'I Got Sepsis On Holiday And Had To Have My Hands And Legs Amputated'

Kim Smith was on holiday in Spain in 2017 when she developed life-changing sepsis.
Kim Smith, before and after her life-saving operation.
Kim Smith
Kim Smith, before and after her life-saving operation.

In My Story, readers share their unique, life-changing experiences. Today, we hear from Kim Smith, 61 from Milton Keynes.

(This story was originally published in 2022.)

It’s scary to think that from a simple urine infection you can end up losing your limbs, but that’s what happened to me.

We were on holiday in Alicante, Spain in 2017 when I started feeling unwell. We were out for dinner one evening and I had this awful pain in my back and my side that I suspected might be a urine infection. I said to my husband: ‘I really don’t feel too good’. And then the next day, I woke up and I had cold hands and feet. I was really shivering, so we went to the hospital.

I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I knew enough to just say “pain here” and point to my back. They gave me an x-ray and sent me away.

The day after it was even worse. All I remember is trying to shuffle into the doctor’s surgery and my husband helping me walk. I did an iTranslate on my phone and said ‘I think I have a urine infection.’ I had to do a urine sample and the doctor gave me an injection in my bottom and gave us a prescription for antibiotics. We went to the chemist to collect the medication, only to be told that they didn’t have any in stock and to come back tomorrow.

The next day, at four o’clock in the morning, I woke up feeling like I was going to die.

Kim worked as hairdresser before she developed sepsis.
Kim Smith
Kim worked as hairdresser before she developed sepsis.

I can’t even describe the feeling. I woke up my husband and he took me to hospital in my pyjamas. I don’t even remember the drive. They admitted me immediately and took my clothes and jewellery and gave them to my husband saying: “She won’t need these, she could die.” My husband was devastated.

I was taken to intensive care, had a tracheotomy, put into an induced coma with life support and had kidney dialysis, because my kidneys failed.

My husband didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t know what to do. He phoned my daughters and my mum, who got the next available flight from Gatwick to Alicante. When they came to see me the next morning they were shocked. When they pulled the sheet back to hold my hand, it was purple.

I spent six weeks in a coma in Spain. My youngest daughter, Becki, contacted the travel insurer and eventually they agreed to send an air ambulance. The NHS doctors in the UK had been told that I had a couple of black digits, so they were expecting a couple of black fingers. They were absolutely shocked to see the state of me when I arrived. My legs were black up to my knees and my arms were black, almost up to my elbows.

That was the first time that my family learned I had sepsis. None of them knew what it was, so Becki contacted the Sepsis Trust, who helped.

Anything that can cause an infection – from something as small as a paper cut to a urine infection or flu – can lead to sepsis. Doctors don’t know for certain what caused my sepsis. We know I had a urine infection, but tests found I had Strep B (a common bacterial infection) too, so it could have been either.

“The doctor said: ‘I’m really sorry to tell you this, but we need to amputate your hands and legs to save your life.'”

- Kim Smith

After nine weeks in a coma, the doctors woke me up. When I first came around, I was extremely delirious and saying some really weird things. I said that my husband was gay and he was having an affair. I said that there was water running down the wall and filling up the room. I’m petrified of cats, and I was screaming because I saw a cat on the end of the bed. It’s really strange when I think back now, but it seemed so real to me at the time.

When I’d come around enough, the doctor said: “I’m really sorry to tell you this, but we need to amputate your hands and legs to save your life.” I said: “That’s fine, just get them off.” I’m not a stupid woman, they were black and I couldn’t lift them off the bed, so I knew that they were dead.

I said: “Okay, that needs to be done.”

Kim refuses to stop smiling.
Kim Smith
Kim refuses to stop smiling.

I woke up after the op and all I felt was relief, because I could move my arms again. I looked down and thought: ‘Oh, my goodness, thank God they haven’t taken my arm completely.’ I was grateful for that.

The one thing that really affected me about the loss of my hands is that I lost my career as a hairdresser. In fact, not being able to do my own hair was the thing that upset me the most. I hated that other people were brushing it and not how I wanted. But I’ve bought a hair dryer brush now and I can style it myself with my arms, so I’m happy again now that my hair looks good.

I’m currently waiting for a double hand transplant and the wheelchair is now my legs. It helps me get out and about, so that’s great. It’s not a problem.

My life has changed, but I’ve always got a smile on my face. I’m alive, I have an amazing, supportive family and why wouldn’t I smile? People are always surprised how positive I am about it. They say: ‘You’re an inspiration.’

Life throws these curveballs at you and you’ve got to get on with it. I’m not a massive God believer, but I do think I was saved to be strong and to tell my story to help save other people’s lives. Every time I hear of another sepsis death, it breaks my heart. I will never, ever stop raising awareness.

The five key symptoms of sepsis are:

  • Confusion

  • Not passing as much urine as normal

  • Very high or low temperature

  • Uncontrolled shivering

  • Cold or blotchy arms and legs

Sepsis Research FEAT is a charity dedicated to research while also raising awareness of the life threatening condition. For more information about sepsis, visit sepsisresearch.org.uk

Kim was interviewed by Rachel Moss and her answers were edited for length and clarity.

To take part in HuffPost UK’s My Story series, email uklife@huffpost.com