Leading by example

Published: Fort Worth Star Telegram
Date: May 13, 2002

Slowly, to prevent mistakes, Mallory Pristernik strikes the letters on the keyboard with the skinny side of her left arm, which looks like a folded wrist. Mallory’s hands were amputated when she was an infant. She had to learn early on how to crawl, write and move through life without them. In the process, the eighth-grader has inspired friends, classmates and teachers at Smithfield Middle School who, like Mallory, focus more on what she can do than what she can’t.
“She’s very independent and rarely needs help,” said Karen Teeters, her computer literacy teacher. “She has learned to adapt. I knew from the first couple of days that she’d be able to do all the assignments.”
As Mallory switches classes from computer literacy to choir, she passes a laminated yellow banner in the hallway. In bold black letters, it reads: “The happiness of your life depends on the character of your thoughts.”
Mallory, 14, knows she’s special in a way that fills her with confidence.
“Because I’m able and willing to move past it. I use myself as an example to people,” she said. “I think I help people see that life shouldn’t be about looks. It should be about personality.”
Her philosophy explains why she does not wear prostheses. She says artificial limbs would cause her to lose the feeling at the ends of her arms.
Mallory’s friends say not having hands is part of her identity.
“If she did have hands, it wouldn’t be Mallory,” said Natalie McCurley, 14, also an eighth grader at the North Richland Hills school. Mallory opens her combination lock as fast as her friends open theirs. She props open the locker, snaps a magnetic mirror off to the side, grabs her algebra book and shuts the locker without looking at her reflection.
But sometimes she wonders — particularly when she looks at her baby picture on the mantel in her family’s Hurst
home. Wearing a white dress dotted with red hearts, 2-month-old Mallory stares at the camera, her tiny fingers touching each other.
“What would they look like now?” she asks.
When Mallory was 3 months old she developed Kawasaski syndrome, which causes inflammation of arteries and sometimes causes skin to shed. It strikes 15 of 100,000 children younger than 5. The cause of the rare childhood disorder, named after the Japanese doctor who discovered it in 1967, is unknown.
In Mallory’s case, the disease prevented blood from reaching her hands and feet. By the time the disease was diagnosed, gangrene had set in. Doctors amputated Mallory’s right arm just below the elbow. They also removed her left hand and three toes on her right foot.
A year ago, Mallory studied the disease for a project in her science class. She learned that the disease could have done a lot more damage.
“I felt very lucky because I came very close to dying,” Mallory said. Her mother, Georgia Pristernik, wonders about Mallory’s future, and the two talk about it often. Topics include where Mallory will wear her wedding ring (on a necklace) and what kind of summer job she should get (they believe she is better-suited to work as a hostess than a cashier.)
“I worry about how people are going to treat her as she goes through life,” said her mother, a second-grade teacher in the Birdville school district.
Seven years ago, Mallory was featured on the front page of the Star-Telegram. Then, curious classmates questioned the first-grader about her missing hands.
At 7, Mallory summed up the story in fewer than 50 words: “I would tell them that when I was a baby, I got very sick with Kawasaki’s disease and my hands turned black and the doctor had to cut them off. They say, ‘Did it hurt?’ and I say, ‘They put me to sleep.’ ”
Now, Mallory says, her friends — some of who have known her since first grade — have stopped asking her questions. During a recent lunch break, Mallory and her friends giggled and gossiped and bragged.
“Remember that time you beat Miranda at arm wrestling?” Kryston Lopez, 14, asked Mallory. She nodded and casually replied, “That’s nothing. She weighed like a pound.”
Friends tease Mallory about her obsession with actor Rob Lowe (an outdated calendar with his picture decorates her bedroom wall) and her new boyfriend, Michael. The second topic causes Mallory to blush.
The students are dismissed and Mallory works her way through the crowd to get to algebra class. She walks past another banner. This one reads: “The word quit must never be in your vocabulary.”