WHEN Nicola Ray went into labour with her son in 2000, she knew her husband Tom was just metres away from her.
But this was no ordinary birthing experience, as Tom lay comotose in the intensive care unit in the neighbouring block at Peterborough District Hospital – after having both his arms and legs amputated.
Nicola, now 57, was nine months pregnant with her second child Freddy when Tom was rushed into hospital – having contracted potentially deadly sepsis after a routine dental check-up – in December 1999.
A tiny cut in his gum combined with flu had triggered the illness, which kills 52,000 Brits-a-year, and changed the then 38-year-old's life forever.
Nicola, from Rutland, East Mids, told Fabulous Digital: "Tom had been throwing up since 3am but he wasn't admitted to A&E until 6pm.
"By the evening, his eyes were bleeding and he had started throwing up what looked like coffee grounds.
"At about 4am, a doctor came in and said he should be in ICU. This was just 24 hours after he started throwing up.
"It was terrifying – and confusing. You're watching somebody who the night before had gone to bed perfectly fit and healthy deteriorating so fast.
"You don't know what's wrong and apparently the medical people around you don't know what it is either.
"You’re numb, it’s like an out of body experience because it happens so quickly."
Doctors put Tom in a coma and started amputating his hands and feet two weeks later – as life-threatening gangrene took hold of his body.
They eventually removed all four of his limbs, as well as a large part of his face, which was later reconstructed by a plastic surgeon.
Nicola said: "At first they thought he might just lose some toes and fingers, but the gangrene was creeping up so fast so they had to act, otherwise it would have killed him.
I was thinking, as long as I had the baby on the inside, that Tom would stay alive. I was really fearful he wouldn’t survive to see Freddy
"It was heartbreaking. I literally thought my heart would break.
"Our daughter Grace was two and three quarters and we'd told her ‘Mummy’s going into hospital soon and will bring home a little brother or sister’.
"Then suddenly you’re having to explain to her that she might not see Daddy again, he’s very poorly, that was very hard."
Nicola was two weeks away from her due date when Tom went into hospital.
But Freddy was born a fortnight late, around a month after his dad's admission, and his mum was terrified only one of her boys would survive.
She said: "The night before I gave birth was dreadful. I knew I was going to be induced the next day.
"I don’t know if it was sleep deprivation or the fact I was suffering from PTSD and shock, but I got into this mindset where I thought ‘what if this is a bizarre trade off and if the baby arrives safely then I can’t have Tom as well?’
I was having to explain to our daughter that she might not see Daddy again
"I was thinking, as long as I had the baby on the inside, that Tom would stay alive. I was really fearful he wouldn’t survive to see Freddy.
"Giving birth was very strange because I was in the same hospital as Tom.
"The maternity ward was on the ground floor, but looking out of the window I could see the fifth floor in the next block, which is where Tom was in intensive care.
"I was pushing away and Tom was in surgery at the same time having revision surgery on his amputations.
"The midwife was feeding me information on how Tom was doing while I was pushing.
"And they were telling the ICU nurses ‘Mrs Ray’s in labour. It’s a boy’. It was really surreal."
What is sepsis?
SEPSIS, also referred to as blood poisoning or septicaemia, is a reaction to an infection that causes the body to damage its own organs and tissues.
The body’s immune system goes into overdrive.
If not spotted and treated quickly, it can lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death.
It can strike after chest or water infections, problems in the abdomen such as burst ulcers or simple skin injuries including cuts or bites.
Survivors might suffer serious health problems after the illness, including swollen limbs, lethargy, hair loss, insomnia, flashbacks, depression and repeated infections.
Some patients, like Tom, have to undergo amputations.
The condition kills more people in the UK each year than bowel, breast and prostate cancer combined.
With 150,000 cases diagnosed in Britain annually, sepsis costs the NHS £2.93billion each year and almost 35 per cent of patients will die.
The UK Sepsis Trust estimates earlier identification and treatment could save 14,000 lives a year.
You can find out more about sepsis here.
At the beginning of April, Tom began to wake from his coma but, to add to their heartbreak, he had no memory of his wife or their children.
Nicola said: "It was terrible, I was having to break the news to Tom about what happened to him every day.
"It was a good fortnight before he could get his head around what had happened, because it was so unbelievable.
"The last thing he remembers is lying on the sofa feeling dreadful, he was convinced he'd been in a car crash.
"Sepsis affects your memory, it's like a slate's been wiped clean.
"Tom still does not remember us getting married, right to this day. Those shared memories are the backbone of your marriage.
"But I took courage from the fact that Tom was so determined to stay with us and recover.
"I had to put my faith in him rather than the word of the medics.
"They still weren't willing to give him the thumbs up, because so few people survived what had happened to him."
Tom still does not remember us getting married, right to this day. Those shared memories are the backbone of your marriage
Before Tom became ill, the couple ran a business together, but their life soon started unravelling.
With no money coming in, they were eventually forced to sell their house and move in with Nicola's mum.
Nicola said: "We closed the business the day Tom got ill. We had to sell our house, the car.
"You have to stop money going out of your bank account because there isn't more coming in.
"Once Tom was out of hospital, in August, we could start applying for incapacity and carer's benefits, but it's not enough to support a family of four.
"We had no pension or company insurance.
"Tom ended up working in a call centre for a few hours a week, just to get a few pennies together.
"It was rock bottom, we were barely getting by.
"I was just trying to keep the ship together. It did get rocky. I had a breakdown after two years and then again after four years.
"At first you're on adrenaline mode, I had a huge checklist of things to do for Tom and was looking after a newborn.
"I had PTSD and depression, but I had put everyone on hold to get through those first couple of years."
If he'd got antibiotics and fluids within the hour, Tom could have walked away
Nicola and Tom fell for each other at university, but she revealed they "spent 15 years avoiding each other, because he'd been married to somebody else."
She said: "We had a connection at university, but we made each other feel dangerous, so we avoided each other like mad.
"When Tom got ill I couldn't believe it. We had only been married 18 months.
"All those years of not having him, then he was taken away just at the point when our family was about to be complete.
"That was really, really tough."
In some ways, the trauma of their experience has brought the couple closer together than ever.
"We are pretty tight," Nicola said. "But we have both been damaged by what's happened, so we need support and help.
"We were man and wife and then we became patient and nurse, carer and sepsis victim. That is crazy.
"It changes you in a really profound way and takes a great deal of work and constant negotiation to make you get back to where you want to be.
"Tom and I are incredibly close though. I love him to bits and I know he loves me to bits."
Tom and Nicola are currently campaigning for better training for nurses, explaining "classic signs" were missed in his diagnosis.
Nicola said: "The idea that this is still happening just breaks our hearts. It is an awareness thing. We know how to treat sepsis.
"If he'd got antibiotics and fluids within the hour, Tom could have walked away."
They also do motivational speaking with their company Resilience and Co.
A film and a book, both called Starfish, were made about their incredible story.
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