It was a typical Wednesday morning for John and Julie Dombo.
John woke up early, made himself breakfast, watched the news, picked up the paper and fiddled around a bit before waking Julie and making her breakfast.
Julie settled onto the couch with the paper, flipping the pages, and texting her daughter, Aimee, who lives in New York, about her plans that day.
They had a full day ahead. A couple of meetings and appointments, a leisurely lunch. Then in the evening they would eat dinner with friends they hadn’t seen in more than nine years.
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It was just the sort of day that John and Julie, both 61, had imagined when they retired.
In other ways, it was nothing like what they had imagined.
For the last nine months, Julie has had no hands or feet.
After she was shot twice, there were many times when it was unsure whether she would live, let alone be able to dig a fork into her eggs.
By all accounts, every little joy that Julie had Wednesday morning was a miracle, from the moment she rolled out of her waterbed, got into her wheelchair and navigated her way to the couch. John had dressed her, attached an armband with a fork to the stub of her arm, and cut up her food into bits. She used a special stylus to operate her iPhone and voiced her texts.
She is the only quadruple amputee in Kansas that she knows of, one of only 48 in a world Facebook group for quadruple amputees.
Every moment Wednesday morning was made possible by the diligent work of medical experts who pushed her forward every step of her recovery. Each moment she sipped her coffee through a straw was in part due to the endless hours of support from friends and family, who stayed by her side every day and slept next to her hospital bed every night.
I don’t want to die.
But mostly, it was something at the core of Julie’s being, which despite having died twice on the operating table, has kept pushing her forward, which John saw firsthand as she was whisked into surgery, ripping off her oxygen mask. “I don’t want to die,” she told him.
Aug. 11: Morning routine
Aug. 11, 2015, was the last day of summer for Julie. She had decided to start working again, part time as a truancy counselor. John had taken part-time work in retirement as a truck driver in the mornings, so he was already out of the house making deliveries when Julie changed into her workout clothes that morning.
She took a four-mile walk at a brisk pace. She was, at 122 pounds, in the best shape of her life, a four-pack on her abs.
As Julie passed the AT&T store, she made a mental note to stop in on her way home. She’s not really a tech person, she said, so she goes to the store when she has a problem with her phone.
As Julie entered the store, a man followed behind her a minute later and pulled out a gun.
Growing up in Illinois
Julie’s father, John Brooks, always bragged about being born in October of 1929, at the start of the Depression. His seven children were poor farm kids near a small town in Illinois, but they didn’t know it.
Julie and her older sister, Linda Housewright, milked cows and used to joke that they didn’t know how they would get any dates because they smelled like the cheese they were constantly making.
The family filled two pews at the Catholic church, and their dad took the church’s message to help the poor seriously.
“What are you doing? How are you making a difference?” Linda said. “Those are the kinds of things our father wanted from us.” The Brooks girls became known not only for their blond hair and blue eyes, they said, but for their desire to help those in need. Both eventually became educators.
After long days of farming, their father spent evenings for two years clearing out trees and brush, and damming a small creek.
They never had much money, so her father had to be resourceful. He filled the lake he had made with catfish and charged fishermen 50 cents a pound for what they caught. Julie and Linda started a side business cleaning the fish at 10 cents apiece, money they used to attend college.
It was at Western Illinois University that Julie met John Dombo. She felt sorry for the girl who had to marry into that last name. He worked as a dishwasher and she worked as a server in the cafeteria. They ran in the same circle of friends.
His senior year, John finally asked her out, and a month later, he proposed.
She said no. She still had to finish her degree, so she told him to wait until she graduated and ask again. On Aug. 14, 1976, they were married.
Aug. 11, a little after 9 a.m.
James Phillips ordered the employees at the AT&T store to take him to the safe, according to court documents.
Julie didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem like there would be much money in a phone store, so she thought he was there for something else. Thoughts raced through her head. One of them was the Carr brothers and the graphic torture they put their victims through.
“There are three women in this store, and we’re all going to be raped and killed,” she thought.
She was near the exit when Phillips shot her twice. She thinks she may have turned to protect herself, so that one bullet went through her arm and into the wall and the other went through her shoulder and into her right lung, stopping just short of her spine.
You shot me. You killed me.
“You shot me,” she said, staring into his face, only a couple feet away. “You killed me.”
The two employees fled out the back, while Julie fell to the floor and the blood flowed out.
Julie and John’s first appointment on Wednesday, May 18, was at the Derby police station.
“Hi, how are you?” asked Robert Lee, the Derby police chief.
“Getting stronger,” she said, as they hugged.
