Atlanta woman finds her way back to yoga after losing her leg to deadly infection

Jennifer Barlow has come back to yoga, which has been part of her life for more than a decade.

"It just feels so good to move and go through those postures," Barlow says. "I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was before this. I knew I was strong, but I didn't know I was this strong."  

The 34-year-old US Army veteran turned production coordinator and actress recently returned to Highland Yoga in Buckhead, and her instructor and friend Inna Milko, after a year away.

Blonde woman with a prosthetic leg sits on the floor and smiles.

Jennifer Barlow, 34, of Atlanta is now practicing yoga again a year after she lost her leg to a flesh-eating bacterial infection. (Jennifer Barlow)

"As soon as I walked in, I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'm at home now,'" Barlow remembers. "This is my favorite place to be. It's so peaceful."

It's been a long road back, since Barlow's life was upended, in January 2023, after a trip to the Bahamas.

Young woman in party dress stands in front of a shark tank at the Georgia Aquarium.

Jennifer Barlow poses at the Georgia Aquarium in early 2023, weeks before the 34-year old Army veteran contracted a deadly bacterial infection that forced surgeons to amputate her right leg. (Jennifer Barlow)

"I wore so many cute outfits," she remembers. "We were taking pictures, and we ate at really nice restaurants."

On the final day of her trip, Barlow cut her right knee while shaving, but didn't think much about it, and went ahead with a planned beach and boating trip.

A young woman in a wheelchair smiles as she leaves the hospital

Now, back home in Atlanta, her right knee was red and hot to the touch, and Barlow was feeling feverish.

"I had no energy, and was lethargic," Barlow remembers. "Something wasn't right. And, then, my right knee started aching and hurting really bad. It was one of the most intense pains I'd ever felt."

At an local ER, she says, she was diagnosed a knee sprain, and sent home with some pain medication.

"Two days later, my brother found me unconscious on my kitchen floor," Barlow says.  "I was actually dying, I was septic, the bacteria had entered my bloodstream, and my liver and my kidneys were shutting down."

At the Atlanta VA Medical Center, Barlow learned she'd contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a rare, life-threatening bacterial infection that was quickly spreading through her body.

"I had never seen anything like that in my entire life," she says. "I'm, like, 'This is weird. What's happening? It's so weird. A flesh-eating bacteria is on me!'"

Even with treatment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 1 in 5 people who contract necrotizing fasciitis die from the infection.

"It was the most scary thing I've ever experienced, and it was something that just was so frustrating because I couldn't do anything about it," Barlow says.

So, she tried centering herself, focusing on her breathing, on the yoga, on her faith.

"I just started praying, and I just sort of went into a meditative state," Barlow says.  "And, I just did that for weeks and months."

She spent a month at the VA Medical Center and another 4 months at Grady Memorial Hospital, as the medical teams worked to try to slow the infection and save her leg.

"I underwent 30 surgeries total," Barlow says. "But the craziest thing is that, once they amputated it, I felt so much better. Like, after I came out of that surgery, I felt so much better."

That, she says, was a turning point.

"It's a miracle that I'm here, and it's a miracle that I only lost one leg," Barlow says.

In January, 7 months after leaving Grady, Barlow returned to Highland Yoga, her first session back with Inna Milko, this time as an amputee.

She posted the video on her Instagram account @thisisjenbarlow.

Milko says she'd been nervous about how it would go.

"Then, when Jennifer arrived with her crazy optimistic energy, and I asked her to do several things, offering her blocks and all of the ways I could make it more accessible for her, she refused to do all of that, and she did it her own way," Milko laughs.

"I think there is so many ways to find the way to make yoga accessible for everyone," she adds.  "But, definitely with Jennifer, it was different because of her character. She doesn't want to go with the easy ways."

And, for Barlow, yoga has always been much more than a workout.

"It's spiritual," she says. "It's an expression of myself. So, it's a way to put things down on the mat and sweat through it, work through it, meditate through it."

Sometimes, Jennifer Barlow thinks, she shouldn't be here, shouldn't have survived and ordeal like this.

"But I should be here," she says. "God left me here. And, so, every day in my life, I'm just going to live, it like it's the last. I honestly have a peace that I cannot explain."