Karen Crespo received a standing ovation on the runway at Carrie Hammer's Fall 2014 show at Fashion Week in New York City, and the designer understands why.
"Karen Crespo is one of the most gorgeous women I know, hands down," fashion designer Carrie Hammer told ABC News. "Karen is going to inspire so many people. I hope she inspires the whole world."
But Crespo isn't just another pretty face. She is the first-ever quadruple amputee to walk in the New York Fashion Week.
10 Percent Chance of Survival
Three years ago, surgeons amputated both of Crespo's arms and legs to save her life after the 30-year-old registered nurse from West Covina, Calif., contracted bacterial meningitis. She survived two heart attacks, was in a coma for 15 days, and lived in the intensive care unit for six months.
"I wondered, 'Why did this happen to me? Why did I have to get sick? Why did they have to amputate all my limbs?" she told ABC News, admitting that she was "in a dark place" for more than a year after the surgery.
But this past Friday in New York City, a very different Crespo stepped onto the runway at New York Fashion Week.
"I want people to know we can still be beautiful regardless of whether we're an amputee or in a wheelchair," she said. "We can still rock the runway."
Role Models, Not Runway Models
Carrie Hammer didn't think twice about inviting Crespo to be part of her show at New York Fashion Week. The designer created a campaign to use "Role Models, not Runway Models," featuring executives and professional women of all different sizes and abilities, usually with empowering stories.
In the spring 2014, she invited her friend Danielle Sheypuk to be the first-ever model in a wheelchair during New York Fashion Week. When Karen Crespo saw the picture of Sheypuk on the runway, she immediately wrote Hammer an email.
"Seeing her on the runway made me teary-eyed," she wrote, "because it boosted my self-confidence; something I lacked prior."
In her email to Hammer -- titled "You Inspire Me" -- Crespo wrote: "I have a passion for fashion. I hope one day I will get to show the world 'Why can't people with disabilities, people like me, be beautiful and model?' Maybe one day if I ever get to go to New York I will be able to meet you."
Hammer was moved to tears.
"I wrote her back and said, 'Thank you so much. This made the whole show worth it. I would love for you to walk as a role model in our next show,'" she said.
'A More Important Fitting'
But before Crespo could walk down the runway, she needed a fitting -- and not just for a dress.
During their first Skype call, Hammer asked why Crespo wasn't wearing prosthetic arms. The answer stunned her. Crespo said she had ordered specially made prostheses costing $100,000, which were delivered to her home by Fed Ex, but someone had taken the box off her front porch before she got home.
"She told me, 'My independence got stolen off my doorstep," Hammer said.
The designer sprang into action, reaching out to Hanger Orthopedics in Austin, Texas, the top prosthetic company in the country. After several calls they found a way to replace Crespo's prosthetic arms.
Last week, just days before the fashion show, Hammer flew to California to surprise Crespo.
"I told her, 'We have your dress fitting, but we have a more important fitting. It's for your arms,'" Hammer said.
"I was in shock, because I thought I wasn't going to have these new arms for the fashion show," Crespo told ABC News. "It was definitely good for my confidence. ... I needed that."
A Walk and a Wink
On the day of the fashion show, Crespo -- accompanied by her mother and aunt -- arrived backstage at 6 a.m. to get hair and makeup along with the other models. First up: her hair.
"The bigger, the better," Crespo said. "I want big and sexy hair."
"I would love it if you could try to mask all the scars on my face," she told the makeup artist. As she watched the transformation in the mirror, she smiled.
"Can you make my lips fuller?" she asked.
Next, her mother helped her into the bright red, A-line dress that Hammer had designed for her. She was almost ready, except for a last-minute fashion emergency: Her new prosthetic arm wouldn't stay on.
"It was falling off completely, so they put it on with duct tape," she said, laughing.
Finally the music swelled, and one by one the models took the stage. "OK, Karen, you're up," said the stage manager.
Stepping onto the stage, Crespo stumbled slightly, then steadied herself.
"I took a few steps, did my first pose. It was of course nerve-racking," Crespo said. "But once I started walking and everyone was cheering me on, smiling, I felt happy and comfortable, I felt like this is what I was supposed to do."
Critics, photographers and onlookers clapped and cheered as she made her way down the runway. When she reached the end she posed and winked at the cameras, then turned to walk back.
"That's one think I can check off my bucket list: walking down the runway in New York Fashion Week," she said, after hugging her mom and Hammer backstage. "I'm proud of myself for doing it, for building up the courage. But after everything Carrie has done for me, I look at life differently. ... Life is too short, yeah. Life is way too short!"