Julie is planning on participating in her 26th straight River Run in June, and she was there to deliver shirts to Lee and to Larry Hampton, the officer who had received a medal of valor for chasing Phillips, even after being shot at through the back window of Phillips’ car.
They will be among the 85 people with black shirts who will walk at the back of the race, supporting her. Julie has walked two miles a dozen times now but she said she’s still nervous.
Lee told her she’s going to be an inspiration for a long time. He’s been to a lot of violent crime scenes, he said, and when he arrived at the AT&T store, it looked grim.
Aug. 11: From the floor to the hospital
Sherri Randall, a worker in the UPS office next door, came over to be with Julie. Randall took Dombo’s hand and rubbed her forehead, which was cold and clammy, and told her that everything would be all right.
Julie was lying a few feet from the door, still in her blue runner’s jacket, with her knees up and her hands on her stomach, saying, “I don’t want to die” and repeating her husband’s phone number.
John was about to start unloading his truck at a store when he received the call. “Your wife has been shot,” he was told.
“What?” he said. It didn’t make sense. She’s never in a position where she could be shot, he thought. He made the person repeat themselves several times before heading for the hospital.
Dombo’s paramedics were later honored for their speedy service that day, but the trip felt like forever to Dombo.
“Every bump, every railroad crossing, every stoplight,” Dombo said she remembered thinking. “I was just, hurry, hurry.”
A hospital worker later told Dombo that she was the calmest patient they’d ever seen with injuries as serious as she had, so much so that at first the worker didn’t realize how precarious her situation was.
“Call me 911,” John texted Aimee, their daughter, who was working on the show “Madame Secretary” in New York. Aimee thought her dad had forgotten his new internet passwords.
“Aimee, your mom has been shot,” John told her. She thought he was joking and had him repeat himself several times.
“I kind of just stood there for a second and fell to the ground and laid there in my office,” Aimee said. She booked a flight home.
When John made it to the emergency room, Julie ripped off her oxygen mask and told him, “I don’t want to die.”
A nurse handed him Julie’s wedding ring.
Wednesday: Getting ready
John stood next to Julie in the bathroom, handing her makeup, as she applied powder, blush and then eye shadow.
Julie still has two-thirds of her arms, and a friend has created little cups for her to squeeze the ends into, each with a different tip: one for lipstick, one for turning on her bidet and so on. She wears prosthetic legs, which John still sometimes struggles to snap on. John had already changed her into a formal shirt.
In just the past week she had started applying her own mascara, delicately, to the end of her lashes.
The last piece was her necklace, which John struggled to clasp. “This clasp is terrible,” he said. “Whoever invented this ought to be shot. He never put one of these on.”
“They are hard to do when you have man fingers,” Julie said. “He gave up on my earrings.”
“Dang it,” he said. “Quit moving.”
In addition to applying makeup and jewelry, John has had to learn to make coffee and has started doing laundry and cooking the meals.
John finally snapped the clasp. “There,” he said, looking proudly at the diamond on the end of her necklace that once sat on the tip of her wedding ring.
Aug. 11, evening
Judy Hollis, one of Julie’s best friends, stood behind John as a doctor explained that the surgery they were about to perform was necessary to save Julie’s life.
Hours earlier it seemed like her surgery had gone well, but Julie wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Brett Grizzell, a top lung and heart specialist at Wesley, just happened to be nearby when Julie arrived. He removed two-thirds of her right lung, which had been hit by a bullet, while many of the other 15 or so hospital staff attended to her bleeding.
It was equivalent to what you’d see in a battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq. Most people don’t live.
Brett Grizzell, lung and heart specialist
“It was equivalent to what you’d see in a battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Grizzell said. “Most people don’t live.”
Afterward, she had to be put on two ventilators, since each of her lungs had a different pressure and other problems, a procedure that John was told the doctor had never performed before.
Soon after Julie’s sister, Linda, arrived, surgeon David Acuna told them they were in for a marathon, not a sprint. “You have to understand that sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Linda said they were told. “And I didn’t understand yet that we were going to lose her hands and feet.”
A few people looked up as Julie and John walked into Freddy’s Steakburgers. Earlier that week a young child had asked, “What’s wrong with her hands?” but they just laughed because the 2-year-old was genuinely confused, not being mean.
Julie can pick up the fries by herself and sips her soda. John feeds her the hamburger, because it’s quicker than cutting it up and that allows her to eat it while it’s still warm.
Julie chides John throughout the day about the fast food, but the truth is that she still weighs less than 100 pounds. And after spending most of her life trying to get thinner, she wouldn’t mind putting on a few pounds.
Much of her remaining pain comes from a pinched sciatic nerve, which runs from her spinal cord to the bottom of her feet. She’s reduced the number of pills she takes to the minimum and quickly got off prescription pain killers because she didn’t want to become addicted.
