SISTER MARY ROSE AT WORK AND IN PHYSICAL THERAPY (KATHLEEN LAMANNA PHOTOS)
SISTER MARY ROSE AT WORK AND IN PHYSICAL THERAPY (KATHLEEN LAMANNA PHOTOS)
"I am an amputee; that's a fact," said Sister Mary Rose Noonan, CSJ. "But I don't feel disabled. Disabilities are subjective."

After two amputation surgeries earlier this year on her left leg, Sister Mary Rose has a temporary prosthesis. The first surgery failed, requiring her to have another, higher amputation.

She is now waiting for her permanent prosthetic leg: Her health insurance company has argued that she doesn't need a better one.

Because the temporary leg is bulky, Sister Mary Rose has a fellow sister - who also makes draperies for St. Joseph's Provincial House in Latham - cut off one leg of her pants.

"We know that if one of us [in the community] is weak, another is strong," Sister Mary Rose told The Evangelist. When she returned home from the hospital after the amputation, for instance, the bathroom of her living quarters had been completely redone by the religious order to accommodate her needs.

"In another week, there was an electric [front] door" at the Provincial House, she added.

Although all that support has been welcome, Sister Mary Rose is still getting used to the many challenges she faces on a daily basis. "You have to think ahead much more," she explained.

Getting ready in the morning can be one of the most difficult parts of the day. She now has a nightstand next to her bed so she can reach items without having to get up.

Her thrice-weekly physical therapy, which she does at the Provincial House, was just one aspect of life as an amputee that was recently featured in a "Health Link" segment about Sister Mary Rose that aired on WMHT-TV, the local public television affiliate.

For the first few months after her surgery, she was in the PT room every day. The exercises can be tough, but Sister Mary Rose said they will help her in the long run, especially when her new leg arrives.

Amid all this, the sister stated that "God has never really disappointed me." She even believes there are more positive aspects of her situation than negative ones: "I think my faith has been strengthened, especially faith in people."

She has been "meeting God through people" since her diagnosis, she said. "It's just a life-changing experience; [I'm awed by] the everyday support" of family, friends and the religious community.

Sister Mary Rose first noticed symptoms of scleroderma when she was in her 30s and began getting pitted sores on her fingertips. Doctors were able to reach a diagnosis rather quickly, which is generally uncommon for scleroderma patients.

Unfortunately, that knowledge didn't change the course of the autoimmune disease.

Scleroderma varies greatly from case to case, but common symptoms are the tightening and hardening of skin and connective tissues -- "scleroderma" means "hard skin" -- as well as heart, kidney and lung problems.

In the years since her diagnosis, Sister Mary Rose gradually lost her fingers and toes. In the year 2000, she developed pulmonary hypertension, too; a doctor suggested that she find a way to exercise her lungs, so, although she'd never played a musical instrument, she decided to pick up the trombone.

Other sisters formed a small band with her to show support. "The first song we really mastered was, 'Hello, Dolly,'" she said.

Sister Mary Rose has served as the director of communications for the Sisters of St. Joseph for about 20 years. She initially created a development office for the order when she left her job as an English teacher, shortly after being diagnosed with scleroderma.

Then, "within three years, we realized we needed a communications office," she recalled. "It was wonderful to be able to use my gifts somewhere else."

After the amputation of her leg, "everything went from being relatively simple to everything taking effort," said Sister Mary Rose. "When I was recuperating, I was trying to get the same amount of work done in less time."

Many adaptations have been necessary. As she lost her fingers, she had to begin using voice-activated computer software called "Dragon Speaking" that transcribes her words. If she has to type something brief, she's able to use part of her remaining thumb and a pencil eraser to tap out the words. An assistant does a lot of the computer work.

"Nothing goes out of her office that is not as perfect as she can make it," said Sister Mary Rose's friend of 42 years, Sister Patricia Houlihan, CSJ.

"As you get to know her, you get to know that she is a person of great integrity," Sister Patricia told The Evangelist. "She's had to be a very determined person because of the obstacles that she's fought and is fighting. She does it very well."

Another friend, Sister Katherine "Kitty" Hanley, CSJ, noted Sister Mary Rose's "lively personality and amazing outlook on life."

Sister Mary Rose believes that "God has always been very present" during her life's journey. When she couldn't feel God's comfort and guiding hand, she said, it was just because she "wasn't present to God.

"I think I was born with an optimistic spirit," added the sister. She said she may have inherited that from her mother: Mrs. Noonan always "had a deep faith that things will work out."