Setbacks no match for former female wrestler Terri Harding Lash

June 15, 2013
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Joe Tuscano / Observer-Reporter
Terri Harding Lash, who now lives in North East, poses for a photo with her children, Drake, left, and Morgan. Order a Print
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Joe Tuscano / Observer-Reporter
Terri Harding Lash with her children Order a Print

On a hot summer day in 2005, Terri Harding Lash is standing at home plate, clutching the bat in her hand as best she can and using her eyes to track the path of the softball that is heading toward her.

The softball, it seems, is in no hurry to get to her, taking its time to cover the short distance from pitcher to catcher. She is eager to hit it, to take on this challenge in the same way she has been forced to take on the challenges of so many issues that have disrupted her life – aggressively.

As it nears the plate, the softball appears much larger now, and its presence requires the type of reaction that only the pressure of a two-strike count creates.

She’s determined to take her best swing, control the situation and see what happens, not let the softball take control for what might be a called third strike.

With her mind made up, she twists and turns her body as the bat comes off her shoulder and begins its path to meet the softball.

The bat comes across the plate, but misses the softball. Terri loses her balance on the follow through and realizes that she is falling. The twisting of her body from swinging the bat, combined with the sweat her thighs have produced on this hot, muggy day, causes the two prosthetics that help hold her up to come undone.

Terri lands with a thud, her prosthetics lying next to her, but pointing in different directions. She raises her head to look at the umpire, who hesitates a moment before raising his right arm.

“Yer out,” he says.

Terri reattaches the prosthetics, dusts the dirt off as she gets to her feet and heads back to the dugout to retrieve her glove. Maybe it occurred to her then, the irony and inaccuracy of the umpire’s call.

In the 42 years of a life filled with so much tragedy, unbelievable suffering and loss, this much she knows.

Terri Harding Lash might be down, but she is never out.

Life-changing event

When Terri ran onto the wrestling mat on that January evening in 1986 to become the first female varsity wrestler in Waynesburg High School history to compete in a match, her destiny appeared set for a life that was much different than the one she has now.

She was a sophomore at the time and wrestled against Dom Cicchenelli of Upper St. Clair, who pinned her in 41 seconds. She accomplished a goal that most in the wrestling-crazy area didn’t feel she could – or should – attempt, and Terri believed she would always be associated with that accomplishment.

Funny how things can change.

After her freshman year at Gannon University, Terri returned home and headed to bed on that May 10 evening in 1989 with a severe headache, something she brushed off as nerves from a recent breakup with her boyfriend.

“I just remember my head hurting so bad,” she said. “I went to bed that night, and in the morning, I was so cold. My sister came in and felt my forehead. She could feel the heat coming off.”

Terri was rushed to Greene County Memorial Hospital. At first, doctors thought she had an inflammation or suffered toxic shock. What it turned out to be was meningococcemia, a potentially deadly bacterial infection that reached the blood stream. The delay in administering the needed antibiotics was crucial. Finally, she was transferred to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va.

The infection was in her blood stream, and she went into septic shock. The infection caused kidney failure, pneumonia and vasculitis, which stopped the blood flow to her arms and legs. She was in such bad shape that she was administered last rites. Doctors at Ruby Memorial saved her life, but it came at a devastating cost. Terri had both legs amputated from the knees down, lost her left arm from the elbow and the tips of her right hand.

“I remember them pulling my gown back in the hospital,” she said, “and I just lost it.”

The aftermath

Fast forward 24 years, to a small town just outside Erie called North East. The short, winding driveway empties into the house Terri designed. It’s magnificent, and what you notice first is the lapping sound of the Lake Erie waters along the shoreline that is a stone’s throw from the house. This is no ordinary house, but a 5,000-square-foot home of Terri’s dreams. The three-story Victorian is a marvel to look at, each room tastefully decorated and filled with the bustling of her husband, Bryan Lash, and two active children.

The house is surrounded by shrubs and a garden that would be typical of ones found in the Hamptons.

The construction was done under the watchful eyes of Terri.

“All the windows face the lake,” she says. “I wish I could tell you I planned it that way, but I didn’t. It was just luck.”

All this was made possible after Terri won a $4 million malpractice suit in February 1994. Not all the money went to her, but enough did to build this house, which among other things has an elevator for Bryan, who is a triple amputee and uses a wheelchair most of the time.

The huge kitchen has a mini atrium filled with plants. The sun streams in, and it is easy to see why it’s one of the more popular rooms in the house, especially for the Lash’s two pugs.

On this day, Terri is sitting at the large kitchen table, discussing the twists and turns of her life when she remembers something.

“Wait, I have to show you this,” Terri says as she rummages through some papers and pulls out a card. It is from Dr. Andrew Willet, the first doctor who treated her at Greene County Memorial Hospital and one of the individuals who would later be named in a medical malpractice suit.

In the card, Dr. Willet extends well-wishes for Terri for now and in the future.

“Isn’t that nice,” she said. “It makes me feel better about society.”

If there is bitterness over her condition, she doesn’t show it. She moves easily but purposefully while leading a tour of the house and even manages the steps of a spiral staircase that leads to the third floor with only a hint of a limp.

Terri said she never considered bringing the malpractice suit until one of her counselors brought it up while she was recovering.

“I had to go through a grieving process, just like anyone else,” she says. “Focusing on what you don’t have is not living your life. You need to appreciate what is there when it’s there.”

No ordinary life

It’s the type of conversation that you wouldn’t expect to have in most homes, but there is almost a matter-of-fact tone when this one was asked.

