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KINGWOOD - Dinnertime at the Hayes' house is as hectic as you'd expect for a family of five.

There's joking and refusals to eat what's being served.

Seven-month-old Arielle is learning to eat by herself, way ahead of schedule - and so is her mother.

Being able to feed herself is a huge achievement for Katy Hayes, who has mastered the use of a fork strapped to what's left of her left upper arm.

After the happy birth of her third child in February, Hayes developed a common Strep A infection that accelerated quickly into a rare flesh-eating bacteria.

Both arms and both legs were amputated at Parkland Hospital in a desperate attempt to save her life. Doctors call her a miracle.

Seven months later, the 41-year-old mother is back in Kingwood, a suburb of Houston, learning to live without limbs.

She is getting accustomed to prosthetic arms and the new normal. She also has prosthetic legs, but because the skin on her own legs is still healing, wearing them is often painful.

You know it's a whole lot of accepting what's happened to you, says Katy. Some days, I still have moments where I just cry. I have those days when I just miss my arms and legs. I have dreams that I have them, that I'm normal again. And it just hits me hard. But I snap out of it because I've got all this life around me.

At that moment, Katy's baby, Arielle, coos from a nearby playpen.

Arielle is a happy, thriving baby, easily calmed by her mother's voice.

Katy's 16-year-old daughter Amber is a helpful big sister, who lends a hand when a part-time nurse leaves for the day.

Seven-year-old Jake, though, is understandably struggling with this new mom. He remembers the mother who could run and play sports outside with him.

Adjusting is taking time for everyone.

It's like somebody just took away your life and you're alive and awake enough to see what you're missing, says Katy, And it's really hard.

I'm always saying I'm half the woman I used to be and my husband gets mad at me, she continues, But I feel it you know. And he's always encouraging me and telling me that's crazy, I'm still a whole woman and I need to be easier on myself.

I loved her with arms, I loved her without arms, says Al, Katy's husband. It doesn't change, the love. You know, she's my wife and I love her. And there's not a number scale I can put to that. It just is.

Al acknowledges that every day is a juggling act.

The children have busy school and after-school activities. Al is a middle-school band-director and music producer with an exhausting schedule.

It's been since February since I've had a night where I could completely shut down after a long day, Al says. You know there's no shutting down right now. I'm still on a 24-hour day. Even in my sleep, all I do is think about everything that has to be done.

Like most American families, money is always on the Hayes' minds.

Because Katy and baby Arielle can't be home alone all day, the Hayes' are footing the bill for nursing care. Funds run out in December.

Thankfully, the Hayes are in a bigger, more handicapped-accessible house. The mortgage was fully paid by donations.

Every dream is about what do we have to do next, adds Al. Even worse, is now I think about what happens if something happens to me. You know, if something happens to me, what is the plan? And that weighs a lot on me.

Katy admits she misses the feel of grass on her feet, but appreciates more the sun on the tree leaves and the scent of the season.

Everything is more vibrant to me, says Katy.

Even as she says she is grateful to be alive, she admits it's incredibly frustrating not be able to do the things she once did.

When Katy returned from the hospital, Al bought a sign that says happy is what we make it.

Though it may not be what they expected, the Hayes are making life as happy as it can be, even while dealing with unexpected challenges for sure.

But every day, they all agree, they are lucky in love.

E-mail:jstjames@wfaa.com

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