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Stephanie Decker leaves Kentucky Prosthetics & Orthotics in Louisville, Ky., on Feb. 26 after a prosthetic adjustment session. / Scott Utterback, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

SELLERSBURG, Ind. - Testing the latest adjustments on her prosthetic legs earlier this week, Stephanie Decker smoothly lifted herself from an armchair and walked to the parallel bars in her doctor's office.

Those simple acts represent countless hours of therapy, exercise and medical care since Decker, 38, became the face of the region's resiliency a year ago - after tornadoes raged across southern Indiana and Kentucky, killing at least 35, injuring many and damaging or destroying thousands of buildings.

Decker - who lost one leg below the knee and the other above it as she protected her children from falling debris at their home on the outskirts of Henryville, Ind. - has been recognized everywhere from Yankee Stadium to the White House.

She has used that renown to promote opportunities for other amputees.

"We've met a lot of good people; we've been able to help a lot of people," she said during an appointment at Kentucky Prosthetics and Orthotics in downtown Louisville, where she goes multiple times a week for adjustments. "It's really opened our eyes a little bit."

Her work for amputees included lobbying for a bill in her native Frankfort, Ky., that would require private insurers to give amputees in Kentucky greater access to advanced prosthetic technology, as Indiana currently does. The bill cleared a Kentucky House committee on Wednesday.

She also has started the Stephanie Decker Foundation, which aims to help young people go to a camp for amputees and pursue sports and other rigorous activities.

"So many good things have come from this accident," Decker said. "I know that's kind of strange to say."

Resuming routines

She, her husband Joe, and children Dominic, 9, and Reese, 6, now live in Sellersburg, Ind., where they are building a new home.

They plan to mark the tornado anniversary Saturday by inviting friends, relatives and supporters to visit and sign the framework on their new home with "well-wishes, blessings, (if they) want to voodoo it from another tornado," Decker said with a chuckle.

But the anniversary is "honestly just another day," she said, with family plans to go watch her daughter's basketball team play.

That reflects their efforts to resume routines.

"I get up in the morning and instead of putting on a pair of shoes, I put on a pair of legs," Decker said. "And then my day begins. It's fixing lunches, getting kids off to school. I then usually head off to the gym," where she spends as much as two hours in training.

"It's one of the things that has really helped me get physically and mentally back in shape," she said.

Her daily routine includes errands at the store and taking the kids to baseball, softball and basketball games.

She walks with a cane and has switched from fixed to flexible prosthetic ankles. Each night, she charges the batteries in her two ankles and one knee. Her right ankle has separate settings for driving and walking.

One year later, her children get nervous with oncoming thunderstorms, but they otherwise sleep well, and Decker said she hasn't had nightmares.

"Our life doesn't revolve around this tornado," she said. "We more think about the people who are still suffering out there."

Plus, she said, "I don't get a lot of sympathy in my house."

Her son sometimes teases her about her walking. "We've always used humor to get through rough spots."

Thrust into spotlight

The roughest day of all, of course, was the afternoon of March 2, when she picked up the two children early from school because of the ominous weather reports while Joe Decker was still at work at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg.

The tornado bore directly down on their stretch of Henryville-Otisco Road, obliterating a nearby church and other houses and demolishing the dream home the Deckers had recently built. She and the two children huddled in the basement, where she had wrapped them in a blanket and covered them, as a steel beam, bricks and other debris rained down.

She was rescued from the basement, taken to the nearby St. Catherine Regional Hospital in Charlestown, Ind., and eventually flown to University Hospital's trauma care center.

Four days after surgery, she was joking with reporters from her hospital wheelchair, and two months later, she stood on her first prosthetic leg.

A cascade of public events followed, including national television appearances and the family's pre-game visit with the New York Yankees.

The Deckers visited the Oval Office in June, where President Barack Obama paid tribute to her heroics and she appealed for greater access for amputees to current prosthetic technology, which has advanced dramatically in response to injuries suffered by American military personnel in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This month, the Kentucky House honored Decker - and she used the opportunity to make a pitch for a "prosthetic parity" law.

Under current Kentucky law, private insurers can provide low-technology prosthetics. A bill pending in the House would require private insurers to provide amputees the same level of prosthetic care authorized under federal Medicare, based on what medical providers deem appropriate.

The bill passed the House Banking and Insurance Committee 28-0 Wednesday, with one member passing. It now heads to the House.

"Help me help other kids walk and play," she told the committee in brief testimony, her voice breaking at times with emotion. "You don't think it's going to be you. I didn't think it was going to be me."

State laws vary nationwide, and she hopes Kentucky can serve as a model for a federal law.

Matthew Hayden of Kentucky Prosthetics and Orthotics said he continues to be impressed with Decker's recovery.

"She's taken a situation a lot of us would have just been defeated by and turned it into such a positive ? speaking for other amputees so they can have the technology," he said.

Walking is now tiring for her because fewer muscles are left to do the work.

But, she said, "I have a lot to be thankful for. When I get to wake up and see my kids every day it really squashes that, 'Man, this is hard' (mindset) really quick."

If anything, she said, "this has given us our purpose."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Ind. mom turned amputee by tornado continues recovery

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