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Marty Hartigan triumphantly raising his hands over his head in front of large window

UNDEFEATED

Marty Hartigan lost his limbs. Then he cheered up his friends.

By Karen Springen
Photography by Colin Boyle
September 2020

Marty Hartigan thought he had the flu. After his typical Sunday night red-eye from his home in Coto de Caza, Calif., to Chicago, the Deloitte consultant felt unusually tired. Then, during a client meeting on Monday, Hartigan, ’89, felt chills and tried to keep from shaking. On Tuesday, he stayed in his apartment, drinking Gatorade and taking Tylenol. The next morning, July 17, 2019, his daughter, Kayleigh, then a rising junior at the University of Virginia who was visiting on a layover, noticed her dad struggling to talk. She refused to leave for the airport until he saw a doctor. She googled the closest emergency room and called an Uber to go to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Hartigan, wearing flip-flops, shorts and his Winston Churchill “We Shall Never Surrender” T-shirt, couldn’t even stand on the elevator ride down from the 35th floor. When he arrived at the ER with Kayleigh, he remembers someone asking if he had a do-not-resuscitate order. His answer: “No! I want to be resuscitated!” Then, he says, “I blacked out for 10 days.”

When he regained consciousness, Hartigan learned he had nearly died. A strep A bacterial infection, possibly from strep throat, and his body’s unusually strong inflammatory response to it, had dramatically lowered his blood pressure, causing septic shock and multiorgan failure. A rare hyperclotting condition called purpura fulminans led to blocked arteries throughout his body and, ultimately, to amputations of both lower legs, one forearm and most of his opposite hand. “Anyone who needs the intensive care unit could die,” says Clara Schroedl, the assistant professor of medicine and medical education at Northwestern University who was Hartigan’s critical-care doctor during the first few days. “Even within our intensive care unit, we have severity of illness that varies. He was way on the side of severe.”

Until summer 2019, Hartigan’s life had resembled one of those picture-perfect holiday cards. He was a partner at one of the world’s top consulting firms and lived in a Southern California house with a home gym. He had married his sweetheart from his UCLA business-school days, Darcey, who taught high school until the arrival of their second child, Matt, now a sophomore at Indiana University. There was, of course, a downside: “We weren’t together much,” says Hartigan, who often spent four or five days a week traveling to clients in places like Texas and Mississippi, though he still managed to coach Little League.

Hartigan’s hospitalization and, nine months later, the pandemic shutdown, combined to change all that. The family spent this spring huddled in Hartigan’s two-room Chicago apartment, with rehab and college on pause. (Marty and Darcey have since returned to Southern California.) “It’s like
a second chance,” Kayleigh says. “We appreciate the things we didn’t appreciate before, like being together.” And going to the bathroom, in Hartigan’s case. He spent a few unhappy weeks on dialysis before his kidneys miraculously started to work again. “I started to tell people I was the king of pee,” says Hartigan. “I never got upset. I never went through the ‘Why me?’”

Marty Hartigan laying on his back with a female trainer, working outMarty Hartigan driving electric wheelchair inside a taxiMarty Hartigan practicing opening a coffee canMarty Hartigan holding a knife, spreading peanut butter on bread
CORE TEAM: Hartigan, clad in his “ubiquitous Adidas sweats,” works out with Vinci de Vanegas (top left) and makes the all-important coffee and a PB&J with Wilmsen (top right).
CORE TEAM: Hartigan, clad in his “ubiquitous Adidas sweats,” works out with Vinci de Vanegas (top) and makes the all-important coffee and a PB&J with Wilmsen (third from top, bottom).

‘Kind of Fluky’

There was no foreshadowing, no hint of a brewing medical emergency. Hartigan remembers feeling great at a July 3 barbecue in Coto de Caza. “Oddly enough, my memory is very hazy of the two weeks before I got sick,” he says. In retrospect, he thinks he “possibly” had a sore throat the weekend before he ended up in the ER. But he isn’t sure.

“You can get sepsis from any kind of infection—a dog bite, a urinary tract infection,” says Fritz Glaser, ’89, MS ’89, an orthopedic surgeon in Fresno, Calif., and a Sigma Chi brother of Hartigan’s. “Marty’s was kind of fluky.” Glaser jumped in to serve as Hartigan’s medical interpreter and advocate during his four-month hospital stay, and later “MacGyvered” an easy wheelchair-to-toilet seat, a shower chair and a shower head with a hose for his Chicago apartment. “He’s the most loyal human being I’ve ever met,” Hartigan says. (The two were each other’s best man at their respective weddings.)

