Warning - some readers might find the very graphic wound images in this article disturbing. Please do not continue reading if you will be upset by medical images depicting MRSA and cellulitis.
In our series “When Our Worst Leads to Our Best” we find inspiration from real-life stories of people hit completely out of the blue. They might have suffered from a global health pandemic, the sudden loss of a job, a chronic health diagnosis or, in this case, the very real risk of losing a limb and even possibly life. We explore how in these moments of adversity we have the ability to find greatness - bottomless levels of resolve, headstrong pragmatism in the face of chaos, and an inner peace that comes with surrendering to things outside of our control. We hope you enjoy the series and this incredible story.
It was anything but routine.
Medically speaking it’s called a ‘high tibial osteotomy’. In layman’s terms it’s a surgical leg break to realign the bone and to take pressure off the knee. Plates and screws are inserted to keep it in place. Two months later you might be at last off crutches and three to six months later you might be back to walking normally. The point is you’ve kept your real knee, which is always going to be a better outcome than having it replaced by an artificial one.
Unless, of course, you lose your entire leg, which is very much how things started to look for Mark three weeks in.
But let’s rewind a moment.
Avoiding a knee replacement
For Personal Trainer and corrective exercise specialist Mark, the writing had been on the wall for decades. He’d gone in for other knee related operations twice previously, but he knew a total replacement was coming. Then his consultant told him a high tibial osteotomy was an option, and he knew it was for him. He wanted to keep his real knee. His specialist agreed this was the right path, but now wasn’t the time.
“I want you to come to me in agony, begging for it,” said the surgeon. “You are so active and this is such significant surgery that we have to wait until you really are desperate,” he said.
The pain to date was already bad, but Mark could tolerate it. Exceptionally fit, he was probably at least 25 - 30 years physically younger than his actual age of 59. His body was conditioned to handle a lot of discomfort, so normal life resumed. A year later and Mark’s knee catastrophically failed him. Every step was painful. He couldn’t bend or straighten his leg without it shooting shocking, acute pain to his knee. Every step was diabolical. He contacted his surgeon.
“I now know what you mean. I’m ready and I’m begging,” he said.
High tibial osteotomy surgery
Despite the gravitas of the operation, it all went like clockwork. He was under the knife for a couple of hours, in hospital recovering for a few days, and then back at home on pain killers and using crutches. Everything went swimmingly.
Until it didn’t.
Three weeks later he was in his kitchen chopping veggies when the knee began to throb. He decided he’d go sit down. The pain didn’t abate, it escalated ten-fold. It was the worst pain he’d ever experienced. He took some of the morphine left over from the early postoperative days. Nothing. He waited 40 minutes and took some more. It didn’t even touch the sides. By the following day Mark’s girlfriend rushed him to A&E. He has no recollection of this day; the pain was so intolerable his mind was shutting down. The leg had turned red by this point. The surgeon confirmed the situation was not normal and there was very likely an infection. They agreed on another operation to go in, clean it out, stitch him back and send him on his merry way within two to four days.
Little did he know, but within two days Mark was at risk of losing his entire leg, if not his life.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - a bacterial superbug
Following this unexpected second round of surgery Mark was placed (through IV) on a wide-spectrum antibiotic (or as he was told, the medical equivalent to bleach) for two hours a day. Two days later and he was given the news - he had MRSA and he was by no means out of the woods. MRSA is not ‘gold staph’, it’s far more dangerous and more challenging to treat because it's resistant to all but for a small number of super antibiotics. It’s a very super, very bad bug indeed.
To make matters worse for Mark, it was in the bone and not the flesh. As a result his leg had started to become very badly discoloured with cellulitis, so painful he was unable to get out of bed for two weeks.
What runs through your head when you risk losing your leg and even your life?
Mark welled up when doctors told him the news. This kind of thing didn’t happen to him. He was so fit and healthy and vital. He was invincible. Yet now here he was with one of the deadliest bacterial bugs in his body, and at risk of not only losing a leg but even his life.
What happened next might surprise you. It certainly surprised Mark. Within minutes he was at peace with it all. He could have panicked, he could have broken down, he could have despaired. Yet strangely and unexpectedly, a sense of calm washed over him. Right here right now, he was in control of very little. Freaking out would not help his cause. What makes him so special to think this can’t happen to him? If he lost a leg, he lost a leg. But he would focus on keeping his life and getting through this. He would remain calm and if they did indeed need to amputate, that’s when he would cross that bridge. Not before.
Mark thinks this whole calm-down narrative went through his head in a matter of minutes. His pragmatism and peace seemed incongruous to his situation. He never knew he had this in him, and it pleased him to make this discovery. In fact, he began to feel as if he might be the calmest person in the room. He did his best to make light of the situation and try to relax the nerves of those around him.
He remained in hospital for three weeks. He was on antibiotics by IV every day for at least two hours and blood taken every day for testing. In Mark’s words, they gave him elephant doses. The only way to confirm MRSA had fully left his body would be to open him up and look. So to avoid doing that a third time the medical team opted to kill it, and then kill it again, just to be sure. His medication changed twice and he was the first patient in London Bridge Hospital to be administered one particular strain of antibiotic, Dalbumycin. In the meantime, however, the wound split open and would not heal, so he was returned to surgery a third time to relieve a haematoma (pressure had been developing behind the wound) and to have new edges created so that the wound could close.
Three weeks later and Mark - life and limb still present - headed home.
Healing via the gut
Now Mark was back in control of his life he made a decision to do four things:
- Eat fermented food every day
- Increase his probiotics the moment he came off his antibiotics (but until then maintain good probiotics alongside the antibiotics)
- Increase his dose of collagen supplements (which he had been taking for some time already)
- Come back stronger than ever
He did this because he knew the key to his recovery, and sustaining good health, was all in his gut. He needed to get his gut’s microbiome just right, so that he could optimise his immune system. The fermented food and collagen would help do this. He was hoping that along with the use of a red light, the collagen would also assist to minimise his scar tissue, which was now significant following the operations, 20 staples, and severe cellulitis. Two weeks later and his leg was on track for an astounding recovery. The wound was healing brilliantly and Mark felt fantastic.
He was back and on his way to being better than ever.
King of smoothies
Mark’s daily smoothie has a huge role to play in his optimal health. Depending on where he is at in his training programme he will either make it calorie-dense or not. If he feels like an extra bit of sweetness every now and again he will add chocolate. The recipe is jam-packed with nutrition, vitamins, minerals and goodness.
- Avocado - half
- Big lump of fresh ginger
- Fresh turmeric
- Steel-cut oats
- Nut butter
- Cacao powder
- Coenzyme Q10
- C8 oil (also known as MCT oil)
- Edible Health Bovine Collagen Powder supplement
No surprises that even with his physical life, this smoothie sustains Mark until well into the afternoon, when he will have a salad lunch around 2pm. He even has his 82 year-old mother on a slightly similar routine, and he says she’s in incredible form.
For Mark, age is not the enemy. It’s a cliche for good reason, because attitude really is everything. When he explains to his clients what he wants them to do in training and they tell him they can’t do that, he always has the same response:
“Yet. You can’t do that yet”.
He focuses on their physical training, absolutely, but he also is conscious of opening their minds to untapped possibility and potential. He knows from experience now that when you face absolute adversity, you can push through. All those years of life, everything you’ve learned along the way; there comes a moment when you’re tested and you need to cash it all in. You need to draw on those experiences and unleash those reserves of strength and resilience.
Nothing has ever got the better of Mark, not even MRSA. That knowledge doesn’t over-inflate his ego, it just gives him a quiet confidence. He’s been tested, and he knows he has the reserves to get through.
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