(REDWOOD VALLEY, Calif.) — She can’t bend or flex her toes. Walking is nearly impossible without wearing a brace.
It’s a hard reality for 16-year-old Alexis Hanford, of Bethesda, Md., who has always been an active athlete – swimming, and playing basketball, soccer, and lacrosse.
Two months ago while swimming with her sister at Lake Leonard in Redwood Valley, Calif., the former varsity lacrosse player contracted a rare strain of flesh-eating bacteria after falling into the water while going off a rope swing.
“I’ve lost a lot of use of my leg but I haven’t lost my leg,” Hanford said. “What you guys would consider normal for walking is going to be very different for me. But eventually, it should become my normal.”
She spent the next several weeks in the hospital, forced to undergo 18 surgeries to remove the infection from her leg.
“Every surgery you’d kind of wait in the waiting room wondering what they found and what they needed to remove and what was healthy,” said Lynn Knieriem, Alexis’ mother.
Alexis celebrated her 16th birthday with her new wheels — not a car, but a wheelchair.
Even at the worst, she attributes her positive attitude to the love and support of her friends. One friend, Jorge Richardson, even brought her a present every day she was in the hospital.
As for her future, Alexis has a home tutor.
She plans on taking extra classes over the summer to stay on track with her graduating class. She will likely have to wear a brace for the rest of her life, but hopes to eventually run again and return to her active lifestyle. She hopes to study biomedical engineering in college because of this experience.
While Alexis is still healing, on Saturday she managed to attend her high school homecoming dance, where she was welcomed back by being crowned homecoming princess.
“It was amazing to be crowned and I’m guessing probably since I’ve been away for so long they wanted me to know that I’m still included in the school,” she said. “I can’t even explain how much that means to me.”
As a way of thanking the doctors who saved her life, her best friend Lily Blum launched the “Alexis Healing Project,” a nonprofit effort to raise funds for Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
“I wanted to turn something negative into something positive,” Blum said. “She’s a really strong person and she’s definitely been an inspiration to me, and I wanted to give back to the doctors who saved her life.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio