Kristan Seaford is a very special person in our Charlotte community. In 2013, she became sick with the flu and strep throat. It escalated into pneumonia, and eventually septic shock. This led to organ failure, and she was placed in a medically induced coma. Doctors were not optimistic about her dire situation, but incredibly, Kristan survived. However, the very medications used to protect her organs prevented adequate blood flow and oxygen from reaching her limbs. This led to tissue death, necessitating the amputation of both of her hands, one foot, and the removal of her toes and heel from her other foot. Since her medical crisis, Kristan has faced and overcome many challenges. Her spirit is stronger than ever, and she’s using her experience to help others in several ways. She’s a licensed professional counselor (LPC), with a private counseling practice. Kristan is also a compelling motivational speaker, whose engaging personality and incredible story has moved many people who’ve heard her message of hope.
You’ve undergone many surgeries over the past four years. Can you discuss that a little?
Since my initial hospitalization and surgery, I’ve needed 11 more surgeries. One of my arms got infected twice, and the other arm got infected once. My right foot has never quite closed up, and I also had one major elective surgery on my arm. It was a clinical trial that my hand surgeons were doing. They wanted to connect the nerves from the ends of my arm to muscles that were farther up toward my elbow. The hope was that I would be able to use the latest and most advanced prosthetic hand. More importantly to me, the surgery could potentially help reduce my pain.
Did it work?
Unfortunately, it didn’t. Almost two years later, my insurance company has still not approved of my getting the fancier prosthetic. And my pain has actually gotten worse. Many of my nerves were cut during my amputations, and so now I have all these nerves without a job to do. They fire all day long, and it’s very painful.
What did you say to your surgeons?
I kept going back and saying that I didn’t think the surgery had worked, and they kept saying to wait a few more months; the pain might subside. Just recently, I was back at their clinic and we agreed that my surgery was not a success, after all. But I am okay with it because they learned something from my case. Pain is always easier to swallow when it has a purpose.
You needed assistance from outside caregivers several years, but your husband has also played an integral role in helping you. What’s that been like?
It’s funny because you find that different caregivers have different paces and ways of doing things. My husband used to feed my like it was his job! He would just be scooping the food in, one spoonful after another, because that’s how he eats. He barely chews. He used to wash me like he was scrubbing a car. He’s gotten to be gentler about it. About once a week, he still washes and blow dries my hair. We have fun with it. I’ll get in my chair, and we’ll pretend his name is Fabio. It’s actually one of our favorite things to do together. It’s our time—one of the only times we have alone together, and the kids can’t hear what we say over the hair dryer. We savor it.
Have you connected with other amputees?
I have. I had no idea there’s such a big amputee community in Charlotte, and an even bigger virtual community. I have learned that amputees are the kindest, most supportive people, with wonderful senses of humor. In my early days, amputees came to visit me, help me, and encourage me. And now the cycle continues because I go and visit new amputees all the time.
You’re very modest. You actually traveled to help a family in need. Can you discuss this?
There was one family that I met online—the mom was an amputee. They were financially able to provide whatever she needed…the best prosthetics. But she had not yet found her inner motivation to use them. They asked what I would charge to come there [to New York] for a weekend to help them navigate the situation. I wouldn’t let them pay me, but they flew me up there and I stayed with them for the weekend.
Have you encountered any rude or insensitive people along the way?
Most of my experiences with people have been wonderful. I have never encountered anyone who is mean spirited, but a lot of people do stare. And there are times when kids will want to ask questions and I wind up talking to them and showing them my prosthetics. Parents will often apologize, but the kids are actually doing the right thing. They’re curious, and it’s better to ask. I’ve had kids react by hiding behind their moms, pointing, and saying things like “Look, it’s a robot.” That truly hurts my heart.
You were an athlete before you got sick, including teaching classes at the YMCA and running. Are you still athletic?
Yes! I am no longer a long distance runner, but I have returned to teaching group exercise classes at the Y. And I’ve had all kinds of adventures where my athleticism has truly been tested. Swimming laps for me is a lot like rowing a boat with sticks, but it sure is a great workout. I went on an all expense (provided by a scholarship) trip to learn to ski in Colorado. It was an amazing week. Not only the skiing, but flying by myself. I was nervous, but I did it. I’ve done other things too, like swimming with dolphins and rock climbing.
Tell us about your involvement with the No Barriers organization.
I’m in love with No Barriers! It was started by Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Mount Everest. He went on to write a book about how extreme sports have truly empowered him, and he started this organization that allows people with all kinds of abilities to participate in them. They have a summit every year, where there are different speakers and events. I thought I had nothing to lose, so I sent all my stuff to them and applied to be a speaker. They were so kind about it, basically saying no, but also saying that I’d be the perfect candidate to attend. So I asked them in a sort of snarky way if they had any scholarships for a stay-at-home mom in North Carolina. And they said yes! They flew me, my husband, and all five kids out to Lake Tahoe. It was magical. And believe me, traveling across the country with five kids is an extreme sport. Most of my kids had never even been on an airplane. With No Barriers, I also got to go New York City, Albany, NY, and Kiawah Island. And I’m looking forward to June when my husband and I are planning to go back to Tahoe with them.
Because your story has impacted so many people, did you ever feel pressure to always be positive, even if you weren’t feeling like it?
People have been so kind to me, and I’m glad to share a message of hope. But there was one point where I told my girlfriends that I was sick of being told that I’m inspiring. I’d rather have my leg back. It became a joke on our girls’ trip, and they would say “you’re so inspiring,” whenever I did anything. If I brought chips to the table, they’d say “you’re so inspiring.” We still laugh about it.
But you are inspiring to many people.
Inspiring is a big word. But I do try no matter what. And I keep trying. If I’m frustrated doing something, I’ll tell myself that I’m going to try it five more times and after that I’m going to ask for help. Sometimes I get it at time four, but maybe the next time it’s on the second try. And then at some point, I just get it.
How did your counseling practice come about?
I’ve been a licensed counselor since 2003. I always dreamt of having my own practice. After this happened, I doubted it would ever happen. But God had a plan for me that led me to this. He left me with a brain and ears, and I can use them to help others. Since I’ve opened, there have been days when my leg wasn’t working, and my husband carried me up the stairs to my office. And I was still able to work the whole day. That’s the blessing—that I could.
How has your own experience affected the way you approach your counseling work?
I get to be a good counselor not despite my disability but because of it.
I truly feel like I’m a better counselor now, than I was before this happened. I have been through many struggles, and those struggles give me an extra dose of compassion as well as a great deal of credibility.
What kinds of people do you work with in your counseling practice?
I see individuals and couples going through a variety of life transitions. It could be a divorce, or dealing with depression. Chronic illness/pain, relationship issues, anxiety. And I see clients as young as 13 to those in their later years. I think my purpose now is to share a message of hope—and that things can be better tomorrow than they are today. And I get to share that message with groups and with individuals.
You also do motivational speaking. What kinds of groups have you spoken to?
They vary from church groups to school events to hospitals. I’ve also spoken at colleges and women’s leadership conferences. Who knew that I had a knack for speaking? I have found a true calling in speaking.
What advice would you give to someone who is going through a challenging time and finding it hard to feel optimistic?
I would tell them that it’s okay to have a pity party. We all have them, and that is all right. There just has to be a curfew, a place where it ends.
Where can people contact you about public speaking or counseling?
People can connect with me at kristanseaford.com.
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