Standing tall

Drunken driver took Jodie Spradlin's leg, not her spirit

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Jodie Spradlin still has a copy of the police report from Thanksgiving Day, 1988. When she tells the story of that night, it's as if she is reading directly from the report.

"It was 2:42 a.m. on Interstate 20 outside of Bossier City, Louisiana," she begins.

Spradlin was 16, and her family was on its way to Atlanta for a holiday dinner. Spradlin started to fall asleep in the back seat of the van when her mother shook her awake.

"I was lying down headfirst and she told me, 'We always travel feet first.'"

As she readjusted her body, a drunken driver entered I-20 from the exit ramp and started speeding the wrong way down the highway and straight toward them.

"He hit our van head-on," Spradlin said. "The van flipped and caught fire. The police were there within three minutes because they had already been warned about the drunk driver."

Fourteen years and a leg amputation later, Spradlin knows the driver's name was Willie Bell. He was 54 years old at the time of the accident and worked for the Bossier City water department. But a handful of personal information is all she ever got from him.

Bell had five DUIs on his record. He was driving without insurance on a revoked license, Spradlin said. Bell spent three days in jail and didn't show up on his court date.

Bell was fined $1,200 and ordered to perform 20 hours of community service.

The message, Spradlin said, was "that little girl deserved whatever she got."

Losing a leg

What Spradlin got was nine surgeries to try to save her right leg. A broken bone had sliced an artery in the leg and her foot was dying from lack of blood.

"My mom would never let them say the word 'amputation' in front of me," she said. "But I couldn't handle the hospital anymore. I didn't want any more scars than I already had. I told my mom that I was at peace with an amputation."

On Dec. 19, 1988, doctors removed Spradlin's leg below the knee.

When she was discharged, her hospital bill was 28 1/2 feet long, she said -- close to $300,000. Her father sold several businesses and cashed out her college fund to pay the bill and to pay for the first in a lifelong series of prosthetic legs.

Spradlin was taken aback when the doctor handed her a blue decal for her car.

"I told him that I didn't want it, and he told me that there would be days when I would need it," she said. "There is a place on the handicap decal where you check permanent or temporary. The doctor put a check beside permanent."

It was a very visual way of telling Spradlin that her life would never be the same.

Only months ago, she had been a 16-year-old athlete.

"I was a typical high school kid," she said. "I wasn't so good academically. Athletics were my life."

She was a distance runner. She played volleyball and competitive softball, and she was a cheerleader.

She returned to school wearing long dresses and tall boots.

Confronting fear

As a teenager, her first thought when she lost her leg wasn't about athletics.

"I was worried if people were going to like me. That was almost more paralyzing than thinking about walking," she said. "My first thought was that I would never get married and that no one was going to date me."

Little did she know that her future husband was right in front of her, another sophomore at their Dallas private school.

"He was the cool jock, and I was the poor girl who just lost my leg," she said. "He was too cool, and I was just surviving through life."

Jodie ran into Chris Spradlin years after high school.

She was 21 and had gained a lot of confidence. She had been working out and tanning. He asked her out.

"On the first date, I knew that I wanted to marry the guy," she said. It took him a while to get used to her missing leg, however.

"He was really worried about other people's perceptions," she said. "But when you lose a leg, what used to be important just isn't anymore."

"When we first met, I was pretty concerned about her being an amputee and us going out," Chris Spradlin said. "I had apprehensions and I don't even know if I crystallized what they were all about. She put me in my place. It was my immaturity and I grew out of that."

Jodie was 22 when she married Chris. They now have three children, ages 5, 3 and 2.

"Now, it's very normal. It's not an issue. It's been great that we can teach our kids, through it, about what really matters in life and about drinking and driving," Chris said.

"(Jodie) is a phenomenal mother. There have been times when she could not wear her leg for three weeks because of blisters and I saw her crawl through the house waiting on the kids. She has such a giving character."

The price of a leg

Since that first prosthetic leg, fitted to match her knee when she was 17, Jodie Spradlin has gone through eight legs. She donates her old legs to victims of land mines.

Each new leg costs between $12,000 and $15,000.

"You pay it off like a car payment. It takes about $350 a month to pay off a leg," she said.

"I've had three babies on this leg," she said. "My leg wears out or my body changes and I'll start getting blisters on my stump."

Her last leg broke while she and her husband tried to adjust it so she could wear a pair of high heel shoes.

"It was kind of funny, but at the same time we were thinking, 'How are we going to afford this?'" she said.

Chris had become a teaching pastor at Euzoa Bible Church. The Spradlins had just moved into their first house and they were surviving on Chris' preacher's salary.

"To be honest, I'm not worried about it," Chris said.

The money for the legs comes in mysterious ways, he said. Four years ago, when Jodie needed a new leg, a motivational speaker met the Spradlins during a visit to Steamboat. He had prosthetic ears and thumbs and when he heard about Jodie Spradlin's leg, he told her to send him the bill for a new one. He covered all her costs.

"Because of our faith, I felt strongly that if we moved to Steamboat (5 1/2 years ago for his job) that God told us, 'I'll take care of this leg thing.' God has always put people in our lives to help," Chris Spradlin said.

A new look

Spradlin has what is called a trauma amputation -- covered in grafts and scars, instead of a clean cut. Each prosthetic leg has to be custom fit.

"Some days I go about my normal business and I forget all about my leg," Jodie said. "But when I get fitted for another leg, it all comes back -- the smell of the room (on the day of the amputation procedure). They were playing Dire Straits, 'Money for Nothing.'"

Spradlin put on her new leg a week ago Thursday. Her new foot has a split between the first two toes, something she has requested since she was 17 but had never received.

She painted her prosthetic toenails and did something she hasn't been able to do since she was 16: She bought a pair of flip-flops.

"I live in Steamboat," she said. "I have always wanted to wear flip-flops."

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