After lunch, they headed to the hospital for a ceremony recognizing the two EMS workers who had rushed her to the hospital.
After about six days, Julie’s lungs started to function normally. But when the doctors tried to take her out of her coma, she did not wake up.
Aimee stayed by her mom’s side, telling her stories about how someday they would walk around her family’s farm again.
Hollis, Julie’s longtime friend from school, read Julie cards that students from their school had made, and described what color they were and what kind of paper they were on. “They say you can hear even if you are in a coma,” Hollis said. “So we just talked to her, included her in conversations.”
The family didn’t know if she had any brain function left. Julie and John had always told each other that they did not want to be vegetables.
Acuna, the surgeon, told them, “If she is the woman you tell me she is, then you have got to give her a chance.”
The next morning Julie woke up, Aimee said.
Even in a heavily sedated state, Julie knew there was something wrong. Her hands and feet had changed colors from red to blue and then dried up and turned black.
I begged them, “How can I tell my wife that you are going to amputate her arms and legs? How can I tell her that?
The doctors gathered the family together and told them they would have to amputate Julie’s hands and feet. “I begged them, ‘How can I tell my wife that you are going to amputate her arms and legs?’ ” John said. “’How can I tell her that?’”
John is strong, organized, careful, the family said. “He is not a man that cries tears,” said Linda, Julie’s sister. “And to see him cry to the magnitude that I did was really hard.”
After rehearsing what they were going to say, the family went into her room and told Julie.
Julie held up her arms and, because she still had tubes down her throat, mouthed, “All four?”
Everyone kept looking at Julie’s big blue eyes because she could not speak. To Aimee, she seemed calm and even somehow professional, and told Aimee with her lips to take care of her father, who was crying.
Linda, her sister, read her eyes differently.
“People say she handled it so well,” Linda said. “She couldn’t talk. What’s she going to say? I could read her eyes, read her lips. It was the worst day of her life and she couldn’t even talk about it.”
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” John asked before they headed back to their car. It was the third time he had asked her that day.
In December, after Aimee moved back to New York and Linda moved back to Illinois, John had to take over Julie’s full-time care. He didn’t realize at first just how much they had been doing. He was overwhelmed.
One day, after showering with her, and getting her dressed and ready to go, she said she had to use the bathroom. John snapped at her and she started crying.
One of the first times they went out to dinner, they forgot to bring Julie’s special fork and John had to drive all the way back home, while their friends drank and waited for him to return.
John has learned to be more patient. Julie has learned that when John says he’s had enough, to wait awhile before asking for more help.
Mid-September: Playing possum
After Julie’s amputations, several family members worried that her emotional state was deteriorating.
There were times when she would stare off into the distance and pretend not to acknowledge them. They called it “playing possum.”
Aimee vacillated between worrying about whether her mom would live at all, to thinking about how long her road to recovery was.
“There were times I was like, ‘Holy moly, what kind of life is this going to be?’ ” But mostly she played possum, Julie said, because her physical therapists wanted her to get up and move, and she was in such pain.
“When I was playing possum,” she said, in contrast, “I didn’t hurt.”
Linda, Aimee and John wanted to say something to Julie, so one day they came to her bed and said, in turns: “I want my sister back.” “I want my mother back.” “I want my wife back.”
Julie held up her arms and mouthed, “What about this?”
“The person we love is the person on the inside, not the outside,” John said he told her. “We want our Julie back.”
The pain didn’t go away, Julie said, but her competitiveness and determination returned. The first time her therapists asked her to stand up on her prosthetic legs, they told her she didn’t need to walk, she just needed to stand up.
But Linda was taking video of the moment, and Julie wanted her family back in Illinois to know that she was doing everything she could to be healthy again.
So for the first time since she’d been in the hospital, she walked outside her room and down the hallway.
And just when it looked like she was finished, she took one more step.
“This one is for Daddy,” Julie said.
It was that moment, Aimee said, when she began to believe that her mom would make it.
Julie started practicing simple things, like holding a weight in her arm, brushing her teeth and pulling herself up onto her new legs.
Some of her very best friends disappeared, Julie said, and some of her other friends, like Karen Wallace, became an integral part of her life. Julie’s biggest fear was losing her friends, John told Karen. Everyone she met on Wednesday she asked, “Are you coming to the River Run? I need you.”
Her friends and family watched as Julie, for the first time, picked up a potato chip and ate it. Eating a potato chip seems so easy now, she said, but that first time she dropped it over and over again. When she finally got it into her mouth, she said, “Ta-da!”
It has become her signature exclamation after she learns something new. It’s the same noise she used to make when she taught reading to first- and second-graders and they mastered a new skill.
