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Young dad Alex Lewis' brave fightback against deadly group A streptococcus bug
HIS overwhelming love for his partner, young son and pet dog are what makes him determined to fight back.
Alex Lewis is lying in a hospital bed without three of his limbs and his face severely disfigured.
This is the devastating impact of the same bacteria that causes a minor sore throat but left a fit and healthy 34-year-old man in a coma, wired up to machines and fighting for his life.
Alex and his partner Lucy and son Sam before the infection
Just hours earlier life was very different. Giggles filled the family home when Alex hoisted his three-year-old boy Sam into the air and wrapped him around his shoulders, both posing for their first ever “selfie”.
Now confined to his hospital room and fed by a drip, the brave dad knows he now has to learn the basic skills his toddler is learning – to walk, eat and write.
Yet today Alex insists he is lucky to be alive and the near-death experience has made him realise how precious life is.
He is adamant that the Daily Echo tells his story to inspire people never to lose hope, however horrendous the situation they find themselves in.
Alex with his family by his side
The deadly bug that changed the family’s life started as a cold.
Alex had gone to bed early feeling unwell on a Saturday night in November. He awoke at 2am, passing blood in his urine before deteriorating rapidly. His skin turned purple and his eyes dilated.
Medics at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester diagnosed a blood infection called Group A streptococcus, a normally harmless bacteria that the human body should filter out but in Alex’s case developed into septicaemia and toxic shock syndrome.
Alex was so ill his major organs began shutting down and he was put into a drug-induced coma for a week in the hope it would help him recover enough to fight the infection.
Partner Lucy Townsend said: “All his internal organs broke down so he was straight on dialysis. His kidneys were the first to stop. His lungs, his kidneys, his heart, everything was shutting down so when we got to intensive care they said ‘Go and say goodbye’, basically.
Alex in hospital
“They took me to a room and told me there was a three per cent chance of his survival.
“They said if he makes it through the night he will be lucky. It was just so surreal. Hours earlier he’d been home with Sam and now here he was fighting for his life.”
All Alex’s friends and family could do was sit and watch, day by day, as gangrene set in.
His feet, fingertips, arms, lips, nose and even the tips of his ears turned black as his flesh died.
Remarkably Alex beat the odds to survive and was transferred to Salisbury District Hospital where he was told there was only one option to save his life – amputation.
He was told he would lose both his legs but there was more devastating news to come. Surgeons would also have to amputate his left arm above the elbow.
But remarkably, he remained positive.
“It’s a huge game changer. My life will never be the same again, our family life will never be the same again but I feel lucky,” says Alex, speaking from his hospital room which is plastered floor to ceiling with photos of the grinning dad with his boy.
“I’m lucky to be alive today. To be able to have the chance to walk the dog with my son again in the countryside, something as simple as that, just like I used to, well that’s just amazing.
“I think you realise how precious life is. It sounds corny but it’s so true.”
Alex and Sam
The former Peter Symonds and Hampshire Collegiate School student, who used to play golf for the county aged 16, faced operations throughout December and January when his three limbs were amputated and surgeons fought to save his other arm, including 16 hours of surgery on Christmas Eve.
They took muscle from his back to rebuild the dead arm in the hope he will regain sensation in his hand.
For Alex, that glimmer of hope is testament to his positive outlook.
“I’ve got no use of my fingers yet but they hope in time the tendons and muscles will finally work their way through and I may get the use of my thumb and forefinger but otherwise it may be another amputation.
“The fact I have my hand is amazing. I’ve learned along the way that all the quadruple amputees I’ve met through either war or illness say the one thing they’d kill for is a hand, so I was very lucky that surgeons here could save it,” says Alex.
Lucy added: “He has not once said ‘Why me?’ or not been 100 per cent positive. He’s never said, ‘I’m not going to have this or that’, he’s just smiled and laughed through it.
“There was nothing negative about the whole experience for Alex.”
