Six years ago, Will Lautzenheiser was starting a job teaching film at Montana State University, when he started to feel a pain in his leg. After his first two classes, he went to the hospital where he went into total organ failure. In a matter of days, a strep infection had caused Will to lose his arms and legs.
This is where the documentary Stumped begins. The film is an unapologetic look at Will's struggle to adjust to life as a quadrilateral amputee. It started as a series of news pieces for Boston University, when Will was earning his graduate degree.
"In the abstract, what was happening to me was interesting as a story and I just wish it weren’t really happening to me, you know, as a person, as a human being. Going through this suffering was terrible," he explains. "But narratively I knew as a filmmaker that it could be a really powerful story, powerful film."
Stumped was the opening night, spotlight feature at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival and first appeared there as a short film a few years ago.
Will's partner Angel is also one of the featured subjects in the full-length film, although he admits he pulled away from being more involved with the original short.
The filmmakers, including director Robin Berghaus, were present for a lot of intimate moments in the couples' life together, as they were learning how to deal with Will's new limitations. "As difficult as it was to have a camera there while I was busy trying to take care of Will, I had to kind of say, 'This is essential for [the film],'" Angel explains.
The documentary also shows footage from Will's surgery, from the moment he signs the consent form to the moment the donor arms are attached. While he admits he will likely never be used to watching surgery footage, Will says seeing his own transplant surgery is in many ways, incredible.
"In a way it's shocking and in a way it's beautiful... to know that the cuts that are being made are being made into my arms and then, the moment that's especially incredible to me is when the donor arms are brought in - actually being carried in, and you realize as a viewer what's in the cooler," Will explains.
He continues, "And then you see... a kind of white, cadaveric color of the hand and then you see the hand pink up as the vessels are joined to my blood system. And when it pinks up, you know that that hand is living, in a way, again - still."
For Angel, watching the footage now brings him back to the day of the surgery. He says, "It sort of just makes me think of when I first saw the hands and when I first walked into the ICU to see Will after the surgery. And it was like, 'Wow, those are beautiful hands.'"
Before he started the transplant process, Will says he knew very little about what it would truly mean for him. For one thing, he's required to take immunosuppressant drugs, which means he had to make a lot of dramatic changes to his everyday life. For about a year before his surgery, Will says he studied everything he needed to know about the process, but there were still a lot of surprises once he had the donor arms.
"You can learn all you want about it in an academic sense, but then when it actually happens then after that you begin to realize some of what this stuff actually means experientially, and that's quite different. And it's been fascinating and beautiful in so many ways," Will says.
After the arm transplant, Will found out he was a candidate for leg transplants. But since filming ended, he found out there were issues with his hips, likely caused by the sepsis that first caused him to lose his limbs.
"In a way, sepsis is the gift that keeps on giving, even when you really don't want it to give anything anymore," he says, laughing. "Because it actually just takes stuff away."
He would need to get a hip replacement before being able to get the transplant legs, but there are other possible complications. The surgery is fairly experimental at this point, and if something goes wrong he would risk losing his arms as well.
He says, "We're talking about a lot of surgery and I've had so much surgery, I really have to think carefully about whether I want to endure all of that. And I'm tending to think, possibly the answer is 'no.' But... sometime soon, I'll be talking with yet another orthopedic surgeon about what some options might be."