“Hey hon, you died over a period of time, eight different times, and in different ways, too, right?” Terri asks as her husband Bryan wheels into the kitchen.

“The line they used is, ‘I’m like a human cat,’” Bryan said, reaching into the refrigerator. “I’ve got one life left.”

In 1991, Bryan was electrocuted and fell from a height of about seven stories. He lost a leg and parts of both arms.

“You’ve had the efrenefren in the heart, the adrenaline,” Terri says, trying to recall the different resuscitation procedures.

“Oh, you mean to bring me back,” Bryan said. “I was shocked, had CPR, bagging. One time, I just came back on my own. Once, they took me off the ventilator, and I flat-lined. One paramedic just punched me in the chest, and that worked.”

Terri and Bryan met while at Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital in Pittsburgh, but didn’t date simply because of their similar fates. They fell in love and were married in 1995.

“I dated other guys, but he’s the only one I dated with a disability,” she said. “I’ve always said, ‘Liking me because I have an amputation is the same as not liking me because I have an amputation. Both are superficial (feelings).

“But that’s how we met. He wanted to meet a younger amputee because most people are older there.”

“Yeah, most of the people there were like 80-year-old diabetics,” Bryan said.

“That’s why our doctor, our general practitioner, when he saw Morgan, he was like, ‘This is amazing,’” Terri said.

Morgan is their 5-year-old with sparkling eyes, a bright smile and engaging personality. She was born in 2008, and a couple years later, they had a boy, Drake.

“I asked my doctors at Ruby, and they told me that as far as they knew, this would not affect (me having children),” Terri said. “A lot of people thought we couldn’t have kids. But no, I just couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted to have kids. We had (an age) deadline of when I turned 35 and he turned 40. We went past that: 37 and 39.”

Terri easily moves around the children, giving hugs and tending to their needs before bedtime.

“My biggest fear was that if they ever choked, you have to do the mouth sweep with your finger,” she said, holding up her right hand that had parts of the fingers amputated. “But they never did. If I go to play with Morgan in a room, I take my legs off just because it’s more comfortable for me to sit on the floor. My legs tend to throw me backwards.”

And what does she tell the children about her amputations?

“With Morgan and other kids, being around her at preschool, I didn’t wear my arm for a long time,” Terri said. “I didn’t ever want to accidentally hurt them with it. The kids would say, ‘Your arm’s broken.’ Or ‘Where’s your hand?’ (Children) don’t adapt to anything. That’s just their environment. That’s what they know us to be.”

It’s the adults that can sometimes be insensitive. She recalls two instances:

“The first time I went out without my prosthesis, we went to Station Square. I was in rehab. I can remember people staring at me, but it was more like a ‘What happened?’ kind of look. … One time, we were at the mall and a girl walked past us and said, ‘That was weird.’ A lot of things in life, people don’t want to discuss because they are just uncomfortable with it.”

Inner strength

Spend any amount of time talking with Terri and you discover quickly that she has an outstanding memory, pulling out dates and numbers with aplomb. There is a determination in her voice, even in the most mundane subjects, that shows a great inner strength.

It’s a life that has had such great achievements and experienced incredible sadness. Her oldest sister, Trisha, died from recurring brain tumors when Terri was 4. Her mother, Dorothy, had a loving attitude but distant nature, and Terri was so disrupted by allergies that she owns a T-shirt with the words, “You Name It, I’m Allergic To It” across the front. The Lashes had to trade in their van because she was allergic to the chemicals the dealership used to clean it.

“Allergies limit my life more than being a triple amputee,” she said.

She carried around what she calls “survivor’s guilt” because two of her friends, Jennifer Nalitz and Olga Harding, died in automobile accidents two weeks apart on the same road.

“People say there is a reason I survived, so my question is why, then, did they die?” Terri said.

Her life also has been filled with a desire to help others. She has worked in the Disability/Independent Living field for more than a decade, and has volunteered a great deal of her time to the Erie Children’s Museum and the Neighborhood Art House.

And this might surprise you. Terri has been a softball player, dancer, rock climber, scuba diver, sky diver, kayaker and even tried something called adaptive sailing that is offered on Lake Erie, post amputations. But it’s never been about proving herself.

“A disability doesn’t change a person; it just intensifies who they are,” she says. “I don’t enjoy challenges. I just don’t back down from them.”

That’s how she ended up on the local evening news in 2009, a triple amputee crawling up the steps of the Kittanning Library to point out that it was not handicap accessible.

The family has traveled to England, Ireland, Scotland and France. Terri has been honored with the Courage To Come Back Award by the St. Francis Health Foundation in 1991 and the Comeback Award by the Western Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association in 2005 – what a delicious irony in that – and has had her story told at one time or another by most of the media outlets in Western Pennsylvania.

Now, she is embarking on a new adventure, hoping to begin a speaking career for the medical community in Western Pennsylvania. There is a lot to tell.

The days change, but Terri’s disability does not. It’s there in the morning, stays through the afternoon and follows her to bed. Her condition has spurred her on to some incredible accomplishments and to be, well, a better person.

“It makes you feel like you did something wrong when you haven’t done some grandiose, spectacular thing,” she said. “I believe … there is no good life or bad. There is just life.”

She’s living it the best she can.

Joe Tuscano has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1980. He has covered all sports for the newspaper, including the Steelers, Pirates, Pitt football, local college football and wrestling. He has worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Jeannette News-Dispatch and North Hills Record. He graduated from Duquesne University in 1980.

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