Four months after a cold-weather accident left Alyssa Lommel with amputated hands and feet, she's in the process of making a remarkable recovery. She plans to go back to school in Duluth this fall.

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Alyssa Lommel was barely clinging to life in a coma at the burn center of St. Paul's Regions Hospital.

The 19-year-old had been airlifted from Duluth after spending nine hours outside the morning of Dec. 7. Temperatures were as low as minus 17.

Lommel was found with a body temperature of 26 degrees Celsius, two degrees colder than when most people's hearts stop functioning.

Doctors cut open her arms in an attempt to relieve swelling and restart circulation. Her stomach was cut open to give her lungs room to expand — an effort that eventually failed, causing her to use an oscillator breathing machine.

"We were all prepared to say goodbye at one point," said Teri, Alyssa's mother.

But four months after the accident, Lommel is alive and well.

Despite amputations up to the knuckles of the fingers on both hands and parts of both her feet, Lommel is completing everyday tasks while living at her parents' St. Cloud home. She plans to be living on her own again this fall in Duluth.

She walks normally and no longer needs to wear special boots that protected her skin-grafted heels. Thanks to tools designed for her, she can put on her own makeup and eat by herself. She even started showering by herself and has learned to text and use touch-screen computers on her own.

"She can already text faster than Mom," joked Lommel's oldest brother, Adam.

Alyssa Lommel's recovery has drawn widespread attention.

Her family has a room full of gifts from well-wishers, including stuffed animals and jerseys. Her Facebook and Twitter accounts are overfilled with friend requests and encouraging messages. And she's read every letter — with postmarks from strangers all around the U.S., and from the United Kingdom and Canada.

"There were a few days that were incredibly hard to deal with and there have been a lot of tears, but at the same time the support that I've gotten is unbelievable," Lommel said. "Every little 'we're thinking of you' counts.

"I wouldn't have been able to get through this without the support I've received from friends, family and even strangers."

Moving forward

Lommel comes from a family of survivors.

Adam suffered a brain aneurysm and diabetes diagnosis when he was 14. Her older brother Sam has battled osteonecrosis, a disease caused by reduced blood flow to bones in the joints.

Lommel also has a younger brother, Leo. The siblings, all of whom attended St. Cloud Cathedral High School, are planning on getting matching tattoos when Leo turns 18 in October.

Alyssa Lommel, a 2012 Cathedral graduate and University of Minnesota-Duluth sophomore, is still on track to graduate college with her class.

The psychology/sociology double major is enrolled to take online summer classes starting in May. And she's prepared to sign up April 22 for fall semester classes on campus.

"Obviously, there is going to be a lot of work that needs to be done, but my goal is to be up in Duluth in the fall," Lommel said. "I have all my classes picked out with the times and everything. I'm one of those nerds — I'm so excited to get back to school."

Saved by strangers

Four months ago, going back to school seemed like an unattainable goal.

Around 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, Ellen Johnson and her boyfriend, Sam Salo, drove past a Woodland Avenue house in Duluth on their way to run some errands.

"I saw a girl lying on the stairs and it was definitely not normal," said Johnson, a lifeguard from Alexandria who was in the passenger seat. "It was the first brutally cold weekend we had this winter."

Salo pulled into the next driveway and turned the car around.

Johnson got out to check the situation and found an unconscious Lommel wearing a coat and Ugg boots but no gloves. Her hands were swollen to three times their normal size. There were tracks in the snow leading to an unheated garage and a locked car.

Johnson, who is also in the UMD psychology department but had never met Lommel, knocked on the nearby house door to no answer — it was Lommel's neighbors' home, and they were out of town.

Johnson signaled for Salo to call 911. Salo said police were on the scene about 90 seconds later. Lommel was quickly put in an ambulance.

Doctors estimate she was minutes to an hour away from death.

"I honestly don't remember anything from that day," Lommel said. "I don't remember going to class, going to work or anything. The whole day was kind of wiped out. To be honest, I don't want to remember. I just want to move forward."

After hospitalization, there was much speculation about the incident.

"People can say that I was underage drinking in college and that's what caused it, but in reality had it been a sunny day, I would've woken up and been like, 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing here,' " Lommel said. "I just want people to be aware that this happens to people all the time, unfortunately. Beware of the cold."

Starting to recover

The Minnesota Department of Health said exposure to the Minnesota winter was a factor in at least 26 deaths from Dec. 1, 2013, to the end of February.

Lommel was close to being the 27th. Regions Dr. Bill Mohr said with overnight temperatures as low as minus 17, it would've taken 15 minutes of exposure to start having hypothermia issues and an hour to reach Lommel's critical condition.

She remained in a coma for three weeks. Her first memory after the accident came on Christmas Eve.

"Once I woke up, I thought I felt fine. Granted, some drugs were helping," Lommel said. "I was ready to go home."

Lommel noticed the scar on her stomach.

"Badass," she observed.

"Our family uses humor a lot," explained Teri, who kept a journal of her daughter's recovery on the CaringBridge website.

