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The little boy would color pictures on the wipeable patient information board in her room, and nurses made her a mobile of family photos. She said nightly prayers with her parents, but worried sometimes about the looks on their faces and those of the staff.
"You could see they didn't truly believe I was going to make it. And that was hard. I was always someone who could pick up on people's thoughts and emotions pretty easily," she said.
Wilson's large and bizarre wounds "broke my heart," her mother said. "There would be nights when we would sit with her and she would have so much pain, she'd say, 'I don't know how much longer I can do this.'"
At one point, Wilson asked a nurse friend to bring in a bottle of Tylenol.
"It would be lethal to her," so the staff put her on a suicide watch, her mother said. "They didn't leave her alone after that."
Wilson found comfort from Reiki, acupuncture and guided visual imagery -- alternative therapies that she said gave her a sense of control when she was so helpless.
But her health worsened. By December 2006, only inches remained of her small intestine and she developed liver problems. The only solution was risky: a small bowel transplant.
Of the nearly half a million transplants done since 1990 in the United States, fewer than 2,000 have been small bowels. Five-year survival rates are around 54 percent, and these transplants carry a higher risk of rejection than many other types. They're done only when people are likely to die without them.
Dr. Cal Matsumoto evaluated Wilson for one at Georgetown University Medical Center, which had just started doing them a few years earlier.
"I remember taking the dressing off. All you see is bowel with holes in it, like a bunch of worms coming out of your abdominal wall," the surgeon said. "It was pretty bad."
He first had to remove the rest of Wilson's diseased bowel and abdominal tissue. It was a radical operation and she spent four weeks on a breathing machine.
"I remember thinking that she may not live through the first operation that we did to get her to the transplant, but she pulled through," Matsumoto said.
The transplant came on Dec. 16, 2007, and seemed to be a success. Doctors wound up transplanting a large intestine, too, because the damage was so extensive, Wilson said. A month later, she devoured her first meal since May 2005: lasagna, zucchini, salad and cake.
"I loved that salad. I shared it with Christopher. It was so amazing when he came into that room and saw me eating," she said. "It was amazing to actually be able to chew something and to have different flavors in your mouth."
But it was too much too soon, and she paid for it dearly. She got peritonitis, a serious inflammation, and had to go back on tube feeding. After that, they took food much more slowly, and she can eat normally now.
She got back on her feet, but struggled for every step.
"You've got to look at one small piece: OK, I walked two more feet today. What am I going to do tomorrow?" Wilson said.
The stress of her ordeal took its toll on her marriage; the couple divorced in 2009.
Her courage in the face of extreme personal and physical pain brings universal praise from her doctors.
"What she's come through is pretty amazing. Not just the surgical and medical aspect but the psychosocial," Matsumoto said. "Her fortitude is really unbelievable, to go through this at such a young age and to always have a bright outlook on things."
Wilson went home for good at the end of January 2008. She's been hospitalized a few times since then to make sure fevers were not a sign of organ rejection. She has had surgeries to graft skin and to connect the transplanted bowel to what remains of her colon so she would no longer need to wear a bag to collect waste. The last of these operations, everyone hopes, was in February.
Wilson estimates that her care cost around $5 million, paid at first by the couple's insurance plans and then by Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security disability.
She must take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of her life. Her belly is a crazy quilt of scars that her son loves to fling his arms around. He challenges her to "Star Wars" light saber duels. He begs her to take him to his favorite park, where she threw the ultimate "Star Wars"-themed party for his fifth birthday in April.
"My life now is pretty normal. I am enjoying spending every moment I can at home with my son," Wilson said.
She knows she missed much of his childhood, but "she doesn't seem to obsess about that, thankfully," her mother said. "We've never asked what her life expectancy is now. I'm afraid to ask that question."
Wilson doesn't worry about that. In fact, she has a bold goal: to return to work, possibly to the hospital where she went from nurse to patient and, hopefully, to nurse again.
"I think that's great," said Scalea, the top surgeon at Shock Trauma.
Wilson plans to take refresher courses this fall so she can return to work, and managers at the University of Maryland "have offered to help me get back to whatever I want to do," she said.
"I would like to be able to help someone else who has gone through this."
Support group: http://www.nnff.org/
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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