” (Darlene Dovichow, 3rd grade teacher). Susie persevered and eventually gained mobility after learning to use a walker. Preparing for Susie’s homecoming, the family had made modifications to their home including the addition of an entry handicap ramp and accommodations to the bathrooms. Once home, Susie regularly visited Dr. Sheppeck, a vascular surgeon, a wound specialist, and, according to Susie, “a genius” at UPMC Hamot. Everyone hoped to see improvement in the condition of her necrotic feet – ultimately to prevent amputation – so, carefully following the specialist’s directives, each evening Susie’s husband Tony scraped away the dead skin and washed and wrapped Susie’s feet, a process painful for them both. Despite the gravity of her condition, Susie still tried to fulfill her self-appointed responsibilities as the family’s “guardian angel”; she still endeavored to keep everyone content and happy, battling her own depression, and seldom acknowledging or even sharing her own needs.
A New Year, Difficult Decisions, and Change
As 2012 began, despite everyone’s best efforts, Susie continued to endure chronic and excruciating pain. She was suffering from poor circulation in all of her extremities, yet an MRI showed that overall, her bones were strong. She was not diabetic. Still, Susie reported that her feet felt as though they’d been cemented into bricks, and, being “weighted” in this way, her hips throbbed constantly. Testing indicated fluid build-up, and surgeons raised the possibility of further treatment. Susie, however, was finally ready to move forward as an amputee: “I’m done. I’m ready. I can’t take the pain.”
Empowered by faith, Susie made the difficult decision to undergo life-changing surgery in January, emboldened after really considering its promise with Maggie, Dr. Sheppeck’s P.A. Surgeons would perform a below-the-knee amputation of her right leg and complete a graft and transmetatarsal amputation of her left foot. Before surgery, Susie’s family prayed the verse they’d shared before each of her earlier procedures: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers: 24-26), united in faith and bound by love.
At Millcreek Community Hospital following surgery, Susie regularly underwent therapy sessions; additionally, she visited the wound clinic at UPMC Hamot twice each week to be checked for infection and to be recast. Once healing had progressed, Susie was fitted for a prosthetic device for her right leg. Although she experienced ongoing and severe pain in her left foot, characteristically, she rationalized and hid its presence from her family, shouldering the burden and hoping to shield her family from further heartache. Susie remained in the transitional unit of the hospital until her discharge on April 6th, Good Friday.
Home again, Susie relished the comfort and closeness of family, friends, and beloved four-footed companion, Rosie, the family’s English Springer Spaniel. Secretly, she battled embarrassment at being confined to a wheelchair, often making her the center of attention, a position she found uncomfortable. Privately, since her job was the source of the family’s medical benefits, she worried about a lengthy recuperation and her delayed return to work. Susie also continued to conceal ongoing pain in her left foot, pain identical to that she’d previously endured in her right leg. Still, she regularly attended sessions at LECOM to rebuild core strength, and there, she finally voiced her fears about her perpetual pain with Tammie, the prosthetist from Bay City Orthocare who regularly recast Susie’s right leg. This caregiver had already indicated that Susie’s left foot, after its invasive surgery, would definitely “hold her back”; however, upon examining her patient’s left foot for the first time at this appointment, Tammie was blunt: “You will never walk with a regular prosthetic foot.”
Steadily, Susie’s pain increased, becoming intolerable and forcing her to confide her agony to family and physicians. Armed with Tammie’s insight, she faced the reality that while she couldn’t really use this limb, she did indeed possess the power to lose it. Physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted from the ongoing therapy and accompanying pain – moments of hope and hours of defeat – Susie made the decision to undergo a below-the-knee surgery of her left leg on April 20th. Determination final, Susie returned to UPMC Hamot for yet another surgery – a choice Tammie deemed “the best decision of Susie’s life.”
