Claire Bridges has modeled professionally for years. She’s back to it now, at least part time, after losing parts of both of her legs.
Bridges nearly died last year from COVID-related complications that led to a double amputation and prosthetic legs she is still learning to use. She has had enormous support from friends and family but has also endured hate-filled attacks from people who oppose vaccines. Throughout her ordeal, the 22-year-old Lutz resident has remained remarkably even-keeled.
“I go with the flow,” she said while a stylist touched up her makeup during a recent fashion shoot. “I have my days when I grieve and get angry and upset but most of the time I know I can’t change it.”
Bridges got her start at 15 when she went to a modeling competition in Georgia. She caught the eye of Kira Alexander, who owned a modeling agency. “I think you should talk to me,” Alexander recalls telling her.
Alexander, who remains Bridges’ agent, signed her up. She did bikini billboard and web campaigns for Ron Jon Surf Shop, donned work clothes for Caterpillar ads and modeled for local boutiques. She was trying to break into the Miami market when the pandemic started, so she returned to St. Petersburg. In 2021, she went to Los Angeles but came home again late that year. By January 2022, she had fallen ill.
Although she had been vaccinated, Bridges began to suffer from body aches and fatigue. Once, she dropped to the floor and passed out. She continued to work at Grassroots, a St. Petersburg kava bar, with her brother, who grew increasingly worried about her. One day, when he couldn’t reach her by text, he contacted their mother, who rushed Bridges to Tampa General Hospital.
Doctors found that a combination of COVID and a congenital heart condition had so weakened Bridges that she developed rhabdomyolysis, a syndrome in which muscles rapidly break down. When a procedure to relieve pressure on her swollen thighs failed, she got the news: They would need to amputate to save her life.
Her first reaction: “Can I get bionic legs?” Her second: “I get that you gotta do what you gotta do.”
The initial plan was to amputate both legs above the knee. Research, though, has shown that patients with above-knee amputations generally must exert more energy to walk than those with artificial limbs attached to bones below the knees. “Thankfully,” Bridges said, her legs were amputated several inches below the knee.
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She had to wait a month for the stumps to heal. Then, with the help of a charitable organization in Orlando, she got her new titanium and carbon fiber legs within days from Prosthetic & Orthotics, one of the top makers of prosthetic devices.
“It felt odd just standing up,” Bridges said about the first time she tried her new limbs. “I was excited when I walked, it felt very natural, but it took a lot of energy and it was really difficult to bend my knee.” Still, in another month, she was able to do a “no pressure” shoot for a fashion magazine. (Bridges will appear as the model in the April issue of Bay magazine, which is produced by the Tampa Bay Times.)
Throughout her illness and recovery, Grassroots, the kava bar, held fundraisers and put out jars for donations and notes of support. Vertical Ventures, a St. Petersburg climbing gym where Bridges was a patron, also helped out.
“She’s the type of person that everyone who meets her loves her,” said her sister, Anna Brown.
Bridges said that while children have been curious, no one she has encountered in person has been rude. That’s not so on social media, where those opposed to vaccines have called her a sinner and accused her of being part of a death cult.
While getting comfortable with her new legs, Bridges has dealt with other physical issues. She had open heart surgery in December for her congenital heart condition. She has no feeling in the tips of some fingers. She lost so much weight — she went from 130 to 60 pounds — and spent so much time lying on her head in bed that all of her hair fell out. Once wavy, it has grown back in little curls.
Bridges is a student at St. Petersburg College, but is reconsidering her decision to be a marine biologist. “Maybe art school,” she said. “After everything that happened, art makes me consistently happy.” Modeling, at least part time, is still in the cards.
“I need to build back muscle and tone. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be back in a market somewhere.”