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Her arm is lost, but Lake City teen won't let that stop her

“She’s always been a spunky girl,” Tara Fick said. “And I didn’t know, after losing her arm, how she would be after the surgery."

Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, walks her calf Maureen to show her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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LAKE CITY, Minn. — On the day before her surgery, Abby Fick created a TikTok video that she titled “last TikTok with lefty.”

If she was scared, she didn’t show it. Her dance was an unsentimental tribute to a turning point of her life. She was 14, and she was about to lose her left arm. Her TikTok was an acknowledgment of the moment, and her TikTok friends told Abs that they were praying for her.

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Later, a team of Mayo Clinic surgeons amputated the withered arm, along with her shoulder blade, shoulder joint, and part of her collar bone. The surgery was performed to remove a cancerous tumor that had formed in a critical, nerve-filled region of her shoulder.

The last year has been an anguished one for Abby, her parents, Troy and Tara, and Abby’s three siblings, who live on a dairy farm 5 miles south of Lake City. When doctors told her that her arm had to be removed, Abby said she was “devastated.”

But what has struck family, Mayo doctors and others since her surgery in December has been her recovery, fueled by an attitude of gritty resilience and determination. Yes, she is an adolescent with one arm. It is part of who she is, but it doesn’t define her. It is a characteristic. Nothing more. She doesn't feel sorry for herself and neither should others.

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“She makes jokes about her arm all the time,” said Tara Fick, Abby’s mom. “And her friends just look at her like, what, that’s who Abby is. It’s a fact of life: I don’t have an arm. Yes, they all feel bad. She’s like, this is the way it is. This is how I’m going to get through this.”

Tara said her daughter cried only twice during her monthslong medical ordeal: Once when doctors told her she had cancer and the other time when they told her left arm would have to be amputated.

But since then, Abby has demonstrated that there’s little she did before her surgery that she can’t do now. She fishes, skis, swims, jumps off the diving board, plays basketball and goes to sports camps. When stymied by a problem, like how to tie a ponytail with one hand, she turns to Youtube for help.

She impresses all around her.

Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, shows her calf Maureen on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Last week, Abby used her one arm to steer a 600-pound heifer around in a show ring during a judging contest at the Wabasha County Fair. One of her pigs won a top prize at the fair, earning a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. She was in her glory.

As she prepared to show her heifer, her older sister Mallory, 20, helped Abby with her make-up and lopping her stud-encrusted belt through the loops of her pants.

“She doesn’t get down on herself,” said Mallory Fick. “She lives her life like nothing ever happened.”

That's not to say that Abby hasn't discovered new curbs to her life. She can't ride a bike. In years past, Abby was both a manager and player on her softball team. She will only be a manager in the near future. And her dream of being a cosmetologist has been derailed.

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Yet, the overall thrust of her life is positive because of the attitude she has brought to a kind of adversity that strikes comparatively few girls her age.

Recently, Abby posted a statement on TikTok, a poem really, that summed up who she was as a person:

hi my name is abby I’m 15

years old and I live on a

dairy farm my favorite color

is blue I have short curly

hair and I recently went

through cancer in October

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and had to get my left arm

amputated my favorite

animal is a cow I love show

animals at the fair

especially cows I love

being around my friends

I love riding four wheeler

and listening to country

music I love going tubing I

love going to my

grandparents' lake with my

family I love shopping I love

having bonfires with my

friends my favorite sport is

basketball I love driving

with my sister I love taking

pictures of the sunset I’m

shy to people I don’t really

know that well overall I’m a

very nice person

As a baby, Abby was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic condition that typically causes benign tumors of the nerves and growths in other parts of the body.

It was in May of last year that Abby began to notice some numbness and tingling in her arm. She had just come off softball season where she was a pitcher on the team, so it was easy to write it off as arm fatigue.

But the next month, Tara, Abby’s mom, noticed that muscle mass in Abby’s left arm had shrunk considerably and had become much smaller compared to the muscle in her right arm. In July, the family’s primary care doctor in Lake City referred her to Mayo Clinic.