In the emergency room, doctors put Hartigan on a ventilator to preserve brain function, gave him antibiotics to treat the infection and administered vasopressors to raise his dangerously low blood pressure. When Darcey arrived from California, she was “completely shocked,” she says. “No one told me when I walked in there that he would be on all these life-support machines,” she says—and they reminded her of her father’s death nine years prior. She called her sister and broke down crying. “I said, ‘He looks really bad. He looks like Dad,’” she says.

Physicians kept delivering dire prognoses. “Every time a doctor walked in the room, my heart would constrict,” Darcey says. “I really hated when the doctors came in the room.”

‘Marty can live without his limbs, but we can’t live without Marty.’

And yet, every time, Hartigan pulled through. The staff nicknamed him Marty Harty—seemingly a play on hardy and hearty, says internal medicine resident Avni Bavishi, who kept one of the “MartyStrong” bracelets Darcey had handed out as a talisman. She remembers when Darcey learned her husband might need amputations of his limbs. Darcey’s response, Bavishi says, was immediate and clear-eyed: “That’s fine. Marty can live without his limbs, but we can’t live without Marty.”

Ensuring that enough blood and oxygen flowed to Hartigan’s heart and brain—the priority—meant not enough could get to his extremities. So when he regained consciousness, he saw that his limbs were “shriveled and dark—like, brown,” he says. Doctors amputated his legs from just below the knee (on August 9), his left arm below his elbow (August 15), and the right thumb, index finger, pinky and middle finger down to its last joint (also August 15). Initially, Hartigan called these residual limbs his “stumps” or his “stubs,” he says. “One of the therapists said in a very nice way, ‘Your residuals.’”

Over nearly three months, Hartigan had 18 surgeries, many of them to remove dead tissue to preserve his knees with an eye toward his future mobility. “It’s much easier to learn to walk on prosthetics where you have your knee,” Hartigan explains. Some of the operations took eight to 10 hours. “You have to sew blood vessels under the microscope,” says Jason Ko, an associate professor and Hartigan’s plastic surgeon at Northwestern. “Marty is and was the best patient ever. Life is short. These terrible things can happen. No matter what ridiculous decision we had to make, he always remained positive.”

But no one, not even Hartigan, can be perpetually positive after losing parts of all four limbs. His low point? Breaking his tooth on a Subway flatbread chicken sandwich in October. “I was despondent,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that after everything else, my tooth cracked. I had a pity party for about a half hour.”

The Rehab Road

After his release from Northwestern Memorial in November, Hartigan moved to the nearby Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, where he worked daily for six weeks with physical and occupational therapists to regain strength and learn how to slide out of bed into a wheelchair. Then he moved back to his Chicago apartment, returning to AbilityLab twice a week for three hours of PT and OT. “He’s really had a great attitude about the whole thing and a lot of gratitude,” says Mark Huang, an AbilityLab physician and a professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s a long road.”

A year after his near-death experience, the former Stanford rugby player who ran 1,000 miles in 2018 is coming to terms with a different life and body. “Life as a quad amputee is the new normal,” Hartigan says. A fit 185 pounds before he entered the hospital, he weighed just 125 pounds four months later, when he transferred to AbilityLab. (He is now back up to 165, which, minus an estimated 20 pounds for the amputated limbs, is the full Marty.)

“It’s a big change all at once,” says Eileen Wilmsen, Hartigan’s occupational therapist at AbilityLab. “It’s the kind of recovery that may take months, years, to be back into that normal routine. Marty’s putting in everything he’s got.”

In January, Wilmsen was helping Hartigan figure out new ways to perform everyday tasks: how to shave, toast a bagel and spread it with cream cheese, take a shower, eat independently and transfer from his wheelchair to the toilet. Hartigan calls them “things you take for granted.” By February, he and Wilmsen were working on “life hacks,” such as using a tongue depressor to pop open the lids of food-storage containers. Reusable storage bags proved trickier. “Ziploc is like Kryptonite to me,” Hartigan said. He looked around: “What’s next? What can I open next?”

Meanwhile, in physical therapy, Laura Vinci de Vanegas had Hartigan balance on a big medicine ball. “If I fell forward, I’d fall on my face,” noted Hartigan afterward. “I was nervous, but I just kind of went for it.” Then he did it again. “Marty, you’ll be teaching adaptive Pilates!” Vinci de Vanegas exclaimed. She emphasized that this work, and soon, prosthetic legs, would help
Hartigan return to life in the community.

Hartigan had already adapted to a left-arm prosthetic with a wrist that rotates and a highly functional hook, folding laundry neat enough to please Marie Kondo. “It’s very incomplete compared to what an arm would be,” he says. “But if you think of it as a tool, it’s amazing.” Though his right arm is more intact, he calls it his forgotten limb. “I have a weird half hand,” Hartigan says. “There’s no, ‘For weird half hands, here’s the device you put on.’” Nevertheless, he does not want to undergo additional surgery, even if having a second prosthetic arm might make some tasks easier. “No, no, I’m done with amputations!” he says. He typically texts and types by dictating to speech-recognition software, then correcting its mistakes with the remaining joint of his right middle finger.

“Seeing the potential for returning to an independent life, even after an extreme loss like this, is what we’re trying to help Marty navigate through,” Vinci de Vanegas says. “He is a very motivated, active young person. We want life with the prosthetic limbs to reflect as much of his previous life as possible.”

But the timeline was slower than anyone expected. “When we decided he would have to be amputated, it sounded like, ‘It takes two months to heal, and then you’ll have prosthetics,” Darcey says. She thought, “We’re going home at Christmas.” Of 2019, that is. Hartigan is philosophical about it. “If I didn’t have such good doctors, I probably would have been amputated above the knee,” he says. “These guys did this amazing job to reconstruct my knees. In doing so, though, the rehabilitation from the construction has been much more difficult than they envisioned, and we thought.” The joints, he explains, had frozen to some degree.

An arm hook moving a chess pieceA necklace that reads, "To my dad, I'll always be your little boy. You'll always be my hero!"Marty Hartigan's family standing outside in a fieldMarty Hartigan standing outside with his wife at sunset
FAMILY TIES: Chess with Matt in the spring (top left), the Hartigans in June 2019 (top right), Marty and Darcey back in California in August. “We are riding off into the sunset together,” Darcey says.

Photos: Courtesy Darcey Hartigan (top right and right)
FAMILY TIES: Chess with Matt in the spring (top), the Hartigans in June 2019 (third from top), Marty and Darcey back in California in August (bottom). “We are riding off into the sunset together,” Darcey says.

Photos: Courtesy Darcey Hartigan (bottom 2)

COVID Time

Hartigan and Darcey had begun making plans—flexible plans—to return home. In late 2019, they sold their 4,500-square-foot house in Coto de Caza—too big for empty nesters and not wheelchair friendly. And in April, they bought a one-story home in San Clemente, Calif., that they’re retrofitting with an accessible bathroom and wider doorways. But along with their kids, who were finishing their college semesters via Zoom, they spent March, April and May in Hartigan’s 800-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, watching Tiger King, Parasite and Animal House. Hartigan, whose skin was still healing and who couldn’t be bumped during the night, slept in the smaller room, and Matt, Kayleigh and Darcey slept in the other. They fashioned a desk for Matt by duct-taping a closet door to two barstools.

Hartigan’s doctors told him to assume he is at high risk of COVID-19 complications, so he temporarily stopped going to outpatient PT and OT. Darcey felt safe running outdoors. Not Kayleigh, who worried she’d contract COVID-19 and infect her dad. “I tell her, ‘You don’t need to worry,’ and she says, ‘That’s what you told me last time,’” Hartigan said.

‘The 2.0 is being more in the present. If I look too far in the future, it seems like this is very hard and very slow.’

Meanwhile, Hartigan stayed in the apartment and did what he could to prepare his body for prosthetic legs. “They’re holding back for all the right reasons,” he said. “If I can’t bend my knees, it’s like walking on stilts.” From the moment he woke up, he’d work on core strength and range of motion for two to three hours each day. “It’s not like I have anything else to do,” he said. “This is it.”

On June 3, it was time. Hartigan took a COVID test and was readmitted to AbilityLab. The next day, he took his new, custom prosthetic legs for a spin around the lab, using a walker. The day after that, he walked about 40 feet. Back in California since July, Hartigan now uses the prosthetics and walker rather than a wheelchair when he leaves the house. Doctors expect that someday he will be able to run again.

Hartigan was motivated by an additional goal. “I want to be taller than my son again,” he said in the spring. (Matt is 5-foot-11, and Hartigan had a half inch on him before his amputations.)

Regardless of who is taller at any given moment, Matt still looks up to his father. For Christmas, Matt gave Hartigan silver dog tags that read, “To my dad. I’ll always be your little boy. You’ll always be my hero!” Hartigan always wears them.

