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ABLE2UK interviews this years’ Woman of Courage

Kath Treganna collecting her woman of courage award
Kath Treganna collecting her woman of courage award

Kath Tregenna is an extraordinary ordinary ‘bionic’ woman who two years after nearly dying of sepsis is back at work despite having parts of all four limbs amputated. 

In November 2019 Kath was feeling unwell and decided to leave the school where she teaches and go home for some rest. By Sunday she was feeling so sick and feverish she called 111. Fortunately the call handler realised something was very wrong and ordered an ambulance. Her condition deteriorated at terrifying speed. Within hours of her arrival at hospital she was diagnosed with sepsis, triggered by pneumonia. She suffered 11 cardiac arrests, multiple organ failures and had to be put into an induced coma. 

On Monday morning the police arrived at the family home to summon her husband and children to the hospital to say their goodbyes. The doctors said it would take a miracle for her to survive. Amazingly one of the doctors remembered reading about a drug which had proved successful in improving the effectiveness of the antibiotics they were  already using. With nothing to lose it was administered and Kath slowly began to recover.  

But sepsis had wrought dreadful damage. Kath’s hands, feet and much of her legs were dying and only amputation could stop the infection spreading. In January 2020 both her hands were amputated above the wrist and two weeks later both her legs  below the knee.

Adapting to her new normal was impossible to imagine. But she discovered she still excelled at teaching. 

In July she was fitted for prosthetic legs which enabled her to cautiously start to do things for herself. She returned to work at the school in September 2021.

Earlier this month Kath was the winner of the Woman of Courage Award 2022. We had the honour to speak to her about the remarkable achievement and how a turbulent, but inspiring background.

Congratulations on winning the Woman of Courage Award 2022. How did you hear about the accolade and how did you feel?

I first heard that I would be receiving an award with a phone call and really I was in complete shock. I couldn't believe that my story had been recognised by The Women of the Year committee. I feel very proud and extremely honoured to have won the Woman of Courage award. The Women of the year lunch was an incredibly inspiring event that it was a huge privilege to attend. I still can’t believe it!

Your life changed in November 2019 after you developed pneumonia and sepsis. If you are happy to, can you take us through that traumatic time?

In November 2019, I left school early one day feeling a little sick with what I thought was a winter flu. I rested throughout the weekend, but by Sunday I was feeling very weak and extremely unwell and I decided to call 111. The call handler sent an ambulance. On taking my vital signs they told me they would have to take me into hospital. However, even at that moment I had no idea of the severity of my condition. Shortly after arriving at hospital, I developed sepsis which is ‘the body’s life-threatening response to infection or injury’, and progressed into severe septic shock. This caused multiple organ failure and I was put into a coma, as doctors battled to save my life. 

You were in a coma for two weeks after being admitted to hospital, when you regained consciousness doctors told you that your sepsis had spread. Do you remember the moment when they broke the news?

I was in a coma for several weeks. The doctors had miraculously saved my life however, septic shock had prevented adequate blood flow to my fingers, hands, toes, and feet. From that night in November my limbs had begun to die. By the time I became conscious my hands and feet were black and withered. When the doctors broke the news that I’d need all 4 limbs amputated I just felt numb.

In January 2020 your life changed again, but there was some good news - doctors managed to save your knees. How has saving those limbs enhanced your mobility?

Throughout my journey I’ve tried to focus on the positives and the fact that the doctors were able to save both my knees was an enormous relief. I know the surgery wasn’t easy as there had been much discussion before it took place over the possible outcomes. The process of fitting prosthetic legs is a fairly straightforward process for below knee amputees. Although learning to walk again was challenging, thanks to the fact I have my knees I can now manage the stairs and can take walks in nature over uneven surfaces

How did the pandemic affect you?

As I recovered in hospital I required multiple surgeries on the many wounds left by Sepsis. As these healed a plan was made to transfer me to a limb centre where I would have prosthetic arms and legs fitted and I would spend 6 weeks as an inpatient learning to use my new limbs. Then came the first lock-down and the limb centres were all closed. However, the result was that I was able to return home and be with my family much earlier than planned. I even took over helping my own children with their virtual learning. To me this was an absolute joy! 

When you were eventually fitted with prosthetic legs and arms how long did it take to adapt to them?

 It took several months before I could walk without a frame. I wasn’t allowed to take the legs home until I could stand safely and even that took several weeks. I was really excited to get my hero arms! However, again there was a long period of learning. Initially my muscle movements were so weak I couldn’t even get the fingers to move.

You are a schoolteacher for young children at the International School of London, how did the pupils adapt to your disability and have they ever made any comments which stick in your mind?

Wearing bionic arms I find that interactions and discussions around my disability tend to be positive and focus on this amazing technology. The pupils have been wonderful! They are full of curiosity and seeing me with bionic arms also seems to have inspired them to think how life enhancing technology might develop in the future. Of course, they have lots of fabulous ideas like shooting lasers but also about creating arms that allow me to regain my sense of touch, or developing fully waterproof arms. I’ve been asked if I consider myself a cyborg. Now the pupils understand what caused my disability, they are able to see beyond it and see me as “Miss Kath”.

Tell us three things you can do with your bionic arms which people, without prosthetics, are unable to do?

Although my hero arms are incredible and allow me to carry out many everyday activities they do not have the functionality of biological limbs. I am unable to feel and this can on occasions have advantages, for example when lifting a hot tray out of the oven or getting items out the freezer.

If you were able2 do anything, what would it be?

I used to live in the Caribbean and diving was a hobby of mine. I know I’ll never be able to dive again but I’d love to be able2 dive down and explore shipwrecks in crystal clear waters.

To find out more visit the Women of the Year Award website.