A former counselor has spoken of her horror after her ‘flu’ turned out to be deadly meningitis, which robbed her of her legs and left her flesh looking like she had been “eaten by zombies.”
Waking one April morning feeling achy and nauseous, Rachael Lucas, 47, assumed she had a bug and tried to sleep it off – only for her managing director husband, Ian, 48, to find her delirious and covered in a worrying rash when he checked on her later.
Raced to hospital, Rachael, who lives near Birmingham, spent a week in an induced coma as doctors battled to stop her organs shutting down – sadly failing, despite their best efforts, to save her legs, which had to be amputated.
Rachael said: “My memory is still incredibly hazy, but I remember waking up a week after getting to hospital, looking down, and seeing all these dark patches of dead tissue on my legs. It almost looked like streaky bacon.
“Nurses kept coming in and bandaging me up, but my flesh was dying. I felt like I was in a horror movie, being eaten by zombies.”
Since the 2012 drama, Rachael has embarked on a long road to recovery – made all the more difficult by the fact that her leg bones continued to grow following the amputation, meaning she needed surgery to trim them before she could be fitted with a prosthesis.
Her one comfort throughout the horror was meditation, which provided her with such solace she now hopes to launch her own series of tracks aimed at fellow amputees in the New Year.
She explained: “I’ve always been into spiritualism, so questions of karma, and ‘why me’ did play on my mind. Friends sent me meditation tracks, but when I started listening to them, I found them really upsetting.
“So much of mediation is aimed at feelings in your fingers and toes, or walking – which obviously isn’t me anymore. Disabled and limbless people are almost an unseen society, but we want and deserve that safe, peaceful space that mediation provides everyone else.”
Rachael’s nightmare, which she continues to recover from to this day, began on April 1, 2012.
Waking up around 6am, she felt flu-like symptoms, and vomited all over her bed – getting worse throughout the day, although she never once considered she might have meningitis.
“I figured I could sleep it off,” she said. “Then, at about 9pm, my husband Ian came up with a cup of tea and I was really delirious. He also noticed I had a rash all over my arms, so sprang into action and did the glass test.”
She added: “I don’t know if he was thinking about meningitis, but my rash didn’t fade under the glass, which is a telltale sign, so he dialled 999.”
Raced to Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, she was placed in an induced coma.
Horrifyingly, Ian, who was keeping vigil at her bedside, was told she had contracted meningitis and warned she may not make it.
“My dad had actually passed away a few months before of multiple organ failure in that same hospital, so I’d been taken into that same little side room as Ian and given the same awful news,” said Rachael.
Coming to a week later, she realized the tissue on her legs had died – a process known as necrosis.
Then, after meeting with a burns consultant, she was transferred to the more specialist Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where, on April 23, she had her first amputation to remove both her feet.
She said: “I woke up and, on autopilot, tried to get out of bed. Then I looked down and realised I had no feet.”
Tragically, Rachael’s ordeal was far from over and, during the next two months, she had further surgery to remove her dying tissue, resulting in her needing everything below the knee amputated.
Due to complications, she also required an ileostomy – where the small intestine is diverted through an opening in the abdomen.
After spending time at a rehabilitation centre, followed by a trip back to hospital to reverse her ileostomy, she was finally allowed home in October 2012.
“I hadn’t seen my house in months, but we had to change absolutely everything,” she said. “At first, I slept downstairs in a hospital bed. But Ian took care of things like widening the doors to fit my wheelchair and, by early 2013, the house was ready.”
Emotionally, though, Rachael continued to struggle.
She added: “It was so hard to get my head around. Life had completely changed overnight. I’d been a bereavement counselor for years before this happened, so I knew I had to go through the grieving process.
“But it was incredibly tough. I’d lost everything – my freedom, my identity, my idea of who I was.”
Rachael had hoped to get prosthetic limbs relatively quickly, but faced a setback when she experienced ossification – the abnormal growth of bone in non-skeletal tissues, like muscles and tendons.
She explained: “On the X Ray, my legs looked like coral, with little shards coming off the main bone.”
In 2015, she had yet another operation to tackle the ossification, and was fitted with a prosthesis soon after.
However, due to needing further scar revision surgery, she never had them for long, instead going months between using them.
“I’d have them on for a little while, then off for months as I recovered,” she said. “Earlier this month, I finally got some new ones fitted.
“So far, I can’t wear them for long as my skin is still so fragile, so I am prone to blisters. But I’m determined to get back on my home treadmill and start to build my fitness up again.”
As well as rebuilding her strength, Rachael has vowed to dedicate 2019 to working to improve emotional support for amputees.
One day hoping to also help advise counselors on how to treat patients like herself, her more immediate goal is to launch a range of meditation tracks for amputees, which she is due to begin recording in January.
She is also working alongside the charity Meningitis Now to help raise awareness of the symptoms to watch out for, including fever, vomiting, drowsiness, a stiff neck, severe headaches and dislike of bright lights.
And, though she says there are still days where she struggles with the emotional fallout of her ordeal, Rachael believes her near death experience has brought her and Ian closer together.
“We were actually going through a rough patch before all of this, but I think it made us realize what we could lose,” she said, adding that she has also found salvation in singing with her band, Hybrid Spirits, who are currently working on their second album. “Now, we’re absolutely brilliant.
“If Ian hadn’t come in with a cup of tea that day, I have no doubt I wouldn’t be here now.”
Rachael is backing Meningitis Now’s ‘Adults Get It Too’ campaign. For information, visit www.meningitisnow.org/meningitis-explained/signs-and-symptoms/meningitis-adults