Moving Ahead in Faith
Remaining at the facility until May 18th, Susie underwent therapy and even attempted her first steps as a bilateral amputee. At home during the summer, she continued a full schedule of rehabilitation: physical therapy two to three times weekly, occupational therapy twice weekly, prosthetic follow-up once weekly, and monthly visits with physicians. She progressed so well, in fact, that she graduated from using a walker to Lofstrand crutches at the end of July. Determined to gain even more independence, Susie anticipates that she’ll need only the support of a cane by Christmas! Freed from the past years’ bouts of exhaustive pain and dependence on medications, Susie has grown more self-confident, but she acknowledges concern about the future, her family’s and her own. Her children, however, have definitely discovered their own fulfillment in a variety of careers: Angela, her first-born, is a dance instructor in the area and a substitute teacher in local elementary schools. Jennifer, her younger daughter, is pursuing a career as a dietician. Son Anthony – interested in the medical field – has just begun his freshman year at Penn State University; thus, Susie has had to learn often to content herself with phone calls and texts rather than the intimacy and comfort of family chats at home. Husband Tony had been out of work, but has recently secured a new position. Still, despite these challenges – in addition to acknowledging fleeting concerns about the uncertainties of her own health in 10 to 20 years – buoyed by personal faith, courage, and determination, and supported by the love and prayers of family and friends, Susie personifies calm amidst a barrage of worries.
Still, even as Susie’s troubles began, the family recognized and relied on God’s presence in their lives. On June 6, 2011, the very day specialists induced a coma because of Susie’s grave condition, the D’Auroras were to begin a week’s stay in the Outer Banks – the first family vacation they’d had in years. With Susie foremost in their thoughts, by the time Tony called in their trip’s cancellation, he learned they’d receive no refund despite the circumstances. Meanwhile, Anthony, praying for his mom, had been reading the Bible and meditating on a verse promising a miracle in the dawn; naturally, he hoped and prayed for his mom’s speedy recovery. Although Susie’s journey would require months, not hours, the family felt inspired and renewed upon receiving a call from Dawn at the rental agency, sharing that they would indeed be reimbursed for their reservation.
Today, Susie is committed and ready to “work hard again,” not only for herself but also to help inner city children like Antonio, a boy raised by his grandma since both of his parents were incarcerated. Combative, he struggled socially and academically; eventually Antonio was placed in the district’s alternative education program at Wilson and later, transferred to Lincoln. Almost a year afterward, Antonio recognized the name of a substitute teacher in the school, Miss D’Aurora, and wondered if she were related to Mrs. D’Aurora from McKinley. Learning that Miss D’Aurora was Angela’s mother, he asked that she give Susie his greeting and thanks. Clearly, in her interactions with Antonio, Susie had made a positive and lasting impression, both academically and personally; similarly, in talking about Antonio, Susie reveals that he impacted her, too. Although her life has changed, Susie remains committed to her profession, a “perfect job,” assisting teachers to help all children achieve their full potential.
Looking at all Susie D’Aurora has endured and accomplished since the onset of her mysterious illness, family, friends, and co-workers continue to be awed by her example, honoring who she is and also what she’s done. Patrick Nye, a former co-worker with Susie’s husband, shares that “the events have tried her body, but they have not overcome her soul.” Susie is “the most courageous woman I’ve ever known” according to sister-in-law Christine Scutella. To Carlie Ditrich, she’s a “true miracle.” Angela, her daughter, declares her mom to be “the bravest, strongest, most beautiful and unselfish woman I know (inside and out).”
Courage, a Personal Glimpse
Clearly, in her quiet, faith-filled, loving, and forthright way, Susie has prompted commentary from a host of observers…all awed by her response to a series of life-threatening events. Their reflections certainly enhance Susie’s story, a narrative her niece Lindsey Scutella rightly calls “inspiring.” Susie herself acknowledges she’s been changed by her ordeal, so the final word in her story might best be understood not through observation, or listening to the comments of others, but rather by eavesdropping on Susie’s own thoughts and revelations.
Insisting that “we get as much as we put into life,” Susie has been contemplating – and has, in fact, already titled – an autobiographical collection of her life experiences. Undaunted, she has faced unexpected and often unimaginable physical and emotional challenges. Now, Susie is considering whether to choose to tackle yet another challenge – penning her own story – to share her life events and emotions from her unique vantage point. To embrace this new creative and personal path, to organize and craft this personal gift of faith would surely add one more challenge to the array of unimaginable battles Susie has already faced and conquered. Whether she chooses to embark on this venture or not, Susie D’Aurora is, indisputably, in word, deed, and the views of her peers, friends, and family, a true and perfect model of courage.
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