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Woman's courage, tenacity draw attention from 'Oprah'

Monica Jorge and her husband, Tony, feed their daughter Sofia. Monica Jorge and her husband, Tony, feed their daughter Sofia. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff/ File 2007)
By Lindsey Parietti
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2008
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AYER - For Monica Jorge, the past year has been a blur of overwhelming numbers: 37 surgeries, four limbs lost, continuing rehabilitation, one new baby, one wedding, and now, one appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Jorge's struggle with the flesh-eating bacteria that left her limbless and her efforts to relearn the simple tasks of everyday life will be the focus of the television program this Wednesday.

It's the stuff of a television miniseries, and so it's not surprising that when the "Oprah" producers saw a Boston Globe Magazine story last winter detailing her disease and rehabilitation, they jumped to get her on the program.

After hearing Jorge's story, actress and author Jenny McCarthy wanted to conduct the interview for the segment, so she, too, showed up with the gaggle of cameras and crew that descended on Ayer earlier this month.

McCarthy has written several parenting books about her son's autism and will appear with Jorge on the "Oprah" show on Wednesday at 4 p.m. (WCVB-Channel 5) to talk about her latest book, "Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds."

Asked last Tuesday whether she felt like a warrior mom, Jorge laughed brightly, even though she's hoarse from a cold she caught during the trip to Chicago for the taping.

"I feel like any other mom. To me, I think anybody would do the same thing, but I guess not everybody would," she said, a bit incredulously, her eyes widening behind wire-rimmed glasses.

When Jorge's then-fiancé, Tony Jorge, drove her to Emerson Hospital in Concord last August for her scheduled caesarean-section, the couple couldn't have imagined the trials that would mark their first year of marriage.

Even in the first wonderful moments of holding their blue-eyed newborn, Sofia, the bacteria that had somehow entered Jorge's body was already ravaging her skin and muscle tissue.

She had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, literally, a flesh-eating bacteria that can dissolve inches of tissue and kill internal organs in minutes. The infection was discovered just after she gave birth on Aug. 9, when she became ill with stomach pains, a fever, and no bowel movements. By the time a helicopter flew her to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the bacteria, a strain of streptococcus, had already consumed most of her abdominal wall.

A team of surgeons immediately began cutting away infected flesh. They would eventually take her uterus, ovaries, gall bladder, and part of her colon, knowing throughout that she would probably not survive.

Heavily sedated for more than three weeks, Jorge said she was "blissfully unaware" of the battle that an army of doctors, nurses, and intensive-care staff waged to save her.

Only this 36-year-old mother would use a word like "blissfully" to describe the unexpected and sometimes horrifying twists that life has thrown at her. Jorge never complained when doctors told her they'd have to amputate her arms and legs, which had blackened and withered as her body focused its resources and blood on fighting the disease in her core.

Today, she considers herself lucky for having an easygoing baby who doesn't cry much and is a pretty good sleeper. She also has a 10-year-old daughter, Madalyn, from a previous marriage, who loves to play the protective older sister.

And Jorge is thankful for her husband, who stepped up to an uncertain future and married her amid her most difficult times on Oct. 5, 2007, in the chapel at Mass. General in front of tearful family, friends, and hospital staff.

These days, Jorge is a smiling, happy mom, who loves to horse around with her daughters and makes everyone she meets forget her troubles.

Tony Jorge, 41, who was sitting in his wife's electric wheelchair and looking down on Sofia's light-brown curls as he dangled her near the floor, glanced up at his wife during a reporter's recent visit.

"Don't let her kid you; she's probably the strongest person you'll ever meet in your life right there," he said.

A typical day for Monica is getting Madalyn off to school, playing with Sofia on the floor, and taking her for spins around the house in the wheelchair.

She cooks and cleans with the help of a nurse's aide and showers and changes her colostomy bag during Sofia's naps. Weekends are filled with Madalyn's soccer games, and this summer the family rented a cabin with their friends, Ken and Susan O'Connell, in Orchard Beach, Maine.

Monica insisted on doing the dishes, said Susan O'Connell, who grew up with Jorge in Ashland and casually set her up with Ken's best friend, Tony Jorge, a Portuguese immigrant raised in Hudson, by throwing them together at group outings.

"You'd never know it was difficult at all by talking to them," said Ken O'Connell, marveling at how a simple task like getting ready for the beach can take hours without wearing Tony and Monica down.

Jorge has adapted to her prosthetic legs - made from silicone, carbon, and titanium - and learned to walk and balance, even without any abdominal muscles. But she has stopped wearing the arms, which end in a metal claw that the baby often chews or pokes herself on.

Both Tony - who is a maintenance mechanic at INSCO, a machine gear company in Groton - and Monica are hoping that with a few changes, domestic life will soon become even more "normal."

Last week Jorge was fitted for an i-LIMB hand, a prosthetic hand with fingers that respond to the electrical signals generated by her arm muscles.

The couple's friends are also planning a benefit in November at the Hudson Portuguese Club to raise money for a van that can fit an electric wheelchair. Although the Jorges have stayed the same loving, generous people over the past year, everyone else touched by their trauma has shed tears for Monica and struggled to come to terms with her misfortune.

Susan O'Connell said she hopes seeing Monica on "Oprah" will give others a little of the attitude adjustment that the Jorges have inspired in their friends.

"We complain about the littlest thing, and here's a woman who has overcome so much and she insists on doing things. . . . She's like, 'I'm going to wash the floor,' and we're like, 'What?' But she did it, it took all day, and it was killing her, but she did it."

Lindsey Parietti can be reached at lindsey.parietti@gmail.com.

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