Loss of much of her hands hasn't retired hairstylist

Anna Fionda gives a free haircut to one of her doctors. She goes to work on paying clients this week.
Anna Fionda gives a free haircut to one of her doctors. She goes to work on paying clients this week. (JARRAD HENDERSON / Detroit Free Press)

An infection took Anna Fionda's fingers and feet, but not her determination to wield the scissors once more.

Posted: October 12, 2011

DETROIT - Anna Fionda, a hairstylist who occupied the first chair at Edwin Paul Salon in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., for 27 years, drove herself to the hospital emergency room on Valentine's Day 2010. She was queasy, dehydrated, and feverish.

The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital bed on March 13. She had developed a bacterial infection, which led to septic shock, and her body had shunted blood away from her appendages to save her vital organs and brain. Her limbs were black up to her elbows and knees.

"The heart works hard to save the organs and forgets about the hands and feet," is how Fionda described it. But hands and feet are how she had made her career and reputation.

"When I tell you they were black, they were the color of this table," Fionda says, gesturing toward the dark, lacquered coffee table in her Clinton Township, Mich., home.

"They wanted to amputate and I said no. They would talk to me and I'd say 'Get the hell out of my room.' I wouldn't even look at them when they talked to me."

On April 20, 2010, Fionda's 48th birthday, doctors told her they needed to amputate half of her right foot and her left foot to the heel.

On July 15, they amputated most of her fingers.

She kept both thumbs. But on her right hand - the one she uses to hold her cutting shears - she lost most of four fingers, leaving them each about an inch long. On her left hand, the one that holds the hair as she cuts, she lost her index finger down to the second knuckle and just more than the tips of the remaining three.

As she recovered, Fionda wondered if she'd be able to work and wield the tools of her trade again.

"I felt like my life had been taken," she recalls. She was despondent and depressed, and mourned especially the damage to her hands. "They are so much about what I am."

The doctors told her that with therapy and determination, she could walk and work again. It would be a huge struggle, but Fionda was used to hardship when it came to her health.

Fionda says that ever since she was a child, the youngest of five born to Italian parents who settled in Scotland, she knew she wanted to be a hairdresser. She was fascinated by a family friend who was a beautician and would practice on Fionda and her two sisters. She carried that aspiration with her after the family moved to metro Detroit when she was 12.

She wanted to enroll in beauty school after graduating from Roseville High School, but the 17-year-old was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. A year of treatment left the disease in remission. But then she contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, an illness believed to be caused by a virus that prompts the immune system to attack the nerves, resulting in muscle weakness and paralysis.

Fionda says she was in a wheelchair for two years while she recovered, and then had to contend with more treatment when the cancer came back. She finally enrolled in beauty school at age 21.

Then in 2000, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, likely a result of radiation therapy during her earlier cancer treatment. In January 2009, she underwent a heart catheterization and had a pacemaker implanted.

"I don't die easy," she quips.

Fionda thought something was wrong with her heart that Valentine's Day when she drove herself to Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Or, she thought, she might be coming down with some virulent bug. She was vomiting and developed diarrhea, and her hands and feet tingled. On the way, she realized she probably shouldn't be driving herself.

Within 48 hours, doctors told her siblings that she might not live through the night. She had developed septic shock, blood poisoning caused by a bacterial infection that spread through her body, probably as a result of an untreated case of pneumonia.

After most of four months in the hospital, Fionda went home in a wheelchair.

"The doctors were a lot more encouraging than I was," says Fionda. "I was certain I'd never be able to work again."

Fionda says she hobbled around the house, using a walker and holding onto furniture and walls. She had pairs of household rubber gloves in every room to protect her healing hands from further injury or infection as she washed her face and tried to prepare meals. She had lost 40 pounds, and was down to 82 pounds with little appetite.

She had to balance herself to navigate stairs. "We walk on the balls of our feet, and I don't have balls on my feet anymore," she says.

Once her fingers healed, she'd sit on her couch and handle a curling iron with her stubby digits. Or she'd try manipulating scissors "for hours on end - open and close, open and close." She practiced cutting hair on her siblings.

"It was hard for something that for 30 years has been second nature to me," Fionda says. "They came out OK, but it was so much work. My head was moving faster than my hands. If I think about it too much, it will make me crazy."

Fionda started working at Edwin Paul's when she was 21, fresh out of beauty school.

She was owner Paul's first hire. They had met in beauty school and bonded over their shared Italian American heritage. She came on as his assistant and soon was one of his top earners.

Paul says he's never heard of a hairdresser with missing fingers, but he has no hesitation about Fionda coming back to the shop.

Fionda has alternately dreamed of and dreaded going back to work. Now, it's an economic necessity - her COBRA health insurance has run out and her savings have taken a huge hit.

It's been 20 months and she has learned to walk without much noticeable impairment, even though she has only half of one foot and just the heel of another. On her right hand is a custom-made prosthetic that can slip through a scissor's handles.

She has regained her stride and her touch. This week, Fionda will return to work - cutting hair, applying color and highlights, wielding a blow dryer. Instead of nervously practicing on sympathetic relatives, she'll be coiffing longtime clients.

Going back to work "will make it full circle - make me feel like I overcame it," says Fionda. "It's in my blood and I want to do it. I was tops in the field."