This story is featured in the Spring 2012 edition of myBoone Health magazine. Click here to subscribe for free.
The basement of her shop is where Karla Winchester keeps her broken and discarded things.
She calls the space her dungeon. It’s filled with castaway doors, windows, chairs and other ornamental items.
Many of these Karla has literally retrieved from dumpsters and home demolition sites.
“If they’re tearing down a house I’m there at 5 a.m. looking through the piles and asking the contractor, ‘Are you just going to throw these away?’” she said. “And then pretty soon, I’m hauling them off.”
To her, these things aren’t trash, they are gems waiting to be restored. She gives them a fresh coat of paint, new upholstery and conceives novel ways to reuse the used.
In her hands, an old window becomes a headboard for a bed. A splintery ladder finds a second life as a hung ceiling decoration. She sells the items on the main floor of her business, Grace – A Place of Restoration.
“I have always been enamored by broken things that people are ready to throw away,” she said.
Last summer, Winchester faced the possibility that her own body was an end-of-life item.
She blacked out while driving and had a minor crash in downtown Columbia. The crash led to the discovery of a long-hidden, life-threatening heart condition.
But a collaborative group of Boone Hospital Center caregivers and physicians found a way to restore Winchester, allowing her to continue her work, bringing grace to her community.
It was a Saturday morning, July 31, 2011, and Winchester was getting ready to leave town. She felt good.
Later that day, she planned to drive to St. Louis where she would help her daughter move to Tulsa for school.
Before leaving town, she wanted to stop by her Grace store one last time. It was an exciting time for her small business.
National cable network HGTV was considering featuring Grace in an upcoming program. Sales at the store were also starting to pick up following its recent move to Broadway in downtown Columbia.
As she drove down College Avenue, Winchester knew she needed to make sure her staff was prepared for weekend shoppers, and there was enough cash in the register.
As she made her usual turn from College Avenue to Walnut Street, everything suddenly went dark.
“They opened my door, and I was just kind of sitting there, dazed,” she said.
She realized her Jeep Grand Cherokee was now in the grass off to the side of the road. She had crashed into a business sign, but not badly. The airbags didn’t deploy. She wasn’t hurt.
Someone called 911, and soon an ambulance arrived. The paramedics checked her vital signs, which were normal.
“But when they asked, ‘Do you feel like you need to go to the hospital?’ I replied, ‘Yeah, I probably should,” she said.
She was taken to Boone Hospital and was admitted for neurological testing. Days of tests came back negative, so doctors decided to discharge her.
But as she was preparing to walk out the door, she was called back for one last exam, a treadmill stress test.
While on the treadmill, the problem was soon apparent. Winchester’s heart went into a fast ventricular tachycardia rhythm. Also called V-tach, it can be life-threatening and sometimes leads to sudden death.
Even with her heart in V-tach, Winchester felt fine as she walked the treadmill. But she could tell something wasn’t right.
“The next thing I knew there were four people in the room,” she said. “That was my clue there was something going on.”
A heart catheterization was scheduled for the next day to further investigate the problem.
When the cardiologist tried to perform the cath, his progress was blocked. He discovered that Winchester’s heart problems were caused by congenital anomaly. Her heart had been malformed since birth.
The discovery caused conflicting emotions. She was shocked by the diagnosis and scared about what it meant for her future. But she also felt fortunate the problem had been discovered before it caused her harm or death.
“I was really, really lucky,” she said. “I never had any indication this was wrong.”
On August 4, Winchester had successful open-heart surgery. A vein from her leg was used to bypass the anomaly.
She then spent the next eight days in the hospital recovering from the surgery.
While she recuperated, she did miss a major development at her store. An HGTV camera crew had visited. They filmed a show pilot at Grace, something Winchester had been working on for months.
“I could not believe that when they finally came, I was in the hospital,” she said.
But being in the hospital wasn’t so bad. Winchester said she was impressed with her room and the care she received.
“I describe it as the Ritz,” she said. “If you are going to be in the hospital, you want to be in a room like I was in.”
She also remembers having many warm, personal interactions with the caregivers, dieticians, transporters and cleaners she met with during her stay.
“They really got to know me; everyone was so wonderful,” she said. “I just felt so nurtured. I felt like a guest versus a patient.”
After she was discharged from the hospital, Winchester tried to take it slow as she got back to running her business.
But as time went by, she wasn’t feeling better. Her health was actually beginning to deteriorate.
Five weeks after her open-heart surgery, she was back in the hospital. It was the first of three returns trips needed to diagnose and treat a new ailment, rheumatoid pericardial disease.
The sac covering her heart had become inflamed, but once diagnosed, Winchester and her physicians have been able to successfully treat it with medication.
She’s now been away from the hospital for four months. She says she’s finally back to being her old self.
“I’m just now feeling like I am me again,” she said.
Although she doesn’t do as much heavy lifting anymore, she still spends hours working in her shop. The process of transforming items from trashcan-worthy to showroom-ready is tough work, but it’s her passion and vocation.
“I’m happiest when my hands are dirty,” she said.
It also looks like her work might soon be in the national spotlight. HGTV is coming back at the end of April for more taping — Winchester isn’t allowed to reveal much more.
When the cameras arrive, they’ll find a woman who shares a commonality with the things she sells in her shop.
Her surgical scars mirror the marks and dings on the old items she restores. They aren’t blemishes, but signs of character and strength.
In that way, Winchester and her store are reminders of the grace of rebirth and the gift of being able to live again.
“It’s a place to come and be surrounded by things that were broken and then fixed,” Winchester said. “I guess I’m a living example.”