LIFESTYLE
05/10/2015 10:47 BST | Updated 05/10/2015 11:59 BST

Double Amputee Who Promised To Marry Girlfriend Once He Could Walk Again Announces Engagement

A double amputee who pledged to marry his girlfriend as soon as he was able to walk 10 steps – so he could make it down the aisle – has announced plans to wed.

Jacob Gray was just 21 when he was suddenly struck down with meningitis in January 2013.

He spent the next 22 months fighting for his life and, in February 2014, had both his legs amputated after they were destroyed by the disease.

Gray's devoted fiancée Summer Whittaker, who he met through mutual friends in November 2011, stood by him through the whole terrifying ordeal.

amputee

Jacob Gray

During rehabilitation, he promised her one day that he would "put a ring on it."

"But I said it would only happen once I was able to do a wobbly ten steps on my prosthetic legs," Gray, from Polton, Lancashire, said.

"I took these steps in June and asked Summer to marry me."

The happy couple now plan to get married once they have decided where to live and discover whether they can get help with an adapted flat.

Now 24, Gray was your average 21-year-old when he first fell ill.

University was on the cards, but he hoped to go abroad first to do charity work.

He said: "I loved everything to do with the great outdoors – walking through forests, boating on lakes, climbing up cliffs, camping in trees.

"But everything changed suddenly."

Then, on January 10, 2013, Gray woke up at about 2.30am with a raging temperature, drenched in sweat and vividly hallucinating.

"I was wide awake but I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I was completely confused. I couldn't move, but my mobile was by my bed so I managed to ring the house phone.

"When mum Linda picked up and I told her there were 'little men with pitchforks at the bottom of the bed', and that the lights were hurting my eyes, she dropped the phone and rushed into my room."

The next thing Gray can remember is stumbling out of the back of an ambulance.

He continued: "Doctors told me I had meningitis not long after I arrived at hospital. I was still very much conscious and talking to people for about a day – but I don't remember any of it."

One in six cases of meningococcal disease occurs in 15 to 24 year olds.

Early symptoms - such as vomiting, nausea, muscle pain and headaches - can be mistaken as common illnesses such as flu, or even hangovers.

The more specific signs and symptoms include fever with cold hands and feet, drowsiness, confusion, pale blotchy skin, a stiff neck, dislike of bright lights and a rash which does not fade under pressure.

Gray was so ill that after that first day, he was placed in a medically-induced coma, which he would drift in and out of every now and again.

amputee couple

Jacob Gray with fiancée Summer Whittaker

He was told he was extremely aggressive during these waking moments, physically hitting out at people.

Gray's organs also began to fail one by one. He was put on life support and had to have two blood transfusions.

"The medical team told my family my chances of survival were less than 10 per cent," he said. "They said if I did survive, to expect life-long mental disability."

As he lay hovering between life and death, Gray's family including his mum Linda, 56, brothers Nathan, 36, Bob, 33 and sister Eleanor, 26, were by his side.

His father Kevin, 55, an engineer, had been working in Nigeria and was flying home to say what he thought was 'goodbye.'

But Gray fought on, and was transferred to the high dependency unit.

He originally weighed 19.5 stone but lost nine stone in the first two months. His feet had been ravaged by the meningitis and seemed damaged beyond repair.

The day they woke him from his coma, he was still unsure of what was going on.

"I didn't move," he said. "My nerves had been stripped and my muscles had severely wasted. I was still pretty out of it. I was on so much medication that I don't think I fully understood the implications of what had happened to me for around four months."

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Meningitis: A Survivor's Story

Then, in February 2013, Gray was moved to a specialist rehabilitation ward where family members and doctors began putting together the pieces for him.

He said: "I hadn't seen a reflection myself, but when I looked down I could see my feet were heavily bandaged and sore. I didn't know what was going on under there really. I couldn't move much, but I was slowly getting my gross motor functions back."

Gray said he convinced himself that with a few weeks' rest he would be out of hospital and back to normal soon.

In actual fact, he was in hospital until December 2014.

During that time, he underwent 30 hours of surgery over six operations.

He had to have all his toes amputated and doctors took muscle from each of his thighs to pad the front of his feet.

"I knew it had to be done", he said. "I had moments where the tears would come, but I gave myself a mental kick up the backside and I was okay."

A big milestone was sitting up for the first time, something which took him months of effort.

Gray had no idea how tough the road to rehabilitation was going to be – and it was about to get worse.

He began concentrating on the terrible pain his feet were giving him.

Too fragile, they would develop constant sores and the skin on the bottom of his soles was thin as the skin on your knuckles.

He explained: "The nerve damage also stopped me moving my feet at all.

"I couldn't make them rotate the slightest amount, and my knees were no longer strong enough to bend and hold the weight anymore. My legs were dead weights."

Story continues below slideshow:

Meningitis Symptoms

To avoid more intense pain, Gray eventually made the difficult decision to have both his legs amputated.

He said: "That was my decision. They weren't working – all the muscle had completely wasted. They were just hanging there. I couldn't even lift them as they were too heavy."

Rather than dreading the operation, Gray said he saw it as a positive chapter in his life.

"After so many endless days in hospital, something new was happening," he said. "I wouldn't use the word 'exciting' liberally, but it was something different from my routine."

Whittaker was there with him as he got the call to go into surgery.

"It was a strange feeling, packing away my rucksack and giving it to them," he said. "Saying goodbye to Summer was emotional. Who would I be when I came out of surgery?"

"But afterwards I just turned round to her and said simply: 'That's that, then.'

"That was it. I lost my legs and it needed to happen. I'd like to winge, but I don't want to. I have to just get on with it.

"I was honestly okay. I'd made the decision months before. Summer wasn't as happy though. She always stood by me, but she wasn't as confident about everything that was going on as I was.

"It was hard for her. She was constantly visiting me in hospital and then trying to live a relatively normal life outside of it. But having her by my side was amazing."

prosthetic legs

Jacob Gray standing with prosthetic legs

Gray said he thought rehabilitation would be relatively pain-free, but soon discovered it was a painfully slow process.

The problem, he said, was that learning to walk with a body that had no muscle tone and was basically a shell, was nearly impossible at first.

But he soon got strong, and began to learn how to walk again on prosthetic legs.

One day, joking about with Whittaker as his tottered about on his prosthetic legs, Gray joked that once he could take ten full steps without falling over, he would "present her with a ring."

That day finally came in June, and graphic designer Whittaker, 22, made no bones about reminding him of his promise.

He said: "As soon as I did it, she was like: 'Jacob - that was ten steps – ten. Not nine.'

"You have to marry me now.'

"And so I did – I couldn't get down on one knee, but I asked her to marry me. And she said yes.

"We'd always been head over heels in love, but after the meningitis, we'd been through so much it felt like we'd sort of matured overnight. We were serious about this."

The loved up couple hope to find somewhere to live which will be suitable for Gray – who still spends 50% of his time in a wheelchair – before they pen the fine details of their big day.

Gray, who hopes to go to university in future, said: "We love each other. Whether it happens next week or in six months, it doesn't matter. We've been through more than any couple should have to, so if we have to wait a while, no problem."

Find out more at meningitisnow.org.