ALEX Lewis thought he was having a terrifying nightmare.
His body paralysed with drugs and only able to move his eyes, he felt sheer panic as he caught sight of the new face surgeons had spent more than 20 hours creating.
“I have never felt so scared. I was absolutely petrified,” he says speaking from his hospital bed.
“I could see the puffiness of my lips and the big flap of skin on the left hand side of my mouth and thought ‘my God’
“It started a complete mind melt down. I started tripping about where I was, I couldn’t wake up, I couldn’t stay awake, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t focus. That series of different nightmares went on for six hours.”
But it wasn’t a nightmare.
The 34-year-old young dad who lost all four limbs and parts of his face when a common cold turned into a deadly bug had undergone two days of gruelling surgery to open his mouth back up and give him back his lips.
Yet despite enduring hours under the knife and days of confronting the fear of not being able to recognise the reflection he saw in the screen of his hospital TV, Alex remarkably says he is happier in his body today than ever before.
Alex, who is adamant the Daily Echo publishes his photo so he can be a role model to his three-year-old Sam, says: “I want my son to be proud of me and at ease in his skin and with everything he does.
“You have no clue what life is going to throw at you and you have to deal with it as it comes.
“I don’t want him to stress about the little things in life.
“I am far more comfortable in my skin now than I ever was.
“I always tried to look my best when I went out but I won’t ever miss those days again. I have got a whole different view on vanity now.
“I used to have body issues. I used to hate my legs, which is ironic because I haven’t got any now,” Alex laughs.
“I don’t have those fears anymore or those worries.
“I really hope by exposing myself I can make a difference to other people because otherwise I think what’s this all been for?”
Alex underwent six hours under the knife last Monday at Salisbury District Hospital while surgeon Dr Alexandra Crick opened up his mouth and stitched in a sponge foam as a temporary measure.
One day later, Alex’s lips were built up using flesh from his shoulder and two veins were fused into his artery so his new flesh has its own blood supply in a 14.5 hour operation.
Dr Crick temporarily stitched extra skin onto the left side of Alex’s mouth which will be removed in two weeks if there are no problems with the healing process.
Though Alex had to lose all four limbs when the Strep A infection developed into septicaemia and toxic shock syndrome, he says the facial reconstruction has been mentally more difficult to come to terms with.
“It’s the strangest thing, when it comes to limb loss, you can cope with it. It is something you can adapt to because you know long term you will walk again and you will use your arms again in some form.
"When it comes to facial reconstruction or facial disfigurement, I think vanity gets the better of you.
“I started thinking ‘what does Lucy see now?’ Physically it’s not all there. There are vast amounts missing. That’s very hard to get your head around.”
Alex pictured at his Stockbridge home with Lucy Townsend and son Sam
For several days Alex spiralled into depression.
“You feel like everyone is cutting away at you, everyone is taking a piece one bit at a time and you get to the stage where you think ‘I just can’t take anymore, that’s it, I’m done.’ The physicality becomes more real to you. I had it on Easter Sunday when I realised the level of my disability but I think following the latest surgery the level of my disfigurement became apparent.
“It was the shock factor. I didn’t know I’d wake up to this face and then it suddenly became everything.
“I got used to having such a small mouth for so long so to wake up and find I’ve now got skin everywhere all over my face, felt very alien. I just didn’t look like me anymore.
Alex lost all four limbs and parts of his face when a common cold turned into a deadly virus
“I saw my mouth opening and thought ‘wow, that’s amazing, I’ve got my mouth back.’ I shut my eyes and thought ‘great, I can eat whenever I want’ but then I thought of noodles. I love noodles but I can’t twist a fork around for noodles because I haven’t got a hand. I felt so deflated by that one notion of not being able to eat noodles properly.
"That’s what did it. Noodles broke me,” Alex laughs.
“I soon snapped out though. I was guilty of thinking about the here and now rather than what the future holds for me.
“And you can’t underestimate the effects of the anaesthetic. Though I am an adult, physically I am 3ft 10in and 43 kilos.
“You can’t think about what you can’t do.
It’s all sent to try you but I will never give up.”
Tears fill Alex’s eyes when he says he simply wouldn’t be here today without Sam, Lucy, his best friend and carer Chris Bagley and his closest family and friends.
“The way my life is in this whole interesting chapter; losing arms, legs, skin grafts, dialysis, everything that can possibly be chucked at me, I can only describe it like I was falling to the ground really quickly.
Alex says he is happier in his body now than he was before, pictured above
“But the people around me are like a huge parachute and as the process has gone on, the parachute has come out making sure I don’t fall to the ground.
“I’ve always got someone up there at a different time knowing I will be stopped from falling and I think that’s vital. It makes you feel safe.”
Now Alex has spoken to the surgeons, family and friends about what will happen next, he feels confident he will smile again.
“This feels like an incredible step forward to the end result.
“I feel now the worst is over and I can now look forward to the healing process of my face changing.
“I know it will look like me, just with a few cuts and bruises along the way.”
Alex explains the skin will eventually turn the same colour as his face, the skin will shrink and there will be no scarring.
In six months he will undergo more surgery to chisel in the shape of his lips and shadow lines before having the texture tattooed on.
Now though, he can eat steak and drink more easily.
And though nervous about people’s reactions to his new face, he is looking forward to showing off the impressive surgery to the outside world and sending a positive message to others with facial disfigurements.
“I think a lot of people I know will thankfully appreciate the level of surgery and the skill that was undertaken in it all, and they won’t just see two huge puffy lips.
It is quite comical to look at. I do find it funny in a macabre kind of way, a weird funny.
“I won’t shy away from it though. It will affect me at times and I’m sure I’ll see myself in the mirror and think ‘look at the state of that’ but that’s part of it.
“I am sure everyone who knows me will see me.
“Everyone who doesn’t know me will just think ‘thank goodness that isn’t me’ so I guess in a roundabout way I can help others.”
It is that positivity Alex clings onto, as he sets his sights on being able to walk hand-inhand with Lucy and Sam down Stockbridge High Street as if nothing has happened.
“This whole process has made me see what I’ve got which is just so amazing.
“Of course I wish I didn’t have to go through this to find what I have but I have changed for the better as a result.
“And every hour of surgery, every hour of rehab, every minute of looking at the ceiling thinking when can I go, when can I leave, what’s it going to be like when I go, will be worth it because if it enhances my life in that way, then that’s something. I have a clearer perspective on what things are all about now. I certainly won’t look at other things in such disastrous proportions.
“At this moment I am 100 per cent at ease with myself and I don’t feel concerned for what the future holds. I think the future is good.
“I’m incredibly lucky that my heart can take it all. I think that’s a huge factor. I have no idea how, but I just keep on going.”
n Alex has set up the Al Lewis Trust to raise money for rehabilitation costs and help other civilian amputees.