Rebuilding Lives: ‘I’ll walk down that aisle’

Jacob Gray, 23 is learning to walk after having both legs ampulated after meningitis and septicemia

Jacob Gray, 23 is learning to walk after having both legs ampulated after meningitis and septicemia

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While some people are born with missing limbs, others can lose them suddenly as a result of illness or accident.

His lips twitching with wry amusement Jacob says: “I get that a lot. People see me with two missing legs and automatically assume that I must have been in action.”

Rebuilding Lives

Rebuilding Lives

But in reality, Jacob, 23, lost both his legs after becoming severely ill with meningitis and septicaemia.

The disease almost killed him and medics had not expected him to survive the ordeal.

The meningitis caused so much nerve damage that Jacob could not control his legs or feet at all.

After finally accepting that he wouldn’t be able to walk on his own legs again, Jacob made the difficult decision to have his legs amputated and he underwent the surgery in February last year.

Jacob explains: “It got to the stage where I had to accept that my body had wasted away. There was nothing left of my former self.

“When the possibility of having my legs amputated was first presented to me, I wasn’t having any of it.

“But after a while, knowing I was making the decision myself, I realised they needed to come off.

“I was ready for them to come off. They were just dead weight holding me back because I could not do anything with them.

“I thought long and hard before I made the decision but I knew I wasn’t going to walk on those feet or legs again so I told the doctor I wanted them amputated.”

Jacob, who lives in Poulton-le-Fylde and splits his time between living with his parents Kevin and Linda and his 21-year-old fiancee Summer, was suddenly struck by meningitis in January 2013.

Jacob, who went to Hodgson Academy in Poulton, had been planning to go volunteering abroad for a year or two before returning to the UK and going to university and was working two jobs to save money beforehand.

He was working as a switchboard operator at Balfour Beatty and also as the manager of the laser questing at the children’s indoor play area Thingimijigs at the time.

Jacob recalls: “I just woke up in the middle of the night knowing something wasn’t right and I was hallucinating.

“I wasn’t thinking clearly and for some reason, I decided to call the home phone using my mobile phone.

“My mum answered the telephone and I told her there were men in my bed making meatballs.

“My mum burst into my bedroom wondering what on earth was going on.

“She saw me lying in my bed looking spaced out and I told her to call an ambulance.

“I remember the lights seemed very bright and I was very aggressive. It took the ambulance crew and a paramedic to take me out of the house as I just wanted to sit down.

“I can recall them getting me a pair of shoes to wear but I told them I didn’t like them and wanted some nice ones.

“This was a shame as they ended up having to cut them off my feet.”

Jacob was taken to the Blackpool Victoria Hospital where medics put him into an induced coma and began running tests.

Within 12 hours, doctors discovered Jacob had meningitis and that the situation was very serious. Jacob says: “The rash was the very last thing to come. My entire back was covered with red blotches and I looked like I had been stung by bees.

“If I had waited for the rash to appear before I got medical attention, I would have been dead.

“I suffered meningococcal meningitis with septicaemia.”

Laughing ruefully, Jacob adds: “The meningitis comes along and gives you a kick and the septicaemia follows to finish you off.”

Jacob’s condition deteriorated rapidly and he underwent a blood transfusion and was hooked up to blood clot removal machines.

Jacob says: “I had tubes going in and out of me and I was put on lots of antibiotics and medication to regulate my heart.

“I suffered complete organ failure and my body was shutting down.

“I was put on a ventilator and they left me like that for a few days.

“The doctors weren’t expecting anything at all and thought there was a really low percentage of me surviving. They also said that if I did survive, I was likely to have brain damage.

“They the started to bring me back bit by bit by switching machines off and seeing how my body coped.

“Eventually, they woke me up and I wasn’t all there at first.

“I did not even know who I was when I first woke up.

“I could recognise people but I didn’t know where I knew them from.

“It took a few days for things to come back and I was out of touch with reality for at least three or four months afterwards.”

The meningitis damaged Jacob’s myeline extensively – the nerve that allows the signal from the brain – and there was no movement at all at first.

As a result of the septicaemia, Jacob’s toes turned gangrenous and died so had to be amputated. The soles of his feet were also debrided and skin and muscle from Jacob’s thighs was used to cover up the damage.

However, the nerve damage was so extensive that Jacob could not control his feet at all.

Specialists tried splintering Jacob’s feet where they took a mould of his feet and legs and made a big cast for it and then put his limb into it to stretch the muscles.

Jacob remembers: “It was like a torture device as it was so painful.

“We stuck with it for a few months, but it got to the point where I had to accept that my strength and muscle mass had gone.

“Trying to walk on feet that don’t work and have no toes or soles can be very problematic and foot drop set in where my feet just dropped down towards the floor.”

Jacob was in Blackpool Victoria Hospital until February last year and he was then transferred to the rehabilitation unit in Preston where he was a patient until a few weeks ago.

He spent 699 days in hospital before finally being discharged.

Jacob explains: “At the rehabilitation unit, I had to learn everything from how to feed myself by holding a knife and fork to picking up a glass of water. At first, this was impossible as I was too weak and a glass of water felt too heavy.

“I had so little strength, I could not even squeeze a sponge.

“But gradually, I learnt to do everything again and even though it was a lot of hard work and very stressful at times, the rehabilitation centre was the best place for me.

“If I had not gone there, I would always need help with the little things.

“Being in there gave me a lot of independance.”

After making the difficult decision to have both legs amputated below the knee, Jacob started looking onwards and upwards.

Jacob is in a wheelchair as his trunk stability has been affected by the muscle and nerve damage.

He is now a patient at the Specialist Mobility Rehabilitation Centre and has had temporary prosthetic legs and has now been given a new pair of legs which he is going to learn how to walk on.

Jacob says: “Learning to walk on prosthetic legs can be very difficult.

“It is like going from a pair of flat shoes to walking in six inch heels.”

Jacob goes to the SMRC three or four times a week and is under the care of Dr Fergus Jepson and he is determined to get walking again as soon as possible.

Jacob is full of praise for the centre and says going there is like going to a “safe haven.”

He explains: “Coming here is wonderful as I meet lots of people in similar situations to me. In the outside world, people do stare at you because you have missing limbs, even if it is just out of curiosity.

“But in this centre, no one bats an eye lid as it is normal to see people without limbs.

“Dr Jepson is one of the most suave men I have met and he is so enthusiastic and gets very excited and will 
work on ideas to make life better for you.

“He always makes a point of coming to see me when I go into the centre.

“All the staff at the SMRC are wonderful and you get to know them on a first name basis.

“This place is amazing.”

Jacob is engaged to Summer, 21, a graphic designer, who he has been with for three-and-a-half years.

The couple plan to get married next year and Jacob has vowed he will only marry Summer when he can walk down the aisle.

He says: “It is now all about trying to build my strength up while I am in a wheelchair and learning to walk on my prosthetic legs.

“Becoming ill with meningitis and losing my legs was an inconvenience – it wasn’t planned.

“It is one of those unexpected things that happens in life which makes everyone question their priorities.

“But it hasn’t killed me. Everything has to happen to someone so it may as well have been me as I can laugh things off better than some people.

“I am determined to get walking independently and walk down the aisle with Summer.”