Img 2580 5908Ee27 Fc45 4618 A78B Fef077Ce4A6A D782 D48 D 0 F32 4440 B66 B B1 Fa21 Eef431 Img 0450

Jaco's Story

Jaco Nel survived sepsis, with life changing consequences.

At the end of 2016, a simple nick to my hand whilst playing with my dog would lead to a cascade of events that changed my life forever.

It began one afternoon at work. I had just seen my last patient when I started feeling as if I was getting the flu, that general unwell sensation of achy muscles, tiredness and feeling very cold. I went home, made a hot drink and got into bed, still shivering. I woke up the following morning, still feeling under the weather, and fell asleep again. I was home alone and getting sicker by the minute, without realising it. I vaguely remember that my phone rang several times, but I couldn't pick it up to answer. I also remember that I wanted to use the bathroom, but my legs and arms wouldn't work.

When my partner, Michael, got home that evening, I was very confused and disoriented. I could not have a meaningful conversation; I had slurred speech, I could not stand or walk, and my skin had turned blue and mottled. Michael later told me that I didn't know where I was and that I was argumentative and wouldn't let him call for an ambulance. Without me realising, I was delirious from a severe infection and close to dying.

The paramedics arrived quickly, and they immediately recognised the seriousness of the situation. They at once tried to stabilise me with intravenous fluids and oxygen, and they took me to A&E with flashing blue lights and sirens blazing. Later on, I developed post-traumatic stress disorder and seeing or hearing an ambulance triggered flashbacks of that evening.

I collapsed in A&E; they took me to intensive care, where I was placed in an induced coma and on a ventilator. I was in septic shock, a condition where the body's immune response to an infection goes into overdrive. This reaction causes damage to internal organs, and blood clots develop, which block the blood supply to the limbs and soft tissue. It is a life-threatening situation with extremely high mortality.

I spent the next ten days in intensive care and later in the high dependency unit. It took three weeks before the doctors were able to identify the cause of the infection. We were shocked to learn that the responsible bug came from the mouth of our beloved dog, Harvey. These bugs live in the mouths of cats and dogs and can, in very rare circumstances, cause infection in humans. I still find it hard to think that an accidental nick from my dog changed me forever.

After the initial shock of surviving sepsis, the long and arduous journey of rehabilitation lay ahead. I knew that I was going to lose my legs – the question was at what height. I also knew that I was going to lose several fingers and that my face would be scarred. We had to wait four months to establish what could be saved before I had the amputations. Four months of excruciating physical pain and mental torture of seeing parts of my body turning black and dead. I became very depressed during this time. There were times when I was angry at the people who saved my life but left me disabled; there were moments when I hated and blamed Harvey. I didn't know how or if I would adjust to a new way of living or even if I wanted to live. Would I work again? Would I walk and drive a car? Would I be able to face the world?

I have loving and caring support from family and friends who keep me going. The people who looked after me were exceptional, dedicated and kind. The rehabilitation was gruelling and challenging, but I was determined to succeed and spurred on by the team's enthusiasm with every achievement I made. Three months after my legs were amputated, I walked without support.

Although it was a challenge to adapt to my physical disabilities, I found the psychological scars had, and still have, an enduring effect. Psychotherapy was effective for post-traumatic stress disorder. The nightmares and flashbacks gradually stopped and my mood improved. I felt self-conscious about my facial disfigurement. Your face is what people recognise; it tells how you feel, what you are thinking, who you are as a person. Mine was suddenly foreign, unrecognisable, even ugly. I was aware of staring eyes. Someone once said to me in a restaurant how brave I was to be out and about.

I now work full-time again as a psychiatrist. My lived experience has made me a more compassionate doctor. I drive an adapted car; I cycle and run. I socialise and live a fulfilling and independent life. I have been interviewed for newspapers and appeared on television and radio to raise awareness of sepsis and scarring.

I am incredibly proud to be an Ambassador for The Scar Free Foundation. The fundamental research they fund will improve outcomes for millions of people. Our scars will be with us forever, and they will remind us and the world of our struggles and achievements. I am no longer ashamed of them; I use them to tell my story, hoping that it will help someone overcome their struggles with physical and mental illness. And one day, we might have a world without scars.

Behind every scar, there’s a story. Visit our ambassadors: