FORT BLISS, Texas — Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger, a military nurse and cancer survivor, shared a story of resilience and recovery April 6 during her battle with cancer with William Beaumont Army Medical Center nurses.
Elmlinger said she was always athletic. She participated in various high school sports and was even awarded a scholarship based on her athleticism.
But, Elmlinger had other plans. In 1998, she enlisted in the Army as a combat medic and deployed three times — twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan — with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“Our main mission was downed aircraft recovery,” Elmlinger said, a native of Attica, Ohio. “The experience profoundly impacted what I wanted to do.”
From medic to nurse
After years of back-to-back deployments, Elmlinger changed her role from caring for soldiers on the battlefield to caring for them in military treatment facilities. Elmlinger decided to become an Army nurse and give back to wounded warriors.
“I wanted to care for wounded warriors; it was my mission,” Elmlinger said. “I wanted to give back that understanding of battlefield experience.”
What Elmlinger didn’t expect to get from her new position was resiliency training for her own ordeal. What had been a long-time bothersome pain in her left shin area was diagnosed as synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer.
“[The cancer] wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” Elmlinger said. I knew at that point, based on all the people I had been taking care of, this was a game-changer.
Making a decision
After diagnosis of the cancer, Elmlinger was given two choices: limb salvage or amputation of her left leg. Because of her love of physical activity, Elmlinger decided to attempt limb salvage. After recovering, she went on to participate on the Army team during the 2014 and 2015 Department of Defense Warrior Games in various events. Yet she still felt like something was missing.
Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger, a military nurse and cancer survivor, center, visits with staff members at William Beaumont Army Medical Center’s surgical ward at Fort Bliss, Texas, where she shared her experiences during her fight with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer, April 6, 2017. Elmlinger, who is coaching and mentoring wounded warriors during this year’s Department of Defense Warrior Games, visited with staff members to help them understand the impact medical staff can have on patients. Army photo by Marcy Sanchez
“When I started competing, I was still trying to figure out who I was: a new identity, a wounded warrior, an adaptive athlete. All these different things; I didn’t even know what my capabilities were,” Elmlinger said. “I knew there was more. There was more to what I can be. More to my potential, more that I can do and give back to others. I wanted to go all in to keep my leg before I said I’m done. It took me a while to get there, but I was dragging around dead weight.”
Because of her experience with limb salvage, Elmlinger opted to amputate her left leg for a better quality of life.
“I don’t regret it (amputation),” Elmlinger said. “It’s been quite painful to use a prosthetic, but I still wouldn’t have chosen differently.”
She credits her participation in adaptive sports as helping her heal and move forward.
Elmlinger’s personal account of resilience and perseverance sank in for the medical staff of WBAMC’s surgical ward. These professionals regularly care for patients recovering from amputations and other trauma-related incidents.
“[Elmlinger] shared stories not only as a cancer survivor, but as a soldier. Her story is undoubtedly one all health care providers can learn from,” said Army 1st Lt. Rochelle Castro, a staff nurse in the surgical ward. “She presented an understanding of the challenges and fears that many patients face.”