By Marcy SanchezApril 17, 2017
Capt. Kelly Elmlinger, a cancer survivor and Army nurse, shared a story of resilience and recovery during her battle with cancer with William Beaumont Army Medical Center nurses, April 6.
Growing up, Elmlinger was always athletic. She participated in various high school sports and was even award a scholarship based off her athleticism. But Elmlinger had other plans. In 1998, she enlisted in the Army as a combat medic and deployed three times--twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan--with the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Our main mission was downed aircraft recovery," said Elmlinger, a native of Attica, Ohio. "The experience profoundly impacted in what I wanted to do."
After years of back to back deployments, Elmlinger changed her role from caring for Soldiers on the battlefield to caring for them in Military Treatment Facilities (MTFs). Elmlinger decided to become an Army nurse and give back to wounded warriors.
"I wanted to care for wounded warriors; it was my mission," said Elmlinger. "I wanted to give back that understanding of battlefield experience."
What Elmlinger didn't expect to get from her new position was resiliency training for her own ordeal. What had been a long-time bothersome pain in her left shin area was diagnosed as synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer.
"(The cancer) wasn't on anybody's radar of what they were thinking it was. I knew at that point, based on all the people I had been taking care of, that this was a game changer," said Elmlinger.
After diagnosis of the cancer, Elmlinger was given two choices: limb salvage or amputation of her left leg. Because of her love of physical activity, Elmlinger decided to attempt limb salvage. After recovering, she went on to participate on the Army Team during the 2014 and 2015 Department of Defense Warrior Games in various events. Yet she still felt like something was missing.
"When I started competing I was still trying to figure out who I was: a new identity, a wounded warrior, an adaptive athlete. All these different things; I didn't even know what my capabilities were," said Elmlinger. "I knew there was more. There was more to what I can be, more to my potential, more that I can do and give back to others. I wanted to go all in to keep my leg before I said I'm done. It took me a while to get there, but I was dragging around dead weight."
Because of her experience with limb salvage, Elmlinger opted to amputate her left leg for a better quality of life.
"When I put myself back in that place (the period during limb salvage), I was a miserable person. I didn't want that for myself. I don't regret it (amputation)," said Elmlinger. "It's been quite painful to use a prosthetic, but I still wouldn't have chosen differently."
Elmlinger's personal account of resilience and perseverance sank in for the medical staff of WBAMC's Surgical Ward. These professionals regularly care for patients recovering from amputations and other trauma-related incidents.
"(Elmlinger) shared stories not only as a cancer survivor but as a Solider. Her story is undoubtedly one all healthcare providers can learn from," said 1st Lt. Rochelle Castro, staff nurse, Surgical Ward, WBAMC. "She presented an understanding of the challenges and fears that many patients face."
For Elmlinger, her bout with cancer and struggle to recover into a new lifestyle led to her determination and ability to overcome. She credits adaptive sports as helping her heal and move forward in her life's next chapter.
"(Elmlinger's) story was a powerful, inspiring story of resilience and strength," said Castro. "Her words were truly meaningful and will continue to resonate with me throughout my nursing career."