With a Christmas tree drawn on the whiteboard by a nurse, the Lommel family watched the movie "Elf" in Alyssa's hospital room.

On Christmas Day, numerous visitors came, including a large group of Cathedral High School parents with food and wrapped gifts. The Cathedral community has been especially active in fundraising and support for the Lommel family. Cathedral eighth-grader Emma Leighton even asked guests at her birthday party to donate money to the Lommel family in lieu of receiving gifts. And Lommel specifically thanked fellow Cathedral graduate and close friend Amy Bechtold for helping Teri with caregiving duties.

But at Christmas time, Lommel still wasn't told of her impending amputations.

"The hardest part is that we knew and it was going to be hard to tell Alyssa," Teri said. "We were three weeks ahead of her in processing all the information because of the coma."

Lommel was told Dec. 30 about plans for amputations. Dr. Mohr knelt at the side of her hospital bed and revealed the news.

"This isn't real, this isn't real, this isn't real," Lommel kept repeating until someone eventually turned on the TV to break the tension.

Progress in her recovery eventually brightened Lommel's outlook.

After only being allowed to use a feeding tube, she was allowed to eat applesauce. After only being allowed to consume thick liquids, she was able to drink a Diet Coke. Each time she went to physical therapy, she was able to walk farther.

"Alyssa has an inner strength," said Mikki Rothbauer, Lommel's Regions social worker. "She handled everything the same: She is overwhelmed, she thinks it through, she deals with head-on and then she overcomes it."

Lommel met an amputee volunteer named Jess who shared her own experiences.

"Initially I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do anything for myself ever again,' " Lommel said. "Once I talked to (Jess) it opened my eyes that I'll be able to do everything. She gave me hope for the future."

'The new me'

Lommel had amputation surgeries on her feet and hands.

With Teri and her father, Jay, comfortingly holding her arms, Lommel opened her eyes to see the results of the amputations a few days after the surgeries.

"There was tears shed and it was definitely hard, but after a while you realize, 'That's just me,' " Alyssa Lommel said. "That is how I am. This is the new me."

On Feb. 3, Lommel was allowed to transfer to St. Cloud Hospital. On the drive north from St. Paul, the family made a quick stop at their St. Cloud home, where she got to see Rocky, the family dog.

"He always puts a smile on my face," Lommel said.

Rocky later made a visit to the hospital, where Lommel gave him a walk during physical therapy.

Lommel's occupational therapy intensified at St. Cloud Hospital as well. There she made pudding.

After initially struggling — when first opening the package the powder flew everywhere — Lommel adapted, using her forearms to open the cap on a milk carton and pour it in with the contents.

"That was another boost," said Lommel, who then realized she could make her staple macaroni and cheese and boxed mashed potatoes dishes.

"I can do anything if I put my mind to it. It's just different than how I used to."

Thanks to Teri's around-the-clock care, Lommel was able to go home Feb. 11. She spent the first two nights with Teri in her parents' bed. Then she moved to the couch, before finally moving back into her own room thanks to an indoor doorbell system she could use to call for her mother.

Lommel was eventually able to go to the salon and shopping.

Initially, Lommel covered her amputations in public. But now she goes out without any coverings or reservations.

"Now I'm just confident — 'This is who I am,' " Lommel said. "If you want to look and stare, go ahead. If you have questions, just ask. I am happy with where I am today."

Finding a routine

Lommel made her first trip back up to Duluth since the accident on Feb. 15 to watch Leo play a high school hockey game.

She stopped by her house to chat with her roommates and pick up the rest of her belongings.

"I was kind of apprehensive at first of what feelings I would have when I got back up there," said Lommel, who plans to live in the same house with the same roommates in Duluth this fall.

"But it was good for me. I was excited to see my roommates. And Duluth is my second home now. It was nice to be home."

Lommel was able to meet Johnson and Salo at a Feb. 28 hockey game at the MAC.

"Once Ellen (Johnson) got into my sight, I immediately had tears and I hugged her," Lommel said. "I said, 'Thank you for saving my life. Without you, I wouldn't be here today.'

"It was one of the favorite moments of my life."

Teri also started crying.

"It is really hard to describe how you can thank someone for saving your daughter's life," Teri said. "There is no way to pay them back for that."

It was a special moment for Johnson and Salo, too. They had followed Lommel's story on CaringBridge.

Life is slowly becoming more normal each day. Lommel, who spends a lot of her day on the computer, was recently fitted for a hand prosthetic.

She has ordered her summer textbooks. She is set to restart her job as a study hall supervisor at Duluth's St. John's Parochial School this fall.

"When she was first admitted, her family said, 'She is going to get through this, surprise everyone and thrive,' " Rothbauer said. "We've seen all that happen. She has exceeded all of our expectations, especially at this point in her recovery."

Before the accident, she wanted to be an addictions counselor. Now she wants to be a social worker like Rothbauer.

"I've always wanted to help other people," Lommel said. "Now I am in a position where I have been through a lot and I can help other people realize that they can come through, too."

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