School Welcomes Back Bionic Teacher
When teacher Kath Tregenna left school half an hour early because she was feeling unwell she certainly didn’t think it would lead to the loss of all four limbs...
Within hours of getting home she felt that it might possibly be a bit more than a cold and rung NHS 111.
An on the ball operator recognised the possible signs of sepsis, sent an ambulance and Kath was rushed to hospital. The life-threatening condition deteriorated rapidly as her body went into severe septic shock and she suffered multiple organ failure.
After a series of cardiac arrests Kath’s family were brought to the Wexham Park Hospital in Slough to say their goodbyes.
“It still breaks my heart to think what my partner Alvin, children and father went through to be called in the early hours of the morning to be told I was dying,” said Kath. “Up until then I had been a fit, healthy and active partner, mum, daughter and fulltime teacher.”
But despite slipping into a coma in November 2019, the 45-year-old mother of two fought back from her brush with death to regain consciousness in time to open Christmas presents with her children – although she remembers nothing from that time.
“I vaguely remember arriving at hospital but then nothing until probably early January when the doctors informed me that they needed to amputate both legs below the knee and both arms below the elbow to save my life,” explained Kath.
“By that time my legs, arms, feet and hands were black and withered from loss of blood – now being pumped to save my more vital organs from sepsis.”
Sepsis happens when a person’s immune system overreacts to an infection and starts to damage the body’s own tissues and organs.
For Kath it meant a series of operations to amputate her limbs in early 2020 at Wexham Park and Frimley Park hospitals. An inpatient period at a specialist unit in Oxford was then planned for her to get used to prosthetic legs and arms.
“Covid-19 put paid to that though and after an uncertain period for everyone I was allowed home in a wheelchair in May of that year,” added Kath.
“By then all I wanted was to be at home and the pandemic gave the whole family the time to be together, to come to terms with what had happed and to learn to live with my disability.
“My partner was working from home, my father had stayed in our family bubble to help and my children were doing home schooling, which as I could do little else gave me a focus and, as a teacher, a purpose.
“People always ask how I coped in those first few weeks and months at home with coming to terms with what I had lost. For me, knowing how close I had come to dying it was very easy to focus on what I had. I was truly overwhelmed and grateful to be alive, to be with my family and to be able to enjoy simple things such as sitting in the garden.”
Weekly visits to the Oxford Centre for Enablement (OCE) slowly introduced Kath to walking again on prosthetic legs – although she had to leave them at the hospital between visits until she was completely proficient. By now she had also been prescribed NHS arm hooks to help with everyday tasks.
She was also looking to the future. “In my heart I knew I wanted to go back to teaching but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that with heavy hooks and a wheelchair,” said Kath.
“My friends and family were constantly reading up about prosthetics and researching the latest innovations. I got to hear about Open Bionics, a company using custom 3D printing and scanning to create the Hero Arm, a bionic limb that uses myoelectric sensors to detect muscle movements and convert them into intuitive hand movements.
“Thanks to the kindness and generosity of people at my school who setup a Go Fund Me page when I was in a coma I could consider a private option for prosthetics. Being able to get one and then a second Hero Arm has changed my life, again.
“When I have two Hero Arms on and am lifting things around the house, I feel much more in control and my posture is so much better.”
Kath is now back teaching three days a week as part of the Learning Support team at the International School of London and credits her new Hero Arms for her return to the classroom.
“It’s really great to be back doing the job I love and so satisfying to actually be teaching some of the children I almost left behind,” added Kath.
“I guess it shows that anything is possible and that you can overcome any obstacles in your way if you have the right attitude. You can’t rush it and it certainly won’t be easy, so talk to those around you and always accept their support.
“Celebrate today the smallest things that you couldn’t do yesterday. Over time you realise how much they all add up.”
To find out more about the symptoms of sepsis in children and adults, and where and when to get help go to www.nhs.uk