Thursday: Give her a hand
“Ta-da!” Julie exclaimed, her eyes beaming, after she finally pulled off a sheet of Saran Wrap with her new prosthetic arms for the first time.
But her look of excitement masked a big fear: Julie’s insurance company has refused to pay and she can’t take the arms home.
She misses her hands more than her feet and said she needs them in order to regain her independence. With hands she could read books again, cook, put on her makeup and do her hair, which John, despite his best efforts, still can’t do right. She used to floss three times a day, and now John only has the patience for it a few times a week.
But more importantly, the hands will give her independence. With hands, she’ll be able to hold the railings on stairs, so she can walk up and down without John being there to catch her if she falls. She would be able to drive again on her own.
But the hands cost around $260,000.
John and Julie have already spent more than $50,000 and are not sure what her expenses will be in the future. The community has raised more than $75,000 on Julie’s GoFundMe page, but it’s not close to what they will need.
The insurance company agreed to provide clasping hooks for hands. In contrast, the $260,000 prosthetics not only look like real hands, they have dozens of grips, which can be changed with her arm muscles or the touch of an iPhone app.
Her insurance company, BlueCross and BlueShield of Kansas, has granted Julie extra time for rehabilitation and paid more than $2 million in medical bills.
Their insurance contract states that the appliances must “provide the essential function(s) required for the treatment or amelioration of the medical condition.” But her policy doesn’t allow for “deluxe or electrically operated appliances or devices.”
“But what is standard for a quad amputee?” John asked.
“The actuary science guys are sitting around looking at all those numbers, and that is what is making a decision for this policy,” said Steve Peeples, the owner of Peeple’s Prosthetics, who is working with Julie to learn how to use her hands. “It’s an outlier, it’s a complete outlier and a special case.”
Peeples said the thousands of patients he’s worked with have never before been denied outright by an insurance company for what he recommended as basic care. The VA, he said, pays for these devices for soldiers.
“As an insurer with more than 700,000 members, we can not randomly pick and choose when we want to make an exception to our contracts and where we won’t make an exception,” wrote Marty Beth Chambers, a representative for BlueCross Blue Shield. “We must treat all members fairly by administering their benefit plans as outlined in their contracts.”
The hooks not only are clumsy, they say, they won’t give Julie freedom. Even when he’s mowing the lawn now, John will check in every 30 minutes.
“I can’t be by myself,” Julie said. “I want to be able to be by myself.”
Sometimes Linda, Julie’s sister, will tell her, “Your hands are gone. Your feet are gone.”
“When I do that, people look at me like, what in the hell is she doing?” Linda said. “How could she do that to her own sister? And we are just laughing about it.”
That’s because Julie has phantom pains in her hands and feet. When she goes for a long walk, Julie said, she’ll get a painful blister on her foot. Her doctor told her that one way to help get rid of the pain is to continue to remind herself that they are gone.
Julie and John decided to take a vacation to Colorado last week that they had planned before she was hurt.
The drive was the longest she’s taken since the accident, but it was more proof that they were making good on their promise to continue on with their retirement — just like before, only different.
Aimee flew in from New York and planned a hike. She was appreciative that there was a flat road, which Julie could walk on with her prosthetic legs, built for people in wheelchairs and with disabilities.
Julie sat next to Linda, with a waterfall in the background, and they hugged.
“I am so glad I am here,” Julie said.
“And I am so glad you are here, too,” Linda said she told her.
The modern world has, in so many ways, not just made Julie’s life possible, with advancements in medical care. But it has also made it so her life is full of little moments of joy like this, whether it be videoconferencing with her daughter or using a handicap-accessible restroom.
That the world has grown so much better at being able to help people in Julie’s situation makes the inability to access it feel especially unfair.
On Thursday afternoon, Julie was watching all the customers in a restaurant pick up their glasses and cut their food, and she started to tear up.
As a counselor, she helped many kids progress through the cycles of grief, so she knew it was normal to cycle back, from acceptance, which she feels more and more, to denial, bargaining or even anger.
How could someone, so much like the children she used to help, do this to her?
Why didn’t she just go home and drink coffee instead of stopping at the store?
God, why couldn’t you have spared her just one limb, just one hand, so she could pick up her glass of water, too?
She was about to have a meltdown. “I looked out the window and I said, ‘Julie, get over your pity party. You are here in the mountains with the people you love the most and they are trying to help you have this new normal, so quit feeling sorry for yourself.’ ”
“I don’t want to go down that path of depression. It would be really easy to do. I have got to keep saying every day for me is a bonus. I am not supposed to be here and I am.
“So I have to put a smile on my face and see what I can do.”