Nights are the worst.
When things are quiet, ShinAe Kim finds her mind drifting to what her life will be like when she leaves Northside Hospital.
How will she take care of an active toddler? How will she be able to teach him to tie his shoelaces when she can’t tie her own? How can she study social work and help others, when she needs so much help herself?
How will she navigate the world with no hands or feet?
“I don’t know why me, but I believe God has a plan for my life,” said Kim, 30, who speaks very little English and whose husband interpreted for her. “I want to live every day seeking that purpose.”
The couple moved to Atlanta from Denver three years ago so her husband, SongYin (John) Paik, could attend Columbia Theological Seminary. He had one more year in school, then the couple planned to go wherever “God sent us,” Paik said.
Paik said the couple, originally from South Korea, were looking forward to welcoming their second child when Kim fell ill in February.
She was exhausted. She experienced headaches, fever and abdominal pain.
When her symptoms worsened, Paik decided to take her to the hospital. But before he could get her to the car, she began shouting. Her nose was turning black and blue, a sign they later learned meant her body was going into shock.
Doctors determined that the fetus had died, although they’re not sure exactly when, and a subsequent infection was taking its toll on her body, which was shutting down.
Her blood pressure plummeted. Her body began rerouting blood from her extremities to her vital organs.
“When she came to the ER, she was profoundly ill and was put on life support immediately,” said Dr. Amber Degryse, a pulmonary and critical care specialist. “Doctors worked fervently to save her.”
The fetus was removed, but she was still in a grave situation as doctors tried to stabilize her. It was determined early on that to survive, she would likely have to have some amputations.
Eventually, she was stabilized enough for surgery. Later, as staffers prepared a room in ICU for Kim, they learned that she coded while on the operating table — her heart had stopped beating on its own.
“We don’t use the word miracle pretty often in medicine, but it was pretty much a miracle,” Degryse said. “She had been in a very intense code situation. About a hour’s worth of heroic medical intervention didn’t appear to be working, but she decided she wasn’t ready (to go) yet.”
Degryse described Kim as one of the sickest patients to come through Northside’s intensive care unit in years. For a while, every day was touch and go.
There was an emotional time when Kim woke from a medically induced coma to find out she no longer had her hands and feet. But a turning point came when she saw her 2 1/2-year-old son for the first time and was able to be wheeled outside.
Kim is now on the difficult road to recovery. Doctors had to amputate both legs below the knee and both hands.
At times, Kim still seems stunned by what happened to her, but knows she is fortunate to be alive. She tears up when talking about her young son. And they are looking for a rehab facility where she can go when she is released from Northside.
“When I hear the story, it is amazing,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like my story. It sounds like you’re talking about someone else. I have nothing to express other than God saved me.”
Her situation has also galvanized the local Korean community. Local help and financial support have flowed in from Korean churches, community groups and businesses although the family still faces massive medical bills.
“The news spread very quickly,” said Jenni Jung, reporter at Atlanta Radio Korea. “The Korean culture is a collective culture, so even though it’s not my direct family, they still feel very sad.”
Kim said her faith has gotten stronger and so has the family bond.
Paik has taken a leave from studies and spends nearly every waking moment with his wife. Their son is with family in South Korea. They are now trying to get a visa for relatives to return to help care for Kim.
“We’re grateful to be together and to be a family,” she said. “Everything is so new. It’s about finding out what I can do and starting a new life. This is a second chance.”`
Her biggest challenge now is “realizing the things she cannot do that she used to take for granted,” said Kim, such as drinking on her own, brushing her teeth and even using her smartphone.
“I know that I will encounter moments feeling uncomfortable, but I am grateful that that doesn’t mean I will be unhappy.”