The hardest moment for Alex wasn’t the excruciating pain when he awoke following the amputations, lying on the 14in fresh scar across his back or the patches where they have taken skin to use on his stumps, or enduring two hours of dressing his wounds at a time. Instead it was his son’s reaction to his physical appearance after he lost his lips.
“He thought it was chocolate on my face and so when I lost my lips he refused to go near me. He could get his head around the legs and the arm, but then last Saturday he came the closest he’s come to me since it happened.
“I put my arm stump out and touched him and I said, ‘Look at that’ and he said, ‘No, get off’, but then I flexed my bicep even though it was agony and he just fell about laughing, he absolutely loved it. It seemed a lot easier with him at the weekend.”
Lucy added: “The only way we could explain it to him is that Daddy is like a Power Ranger, a blue one, or a Transformer. Daddy is having new legs, blue Power Ranger legs, and now Sam’s going around saying, ‘My daddy’s a Power Ranger’, so he thinks it’s pretty cool.”
Alex now has his sights firmly set on his family’s future.
Once his body has recovered from the operations he will be transferred to a specialist unit in Roehampton where he will be fitted with prosthetic limbs and undergo rehabilitation.
Alex already has his sights on amputee golf competitions and can’t wait to walk his beloved Labrador Holly again.
“It’s good fun learning to do these things again,” says Alex who is defiantly sitting upright on his bed throughout our conversation despite the strain on his stomach.
Alex, right, before his infection
“I think walking on prosthetic legs for the first time will be absolute elation when it happens. I can’t wait to fall over though, it’s all part of the therapy. I’m sure my mind will say to me, ‘Get up and get going’ until I crack it.
"And the blades you get for running, I hate running but that's not the point. They are cool and Sam will love them.
"You have got to get on with it. You can't lie in bed and feel bad, else you'd be here forever and you wouldn't recover. You have to keep positive because it's going to be really exciting times."
The couple live in Stockbridge where Alex is a full-time dad and Lucy runs Michelin pub of the Year The Greyhound on the Test. Formerly she ran the Kings Arms in Lockerley too but has been forced to sell up following Alex's illness.
Alex says: “In a strange way it is the most amazing thing I have ever lived through and I think nothing but good will come from it.
"I think you cope because you have to. If you don't, chances are you will probably die.
“We have all got a resilience within us but it just doesn’t get tested. As a family we have been tested in the last four months to the max.
“But you have to make the best of the situation, realise what you have got, not what you haven’t got.”
What is group A streptococcus?
Group A strep is a bacterial infection often found on the surface of the skin and inside the throat and a common cause of infection in adults and children.
Most infections caused by strep A are unpleasant but do not usually pose a serious threat to health.
However strep A bacteria can pose a potentially serious threat to health if they penetrate deeper inside the tissues and organs of the body and trigger what is known as an invasive infection. Examples include pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis.
More serious invasive strep A infections are rare. It is estimated that only one in every 33,000 people will develop an invasive infection a year in England.
Invasive strep A infections are regarded as a medical emergency and sufferers are usually admitted to hospital.
The infection is usually treated with injections of antibiotics for seven to 10 days. In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove or repair damaged tissue.
It is estimated that one in four people who develop an invasive strep A infection will die from it.
How to help
The Daily Echo is today backing a trust set up to provide vital support to the family.
The Al Lewis Trust will help fund rehabilitation costs for Alex as the couple search for a suitable home and ways to help him re-establish his independence.
Alex said he also wants to support the intensive care unit to provide Wifi on the ward for those who stay for months at a time.
High-profile fundraising events have already been announced including a golf day organised by former TV presenter Dickie Davies, a blow dry bootcamp by hairdresser to the stars Guy Kremer and a fishing day. Stockbridge Fete will support Alex this year and friends of the family have also announced fundraisers.
The Trust will be run from The Greyhound on the Test.
To support Alex go to https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/diiy9/ab/2332U5 or email firstname.lastname@example.org