The last time I typed with fingers was over six years ago – having your hands amputated will do that to you. I also lost both my legs below the knee for good measure. Sepsis really doesn’t wait around, or take into account any plans you might have to compete in triathlons and climb mountains.
It all started with a cough – one of those irritating ones that you assume will disappear within a week.The antibiotics my GP had prescribed didn’t seem to be working, and when it started to affect me taking care of my young son and interfering with my business, I took myself to the hospital. I made it to the waiting room before collapsing.
“Ms Hutton is to have her hands and feet amputated.”
Pneumonia turned to sepsis, and my body was fighting to keep me alive. Doctors gave me just a 5% chance of survival. It turns out that was enough. The sacrifice was that as my body was saving all the vital organs, my hands and feet were starved of oxygen. They turned black, and had to be removed. After around thirteen procedures, I had parts missing that I had taken for granted, and faced challenges that were so alien to me I didn’t know where to begin. Luckily, from surgeons to nurses to physios, the NHS was outstanding.
When I left rehab with my shiny new prosthetic legs, I felt alone for the first time since the surgery. My family and friends were, and continue to be, by my side, but it was peer support I was missing – meeting other amputees and sharing insights. I decided to fill the gap, and started the charity Finding Your Feet. Truthfully, giving myself that purpose helped me just as much as it did any other amputee. Today, amputees are swimming, cycling, making lasting friendships and have access to vital counseling though the charity.
I’ve always struggled with the word “disabled.” At Finding Your Feet, we promote the fact that being different is normal, and we should all be proud of what and who we are. We have a rule in my house that if I ever say “I can’t” my son Rory will call me out on saying “the C word.” This led me to becoming the first female quadruple amputee to climb Ben Nevis, and competing in the London Triathlon, which was made slightly more complicated by a surgery months before to remove two thirds of one of my lungs. On the bright side, it did mean I swallowed less of the Thames during the swim.
In 2018, a group of fundraisers announced that they would climb Kilimanjaro for the charity. It was time to prove to myself and the world that I would take on any challenge, with or without bits missing. It had always been on my bucket list, and that, coupled with a heavy dose of FOMO, landed me at Rongai Gate in Tanzania with the highest mountain in Africa looming over me. The challenges it brought with it ranged from big to small to just downright frustrating. Zips can be tough without hands, and even tougher when you’re stuck in a tent and desperate for a pee. I reached the summit after a five-day ascent. I had a persistent cough for a couple of days which, given my history, worried both the team and I. I was tired and sore, but I was on top of the world, standing tall as the first female quadruple amputee to conquer Kili.
It turned out that would be the last big challenge I took on without hands. Earlier this year, I became the first Scot to receive a double hand transplant, and only the third in the UK. It all happened very fast, as these things must. I’ve been on the transplant list since 2013, originally billed as the first in the UK to be receiving one. That didn’t go to plan, as I was a notoriously difficult match due to past blood transfusions.
Typically, as I started to give up hope, I got the call telling me there was a match. I was rushed from my home in Glasgow down south to Leeds General Infirmary, where all of the UK’s hand transplants have been performed. The countless false alarms over the years came rushing back into my head – would the hands turn out not to be a match? This panic only got worse as the surgery drew nearer. I was out cold at 1PM on Wednesday 8 January and woke up at 1AM on the 9th with hands. Twelve surgeons worked tirelessly for twelve hours, weaving and stitching, joining bones, tendons and blood vessels. The surgeons had to make split-second decisions to determine what would give me the best chance of using my hands and making the bond as strong as possible. The nerves required microsurgery with the use of a microscope – the surgeons have told me that those stitches are the diameter of a human hair.
And so here I am, back in physical rehab learning to use hands all over again. I can lift certain objects and wiggle my new fingers. Most importantly, I can hold my son’s hand. For the rest of my life there is a chance of my body rejecting the transplants, and my immunosuppressants mean I have no immune system to fight any infections I may contract. What drives me now is the donor, honouring her memory and carrying her with me everywhere I go. It’s because of her that I will not fail to make these hands work, and I’ll campaign tirelessly for organ donation until the day I die. Mine wasn’t a life or death situation, but for many, many people it is. People are waking up today because of this donor and others like her. I hope to meet her family and shake their hands.
Experiencing everything you read above has taught me more lessons than I can count (even with my new fingers). I know that whatever happens we have the ability to adapt. This ability may be buried deep, but it’s there. I’ve lived with hands and feet and I’ve lived without them. Life goes on, and you can make it work. Now, thanks to a selfless donor and her family, I have hands again.
I’ve also realised that we are here as a collective. The world would be bleak without the compassion, help and care of others. The donor, her family, my friends, my family, volunteers at the charity, amputees we work with, medical staff – everyone is a part of a community that extends past borders and physical presence. Without that community I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I’m going to devote my life to keep it growing.
I was asked recently what inspired me. My answer was anyone who gets up everyday and tries to be braver and bolder than they were the day before. My mountain just happened to be Kilimanjaro, but yours can be anything that gets you out of your comfort zone. Get out and conquer it.
Corinne Hutton is founder of Finding Your Feet, and Scotland’s first double hand transplant recipient
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