The woman gazed out the window of her house as she cried. She was alone. One by one, her family members had died, and now her husband was gone too.
Then something outside caught her eye. There was Thelma Russell, rolling down the sidewalk in her motorized wheelchair. Two things struck the woman right away. Thelma was missing both her arms and her legs. And Thelma was beaming.
“She seen so much joy poppin’ out of me,” Thelma recalled. “She went back and said, ‘Wait God, look at that lady out there. She is so full of joy, and she don’t have nothing.'
“Well, of course I have something. I have Jesus. That’s the whole thing, see?"
Thelma learned about the effect she had on this woman several months later, when she was recognized at a Walmart. Such encounters have become common for Thelma, who lost all four limbs from a nearly deadly bacterial infection 15 years ago.
She finds she rarely has to open her mouth in order to radiate God’s love to others. When people ask her why she’s so happy, her answer is simple.
“When you have Him, you have everything,” she says.
I just don’t feel good
Thelma grew up one of eight children in a Christian family in Alabama. Her father was a professional piano player and carpenter, her mother a homemaker. (Before Thelma was born, her father had actually been a church deacon and manager of a baseball team, but the elders apparently didn’t like the fact that he followed up church each Sunday with sports. He was let go.)
When Thelma was 16, she moved to San Diego. She met her husband-to-be soon after. She worked as a licensed vocational nurse for some time, then as a county employee in the welfare department, all while raising her children.
She danced, played piano, baked pies, entertained for the holidays, took family vacations and went fishing.
It wasn’t until the kids were grown, and she and her husband had relocated to Jacumba, that she got sick. “I just don’t feel good,” she told her husband one day. “I better go to the clinic.”
When the staff took her blood pressure, they immediately called for paramedics. She was in the ambulance, enroute to the hospital, when she had a heart attack.
Doctors discovered a bacterial infection eating away at her body. But when they tried to treat it, they found Thelma was allergic to many of the drugs. By the time they found one that her body could withstand, the gangrene had set in. Her doctors kept urging her family to authorize the amputation of her arms and legs, but her kids just couldn’t sign. Their mother would not want to live like that, they said. They finally agreed to the surgeries, resigned to the likelihood that Thelma was going to die anyway.
In her hospital bed haze, Thelma clearly remembers hearing a voice. “Do you want to live?” it asked her. It was the unmistakable voice of Jesus, she said.
“Yes, yes, yes!” she replied.
Meanwhile, her son had left to make funeral arrangements. By the time he returned to the hospital, the doctors were pulling tubes out of her. “She’s going to live,” they told her family.
Life as an amputee
Adjusting to life as a quadruple amputee was hard. The doctors had removed both legs below the knee, and both arms below the elbow. Thelma had to learn to live again, how to perform the simplest of tasks she had taken for granted.
She tried prosthetics, paying $35,000 at one point for a set of hands, but the limbs threw her too far off balance.
She became far more comfortable and adept at scooting around on the floor, standing on her knees and using what was left of her arms to grasp and hold objects. She learned to easily maneuver an electric wheelchair, the seat lowering and rising to meet her needs.
She spent the first year ministering to other new amputees. Doctors would give them Thelma’s number, and she’d talk them through what to expect and how to deal with life after losing a limb.
“They would think this is the end of their life, and it was my job to make sure they knew this was not the end of life. They’re not going to die.”
After the hospital, she moved back in with her family, and all of the sudden the one who cared for them for all those years was the one who needed care. The responsibilities took an understandable toll on her children at times. Then her husband of 28 years passed away. Worried about the burdens placed on her kids, Thelma decided she wanted to live by herself. She prayed to God for somebody to take care of her.
“He gave me somebody. He gave me me,” she said.
On her own
Thelma prepared for life on her own, pushing her physical and mental boundaries. She scrubbed the floors, did her own laundry. A landmark moment was when she changed and washed her own bedding one day. “Taking care of myself is such a joy,” she said.
Pretty soon, her life slowly began to resemble the one she had before her illness. She is even dating again. She has been living on her own in an apartment about four years. The only task she can’t perform herself is taking out the trash. But she has a neighbor who helps with that. Her small, tidy La Mesa apartment is two-story, but she doesn’t mind. She kind of likes the challenge of climbing the stairs.
She takes the bus everywhere and is a familiar sight on the sidewalks near her home. For the past few years, Thelma has focused on how she can serve others. She’ll make 10 to 15 pies – her specialties are sweet potato and pecan – and drop them off at area churches, homeless shelters or halfway houses. She hopes the warm pastries will uplift the broken souls with homecooked meals, while at the same time showing them that no task is impossible with God.
She also gives free piano lessons to seniors and children in the neighborhood, using the keyboard set up in her living room. She sets aside time each day to dance, blasting upbeat gospel and praise music from her boombox. Through her trials, Thelma has learned that having joy is a choice.
“… For the happy heart, life is a continual feast,” says Proverbs 15:15
“I just want to bring joy,” Thelma said. “I’m here to live, not just to be here. I’m here to help somebody else make it.”