Crash survivor shares journey of hope, perserverance

The horrific crash on a city street made news, and no doubt made people grimace and clutch their hearts, everywhere in Lithuania.

It happened the Feb. 12, 2000, in the capital, Vilnius. A car pushed to perhaps 100 mph by the young man at the wheel struck a pole and tore the vehicle in two. Ejected, the driver may have been dead before he hit the pavement.

The impact also ripped his girlfriend from the passenger seat. She was alive, though barely, when rescuers ran to her. As she’d catapulted from the jagged wreckage, both of her legs were severed above the knees.

That was Inga Lizdenyte, 22 years old and until that wintry night the busy, contented manager of the business lounge at Vilnius International Airport.

She came around to crushing news that dribbled in like the fluids in the IVs. She’d lost not only her boyfriend - who’d evidently been racing another car - but also her legs and the use of her left arm.

Even once she’d healed substantially, she could not so much as roll herself over to seek a more comfortable position in bed.

“I hated it so much,” recalls Lizdenyte (liz den EAT ah). “I hated to be so dependent. I was able only to open and close my eyes. I was depressed, deeply, for three years.”

Today, this is her life: Now 37, she rents an apartment in Santa Rosa and has devised ways to leverage, pivot, grip, balance, bounce, improvise, do whatever she needs to do, without assistance.

She navigates public buses and uses her zippy, mechanized wheelchair to get where she wants to go. She’s also a valued staff member at downtown’s Disability Services and Legal Center.

“She screams perseverance without saying a word,” said the nonprofit’s chief, Adam Brown. He said people with disabilities come in looking for help with housing or other challenges to living independently, and they’re astonished to meet Lizdenyte and learn what she has accomplished.

Frequently, Brown said, merely witnessing this woman gives them “a different outlook to what’s possible.”

Apart from her day job as the agency’s part-time volunteer and public relations coordinator, Lizdenyte is writing a book that’s part autobiography, part self-help guide and part Christian testimony. She appears at churches and other venues as a motivational speaker and makes herself available as a life coach.

“I’m happier now than before the accident,” she declared.

How she got from Vilnius to Santa Rosa is quite a story, one that features a major supporting role by a well-known and charitable expert in the making and fitting of artificial limbs.

He is Jon Batzdorff, and he was operating Sierra Orthopedic Laboratory in Santa Rosa when he received an email from Lizdenyte early in 2002.

By that time, the Lithuanian had undergone several surgeries and been fitted with a pair of prosthetic legs. She said she was absolutely determined to walk again, but the prostheses hurt terribly - and she was told that when she wore them it was simply impossible for her to sit.

She recalls thinking that in more technologically advanced parts of the world, there had to be artificial legs that didn’t cause excruciating pain, and that would allow the wearer to sit and then stand. She searched the Internet for what looked to be leading prosthetists in the U.S. and Germany, and she emailed three of them.

Jon Batzdorff remembers that first email from Lithuania in 2002. He has since sold Sierra Orthopedics and he works for another lab and dedicates more time to efforts to improve access to quality artificial limbs around the world.

The note from Lizdenyte told him about the crash and the loss of her legs and the use of her left arm, and about her painful experience with the prostheses.

She asked if he’d be able to fit her with better artificial legs. Batzdorff replied that it doesn’t work for him simply to make prostheses for someone in another country because the process of successfully fitting a person who suffered traumatic amputations is dynamic and requires frequent adjustment and modification.

But, Batzdorff told Lizdenyte, it was possible that he could come to Vilnius and offer instruction to the staff of the prosthetics practice that was serving her. And he told her this:

It happened that he was preparing to travel to Turkey as a part of a Project Hope mission to help people who lost limbs to the massive earthquake of 1999. If she could get to Istanbul, he and a team of specialists could see and evaluate her.

Lizdenyte eagerly began preparations to travel with a friend to Turkey. She met Batzdorff there in April 2002. The Santa Rosan and a physician and physical therapist voluntarily examined her artificial legs and what remained of her own legs.

Batzdorff also worked on her prostheses, telling her, “They’re not supposed to hurt.”

Lizdenyte remembers walking on the man-made legs when Batzdorff finished with them. “That was the first time in two years that I stood up and didn’t feel any pain,” she said. “I cried the rest of the day.”

Understanding that changes in her legs and her stride and other factors pretty much assured that the prostheses would work satisfactorily for only so long, she told Batzdorff that upon her return to Lithuania she would ask the leaders of her prosthetics center to invite him to come teach them.

That happened. True to his word, Batzdorff paid his own way to travel from Sonoma County to Vilnius in the fall of ’02 to train the prosthetics specialists who were treating Lizdenyte.

While in Lithuania, Batzdorff also made her a new pair of artificial legs. He showed me how to sit down and stand up,” she said.

Though the prostheses were a great improvement, Batzdorff knew he could create a better pair back in Santa Rosa. So he made Lizdenyte a stunning and ultimately life-changing offer: If she would come to Sonoma County, he would fit her with new prostheses and train her to use them.

“It’s my biggest miracle, or one of my biggest miracles,” she said.

She set about raising money for the journey, and in February 2003 arrived in Sonoma County. Batzdorff did all that he’d promised, and soon she was walking, sitting, even dancing on new legs that he made and modified to allow her to put them on and remove them with her one good arm.

During her six-month stay, Lizdenyte began to fall in love with Sonoma County. But she tore herself away, and shortly after landing back in Lithuania she realized a dream: She strode up to her mother at the airport, looked her in the eye and hugged her.

In time, though, even the American prosthesis on her left leg became painful because of bone growth and apparent nerve-ending irritation. Surgery can remove the bone spur but there is no guarantee the fix will be permanent.

Ultimately, Lizdenyte accepted that artificial legs were not a long-term solution for her. She set the prostheses aside.

Batzdorff said she’d clearly given it her all. “If it would have been possible for her to walk, she’d be walking,” he said. “It isn’t for lack of trying.”

Lizdentye switched her focus to using a wheelchair and doggedly teaching herself to be independent. But that proved exceedingly difficult in Lithuania. She was stymied by stairs, the severe weather and a culture that at the time showed inadequate concern for how people with disabilities were to get around and function without the need for assistance.

A solution occurred to her: live in Sonoma County.

Many months of effort culminated in her arriving in California in early 2005 and achieving legal residency. She volunteered to help similarly challenged people at Disability Services and Legal Center, and that led to her being hired on.

“I am very happy,” she said. “I live my dream.”

Her boss, Adam Brown, said that beyond feeling grateful for the way Lizdenyte’s joy and example inspires the people who come to the agency for assistance, “We just like having her around.”

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