The earliest available appointment was for Sept. 18, but Tara felt a sense of urgency so it was moved up to Aug. 23.

It was the beginning of a four-month ordeal.

Abby was hospitalized immediately. After undergoing an extensive series of PET scans and MRIs and biopsies, Abby was diagnosed with cancer in October.

The growth, called malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, had formed in the brachial plexus in her shoulder and extended from there to a nerve root originating in the spine of her neck.

The brachial plexus is a conglomeration of nerves that carries sensory signals from the spinal cord to the arms and hands.

Dr. Matthew Houdek, a Mayo orthopedic surgeon who performed one of the two surgeries on Abby, calls the plexus a “transit stop” or “interchange” that starts at the neck and extends to the hand and around the level of the shoulder.

Abby underwent several rounds of chemotherapy in an effort to reduce the tumor. But after three rounds, the tumor hadn’t shrunk at all. Surgery would be needed.

In such cases, doctors look to salvage some arm function by preserving some of her main nerves. Surgeons would want to remove the sarcoma from her blood vessels, which can be reconstructed. But science has not figured out a way to regenerate nerves, and her tumor was too extensive in terms of her neurologic involvement.

“We wouldn’t have been able to remove the tumor and preserve the nerves in this case,” Houdek said. “Her tumor was too extensive in the brachial plexus.”

Removal of the growth required two sets of surgeries in December, the first to remove it from her spine, the second to remove her arm.

Houdek said Abby’s strong mental attitude asserted itself very early in her recovery.

“She’s amazing,” he said. “It was amazing to see her in the hospital. There were a few rough days, and then, after that, she was smiley and really had an extremely positive attitude.”

After the surgery, the subject arose about what would happen to Abby’s amputated arm. In most cases, Tara was told, the limb is sent away for cancer research. But Abby asked Dr. Houdek if she could keep it. He said absolutely.

So a Lake City mortician, the father of one of Abby’s friends, arranged to pick up the arm. It was later cremated and the remains were put in an urn. The mortician brought it out to the house, and it now resides in Abby’s bedroom.

Abby recently took possession of a shoulder-to-arm prosthetic produced by Limb Lab. But she hasn’t yet had much time to practice using it, Tara said.

“She’s always been a spunky girl,” her mom said. “And I didn’t know, after losing her arm, how she would be after the surgery.

“I think she has more spirit and determination than anybody. You look at it this way: You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself. Or you look at it and go: You know what? I have a life to live. I got things to do. And, thank God, she has definitely chosen the road: I got stuff to do.”

Photos: Abby Fick at the Wabasha County Fair

Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, ties her calf up while prepping before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, and her cousin Sophie Stelling prep Abby's calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, and her cousins Sawyer Stelling, 11, and Sophie Stelling prep Abby's calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, and her cousin Sophie Stelling prep Abby's calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, moves her calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, preps her calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, moves her calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, walks back to the dairy barn with friends on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, prepares for the dairy show on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, and her cousin Sophie Stelling prep Abby's calf before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby's shirt reads "2022 Wabasha County Fair 4-H/FFA Grand Champion" on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha. Abby has been showing animals most of her life.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, moves her calf on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, right, fastens her belt with some assistance from her sister Mallory on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, puts on mascara as she readies for the dairy show on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, puts on mascara as she readies for the dairy show on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, center, stands with her sister Mallory, left, and aunt Tricia Stelling while watching another class compete on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
The family all help Abby clean up her calf moments before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Mallory Fick walks with Abby's calf Maureen as Abby and her mom Tara return to the barn following the dairy show on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, left, and her sister Mallory wait in the staging area before showing her calf Maureen on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, waits with her calf Maureen before showing her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, shows her calf Maureen on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, walks her calf Maureen to show her on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, shows her calf Maureen on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, shows her calf Maureen on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Wabasha County Fair
Abby Fick, 15, shows her calf Maureen on Friday, July 15, 2022, at the Wabasha County Fair in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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