Something whispered to Marian Mathis on March 1, 1986, as she visited the K-Mart in Kentwood, Michigan.

Maybe maternal instinct. Maybe a source more divine. But something.

“A voice spoke to me,” Marian said. “‘Your baby’s about to be set on fire.’ I turned to the right. There was no one standing there.”

She rushed in fear to her southeast Grand Rapids home.

“I had a feeling what was said to me in the store was true,” she said. “When I went to the front door, I could see my kitchen.”

She saw her adult family member, who had been caring for her children while she was away, standing at the kitchen sink holding her 6-week-old daughter, Miranda.

“He had both sinks filled with lukewarm water,” Marian said. “When he found her, she was already burning.

“My 5-year-old daughter, Ataya, was angry with my (family member) because he wouldn’t give her potato chips. She happened to find a lighter. She flicked it and placed it on the baby’s leg. The baby started screaming and crying.”

The relative had spotted the orange glow through the crack of the bedroom door. He ran in and scooped up Miranda and patted out the flames.

“She was burned from the waist down, black as the street,” she said. “Her diaper, her nightgown had all sunk into her flesh.”

Marian called 911. An ambulance rushed Miranda to the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency department, then to the Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital burn unit.

“Two doctors and four nurses with a gurney were waiting for us,” she said. “They took her straight upstairs, sedated her and peeled some of the burn off her.”

Doctors told Miranda her baby might not make it.

“My mom said, ‘Grab hands and start praying,'” she recalled.

The prayers worked. Miranda survived.

“She never gave up,” Marian said. “She always stayed strong. I stuck right there with her. We have been pinky-to-pinky, every day.”

Walking on her knees

Life wasn’t easy, but Miranda persevered.

“I got teased in kindergarten,” said Miranda Wise, now 34. “The teacher used to hug me all the time and rock me to sleep. I remember feeling pain in the back part of my legs a lot where the scar tissue was.”

She developed ulcers in both burned legs. Her nerve endings began to cause problems.

On March 6, 1995, her life changed forever. Again.

“They amputated both legs below the knees,” Miranda said. “My nerve ends started messing with me and they weren’t able to grow with the rest of my body. I saw my mom cry a lot, but I didn’t want to see her sad. She didn’t want me to be confined to a wheelchair.”

The emotion motivated Miranda, then 9, to do the seemingly impossible: She learned to walk on her knees.

Painful? For sure. Almost unbearable pain.

“It was like somebody was cutting my knees open,” she said. “But I wanted to be mobile. I didn’t just want to sit in a wheelchair. Sometimes they went numb, but I guess that was a good thing. It got better over time.”

Over the years, Miranda tried several sets of prosthetics without positive results. They rubbed scar tissue open and caused pain. More pain than walking on her knees.

“When I was about 13 or 14 I had depression and it really got to me,” she said. “I had a lot of mood swings.”

Golden opportunity

Miranda’s brother, Mackenzie, a McDonald’s employee at the time, helped her life arch upward, golden-like.

“He said, ‘Hey sis, I want to help you with something, come work with me,’” Miranda said. “I got hired in two hours.”

Promoted to manager at age 19 at the Leonard and Fuller McDonald’s on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, she discovered purpose and drive.

She walked on her knees behind the counter and used a step stool to reach the counter and other high items.

“It helped me through depression,” she said. “As time went on, it got better. I had a child at age 25. Zah-kari is my baby, my honey. He’s 8 now. He has autism. He completely changed my life. I sing to him every single day.”

Eventually, Miranda moved to the Michigan Street McDonald’s in Grand Rapids, where she continued to walk on her knees.

First steps

But after all the tenacity, the determination and getting around on her knees, Miranda faced another foe—infection in her amputation area. And pain greater than any she’s ever known.

She tried to tough it out, but the inflammation, infection and pain continued.

On June 18, 2020, Spectrum Health surgeons performed a left above-knee amputation.

As autumn approached, Miranda got fitted for prosthetics for both legs.

“It makes me sad but at the same time, I’m realizing it’s for a good reason,” she said. “It’s a pretty exciting time.”

With the help of Spectrum Health physical therapy, she’s learning to adjust to her new gear and means of mobility.

“My legs hurt because I’m not used to walking,” she said. “It’s been 25 years since I stood to walk. It’s painful, but I’m OK with it.”

Just as Miranda’s motivation inspires her mom, her mom inspires her.

“Walking is something I’ve always wanted to see myself do,” Miranda said. “My mom has been stressed with me not walking. I’ve done all this for her all these years. I want to see her smile. I don’t want to see my mom cry. I want to see her smile.”

When Miranda took her first steps a few months ago, her mom’s face said it all.

“I had tears in my eyes because she was actually smiling,” Miranda said.

Miranda continues physical therapy with Spectrum Health twice a week, focusing on balance, range of motion, flexibility and strengthening.

Spectrum Health physical therapist Jennifer Welsman said she’s also incorporated desensitization and massage techniques to help address pain and phantom sensation related to the amputations.

“We do weight-bearing exercises and teach her how to use (prosthetics), including how to put them on, take them off and how to walk in them,” Welsman said.

Miranda’s enthusiasm has been inspiring, she said.

“She was always eager to try something new in order to work toward her ultimate goal of walking in prosthetic legs,” Welsman said. “She has such a positive outlook both in rehab and her daily life.

“She has great motivation and a desire to make the most of everything she is handed,” she said. “It is truly inspiring to watch her progress through therapy and her willingness to take on any challenge.”