Just three weeks after undergoing massive surgeries to remove her right arm to her elbow, her left arm to her bicep and both legs, 8-year-old Bella Tucker has learned to text message with her nose, to clap with her elbows and to hold her bingo marker in her mouth.
“What we tell her is that she will be able to do anything,” said mom Selena Roarty outside Boston’s Children’s Hospital on Friday. “Ride her bike, go back on the trampoline, go back to her gymnastics team. They’re waiting for her. . . . She wants to come home.”
A little more than a month ago, life for the Tucker-Roarty family of Londonderry, N.H., revolved around baseball, soccer, gym meets, homework, and a mother and stepfather juggling their JetBlue [JBLU] flight attendant schedules. At bellatucker.org, you can see Armando, 15, Tristan, 14, Joshua, 10, Lola, 4, and Bella laughing and goofing it up for the camera.
Then, on Easter Sunday, Bella, a third-grader and aspiring gymnast, began running a fever. By the time her stepfather, Peter Roarty, came home from work, Bella was sweaty, struggling to sleep and complaining of cold feet. When Roarty touched them, they felt “dead cold, not alive cold,” he said. He rushed her to the local hospital, which immediately rushed her via helicopter to Children’s.
“They pulled me into a little room,“ said Bella’s mother. “They told me her situation and made it clear my child could die from this.“
“This” was streptococcus pneumonia sepsis, a rare pneumonia that had already damaged Bella’s extremities and was attacking her organs.
“I just wanted to take her place,” Selena Roarty recalled. “I just wanted her to say, ‘Mommy.’ ”
But Bella remained in a coma for five days. Four days passed before doctors assured the Roartys and Bella’s father, Richard, that their child would survive, but without her limbs. Selena and Richard explained this to the child the night before surgery.
“She didn’t understand,” Selena said. “ ‘Why do doctors have to take them?’ she asked. ‘Why did this happen to me?’ ”
Several surgeries later, Bella is learning to live a drastically transformed life.
But the future is daunting. She will need extensive rehab, then weeks in a Philadelphia facility learning to use prosthetics. Her stepfather and mother are insured, but they are paid only when they work. Even with JetBlue flight attendants donating extra shifts, that has meant a big dent in the Roartys’ income on top of worries about how to be with Bella, plus work and care for their other children. Most close family lives in California.
Then there’s the cost of a needed elevator for Bella (about $30,000) plus a retrofitted bathroom for thousands more.
This is where the Londonderry community has done all it can. One neighbor donated the cost of YMCA after-school care for Joshua. Kiddie Academy donated day care for Lola. Others have volunteered to pick up and drop off the children, to daily deliver home-cooked meals and staples so the Roartys need not rush to the grocery store. Fund-raisers include a car wash at Muffler World, a kick-a-thon at the American Kenpo Academy and an upcoming concert.
“No, I don’t think this is unusual,” said across-the-street neighbor Tammy Kozlowski, who’s coordinated much of this.
But Bella’s mother - who only moved to Londonderry two years ago - is clearly stunned by her town’s support, and emotional when she talks about it.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my community,” she said.
Said her husband, “We are very grateful, and very lucky.”
Donations may be made to the Bella Tucker Fund at 26 Lantern Lane, Londonderry, N.H., 03053. For more information, go to bellatucker.org.
By Margery Eagan - Boston Herald
Sunday, May 23, 2010