A primary school teacher who lost her arms and legs to sepsis has returned to teaching after being fitted with bionic limbs.
Kath Tregenna’s life changed during the run-up to Christmas two years ago, when she came down with a fever that she couldn’t shake.
The fever became so severe that the London-based teacher had to be admitted into hospital, where she suffered between seven and 11 cardiac arrests and her family was told to say their goodbyes.
Reflecting on her horrific hospital stay, Kath, 47, said: “I owe my life to the 111 operator who noticed some of the symptoms of sepsis and called an ambulance.”
To stop the sepsis from spreading and to save her life, the doctors had no choice but to perform a quadruple amputation on both her legs below the knee and her two arms below the elbow.
Kath then spent a month in intensive care, and spent the New Year rediscovering the world around her but without any limbs.
She said: “My family came to visit me over Christmas but I don’t remember any of it.”
Kath is originally from Cornwall and for five years she taught primary school education to students in the International School of London, in Chiswick, Hounslow, before she caught the deadly blood infection.
She said: “I was in school, feeling a little bit unwell and I decided to leave early that day.
“Over the weekend, I was still unwell and rested, by the Sunday afternoon I decided to call 111.
“The call handler obviously sensed something and then decided to send an ambulance to my house.”
Kath went on to explain that the ambulance came, took her vital signs and she was admitted into hospital.
From this moment on, Kath doesn’t remember what happened but she was told that her body had gone into septic shock and that as a consequence, she would need to have all four limbs amputated to survive.
However, one thing remained clear to her.
She said: “As I was going through my recovery, I really knew in my heart that I wanted to get back into the classroom and get back to teaching.”
While on her rocky road to recovery, Kath was prescribed prosthetic arm hooks that were uncomfortable and heavy to wear, which would make her heart sink every time she had to put them on.
The mum-of-two said: “I always had this dream of being able to go back to teaching and I just knew I couldn’t do that with these heavy hooks.”
Luckily, while she was re-learning how to take her first steps, the school where she worked rallied and fundraised enough money to cover the costs of a Hero Arm from the UK tech company Open Bionics.
Kath, who described her workplace and colleagues as “just like family”, said: “This school is a wonderful place to work - it’s a very multicultural school and it has a wonderful community feel.”
Shortly after being fitted with her first bionic arm, Kath became much more independent and a few months later, she got another prosthetic fitted on her other arm.
In total, Kath spent 18 months in recovery and is still coming to terms with her life after sepsis.
Reflecting on her experience, she credited the technology for giving her independence back.
Now back in the classroom part-time, Kath has been amazed at the response to her bionic arms from the children.
She said: “It’s all thanks to arms I am able to teach again.
“From writing on the school board to carrying books, children are obsessed with the Hero Arms and always ask me to show how they work.
“From the moment I arrive at school, I’m using the arms to do all sorts of tasks.
“Going out wearing the arms actually makes me feel very very confident. They just enable me to carry out a range of classroom activities, which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
Kath’s arms were customised to her shape and matched her individual prosthetic requirements and design preferences.
Unlike the prosthetic hooks that she was prescribed which had limited functionality and were heavy to wear, Kath’s new arms use myoelectric sensors which detect muscle movements in the arm and convert them into intuitive hand movements.
Samantha Payne MBE, the co-founder of Open Bionics, said: “Kath is incredible. Our entire team is in awe of Kath’s determination to get back to doing what she loves most - teaching.
“Seeing her using both of her Hero Arms for everyday things really puts into perspective how important bionic technology can be when it comes to giving people recovering from life-changing surgeries a level of independence to achieve their goals.”
Open Bionics use custom 3D printing and scanning when creating their bionic limbs, and the Hero Arm bionic was co-designed with amputees from Bristol.
Based on the idea of “turning disabilities into superpowers”, the company was founded by Joel Gibbard MBE and Samantha Payne MBE to develop affordable, assistive devices that enhance the human body.