Marty 2.0

Hartigan, who took a yearlong medical leave of absence and then retired from Deloitte, doesn’t know whether he will return to full-time work. In the past, he says, he used to think, “I’m going to work really hard now because then I’ll have the rest of my life to relax.” But “Marty 2.0,” as he describes himself, is “rebooting,” focusing on rehab and then figuring out what’s next later. “I spent a lot of time thinking about meetings or clients or events in the future,” he says. “The 2.0 is being more in the present. If I look too far in the future, it seems like this is very hard and very slow.”

Darcey, previously a big planner, calls herself a “day-by-dayer” now. “Lead your life today because you don’t know about tomorrow,” she says. She is grateful for the example of the couple’s new friend Jay Scher, an athletic 45-year-old and fellow Northwestern patient who lost limbs through septic shock six months before Hartigan. “He’s someone we look up to,” says Darcey, who notes that he helped them understand the possible rehab timeline.

Advice like Scher’s helps Hartigan focus on near-term goals. “I don’t think about it being like one gigantic milestone,” he says. Instead, he works on learning to be patient—“being patient in all ways, being patient when things are hard to do.”

And, he points out, not every outcome of his illness has been negative. “I’ve been on paid vacation for nine months,” Hartigan said in the spring. “My whole family is here with me. I’ve seen my friends more in the past nine months than in 20 years. In a bad situation, there have been a lot of good things.”

He and Darcey may have missed their planned silver-anniversary Caribbean cruise last September, but now they spend a record amount of time together. “It’s made me closer to my husband,” says Darcey. “He was gone Monday through Friday. Now we’re glued at the hip. Until I almost lost him, I didn’t realize how much I loved him.”

Hartigan has reconnected with his friends from Stanford rugby (he was the president) and Sigma Chi (he was the president). Fraternity brother Dan Druker, ’88, set up a Sunday virtual cocktail hour with eight of the guys. He also delivered a signed Stanford football to Hartigan’s hospital room in the early days—only to discover that K.J. Costello, ’20, and Austin Maihen, ’19, who went to high school with Kayleigh and Matt, had beaten him to it.

“Marty being who he was, the primary guy everybody turned to in tough times, made all of us feel we had to be twice as supportive,” says Sean Walters, ’91.

For their 30th reunion weekend last October, Tim Brien, ’89, visited Hartigan in Chicago instead of heading to the Farm. Sigma Chi brothers Tom Ellis, ’88, and Richard Stanley, ’90, came along. “There isn’t anybody who doesn’t like him,” says Brien. He sees a parallel between Hartigan’s situation and poker, which the Sigma Chis used to play together. “Just because you’re dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean you’re out of the game,” says Brien. “You can still win with a bad hand.”

It’s no accident, says Michael Colglazier, ’89, that so much of Hartigan’s support has come from the Stanford community. “That rekindling and outpouring—the engagement that went into Marty and his family—that happens because of the memories and the relationships that Stanford forges with its alumni,” he says. “It’s a combination of Stanford being what it is and Marty being who he is.”

Hartigan has even talked with Stanford robotics researcher Steve Collins, a professor of mechanical engineering who introduced him to colleagues at AbilityLab. “I found him super engaging, smart and helpful,” Hartigan says. Alas, Six Million Dollar Man–style bionic limbs may not be ready in his lifetime. “People are fantastic machines,” says Collins. “The best robots we have are just barely starting to catch up with humans in a couple of specific tasks. We have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. When you try to engineer a comparably complex system using design techniques, rather than human evolution, it’s way harder.”

A shorter-term goal: Fellow Sigma Chi and rugby player J.B. Handley, ’91, who calls Hartigan “a combination of a big brother, a father and a primary mentor for me,” is trying to rally the Stanford guys to go to Las Vegas when it seems safe to do so, and Hartigan hopes to join them. “There’s a saying at Sigma Chi about strong arms around you,” says Handley. “He has those strong arms around him now. Just because we all went to Stanford doesn’t mean we all don’t have hard times.”

Every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Pacific, a bunch of those men with strong arms—Glaser, Colglazier, Brien—gather, with Hartigan, on the phone. Hartigan cherishes the time they now spend together. “We were all too busy,”
he says. “Ultimately, it’s living in the present much more than I did. I was always thinking about what would come next.”

Karen Springen, ’83, a former Newsweek correspondent, is a clinical assistant professor and director of the Journalism Residency program at Northwestern University’s Medill School.