Children are quick to find nicknames for their teachers — the cheekier the better. But Kath Tregenna is thrilled with hers. And for good reason.
To her young pupils at the International School of London who clearly adore their smiley, vivacious teacher, Kath is quite simply the Bionic Woman.
It’s testament not simply to the amazing pair of bionic arms Kath now sports, but to the extraordinary spirit which has seen her return to work despite having all four limbs amputated.
Just like TV’s Bionic Woman — played by Lindsay Wagner and coincidentally also a teacher with superhuman powers — Kath’s courage and determination are awe inspiring.
Almost exactly two years after her family were summoned to come and say their goodbyes to her in hospital, Kath is back doing what she loves best.
Kath Tregenna lost all four limbs to sepsis. The 47-year-old teacher, who lives in Datchet, Berkshire, now has so-called Hero Arms, which have clever sensors that can detect the tiniest muscle signals and turn them into hand movements
And thanks to her amazing arms, she does everything from driving herself to school to writing on the whiteboard and coming up with fun maths activities.
She’s not only had to learn how to use the so-called Hero Arms, which have clever sensors that can detect the tiniest muscle signals and turn them into hand movements.
She’s also had to teach herself to walk again on prosthetic legs — and all while caring for her two children: Aaron, 12, and eight-year-old Emily.
‘I know life can never be exactly the same,’ says Kath, 47, who lives in Datchet, Berkshire with her partner, Alvin, 48, a carpenter, and their children. ‘But I refuse to look back. After coming so close to losing everything, I am just so overwhelmingly grateful to be alive.’
Kath’s old life was eviscerated over a single terrifying weekend in late November 2019, when sepsis tore through her body.
A life-threatening reaction to an infection — in Kath’s case pneumonia — sepsis occurs when the immune system overreacts and begins to damage the body’s tissues and organs.
Kath’s old life was eviscerated over a single terrifying weekend in late November 2019, when sepsis tore through her body. A life-threatening reaction to an infection — in Kath’s case pneumonia — sepsis occurs when the immune system overreacts and begins to damage the body’s tissues and organs. (She is pictured back in the classroom)
‘It all started at school on Friday afternoon. I began feeling unwell — queasy and terribly hot,’ recalls Kath. ‘I know now I was developing pneumonia.
‘I decided to leave early and go home for some rest. I walked out, leaving my papers on my desk expecting to be back fighting fit on Monday morning.
‘I spent the weekend in bed — only dragging myself out with the kids to see the Christmas lights in Windsor.’
But far from feeling better, by Sunday afternoon Kath was physically sick and feeling so feverish that she rang 111. Mercifully, the call handler realised something was very wrong and, despite Kath’s protests, ordered an ambulance.
‘I owe her my life,’ says Kath. ‘I’d never felt this sick before but it never occurred to me that I could be dangerously ill.
‘As they took me out to the ambulance, I even promised the kids I would be back for breakfast. I also rang my headteacher from my mobile and warned her I might be late into school.
‘I never thought I wouldn’t be back for two years.’
Kath’s condition deteriorated at devastating speed. Within hours of arriving at Slough’s Wexham Park Hospital and being diagnosed with sepsis, triggered by pneumonia, she suffered up to 11 cardiac arrests as well as multiple organ failure and had to be put into an induced coma.
At 1.30am on Monday morning, police arrived at the family home to summon Alvin and the children to say their goodbyes. Hospital staff also rang Kath’s father, Keith, 78, a retired law lecturer in Cornwall and urged him to get to Kath’s bedside.
‘I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for them,’ says Kath who tragically lost her own mum, Sylvia, to cancer when she was just 13. ‘One minute the kids were walking around Windsor with me, admiring the Christmas lights. The next they were being told Mummy was going to die.
‘I looked unrecognisable. My body was bloated from the drugs and I was covered in wires. Emily was so terrified she couldn’t even be persuaded to kiss me.
‘Alvin managed to keep it together for the children but he must have been in total hell.’
I could see that my hands and feet were black. There was no sensation and I couldn’t move them
Kath clung onto life by a thread that night. Over and over again during the next few days, the family were warned to get ready for the worst. A counsellor was assigned to the children to help prepare them for losing their mum.
‘She told them in no uncertain terms that I was going to die,’ shudders Kath. ‘The doctors told Alvin and Dad that it would take a miracle to save me.’
Incredibly, that miracle came just in time for Christmas. One of the doctors remembered reading about a drug which had proved successful in boosting the effectiveness of the antibiotics they were already trying.
It had only been used on a handful of patients. But, with nothing to lose, it was administered to Kath.
Very slowly, over the next few days, the sepsis abated. Although Kath remained in a coma, two weeks after she arrived in hospital the family finally dared hope she would live.
But sepsis had wreaked terrible damage. When Kath regained consciousness in early January last year, she was faced with the terrible truth.
Sepsis had stopped the blood flowing properly to her extremities and gangrene had set in. Her hands, her feet and much of her legs were dying and only an amputation could stop the infection spreading further.
‘It was too much to take in,’ she says. ‘I could see that my hands and feet were black. There was no sensation and I couldn’t move them.
‘But I couldn’t understand why. My last memory was getting into the ambulance two months before. My family and the doctors had to explain over and over what had happened.
‘At first I was numb with shock. But, when I understood there was no choice, it was an easy decision. Besides, these black, horrible limbs didn’t feel part of me any more.’
She adds: ‘I remember Alvin looking at me and saying: ‘Kath, you’ve survived. This is such a small price to pay.’
Kath is pictured with her children Emily and Aaron before sepsis changed her life. ‘When I look at Aaron and Emily and remember how close they came to losing me, I feel overwhelmed by how lucky I am,’ she says
‘When I thought how close our kids had come to losing me, I realised he was right. I, above everyone, know the reality of losing a mum.’
Kath had both her hands amputated just above the wrist on January 10 last year.
‘At first they were bandaged up so I couldn’t see anything,’ she says. ‘My biggest concern was what the children would think. When they visited after the operation, I moved my arms from under the covers so they could see there was nothing to fear.
‘I was determined to find the positives. I remember saying: ‘Mummy will get some new arms made. They won’t be exactly like my old ones but they will be great.’
‘Of course, at that stage I was winging it — I hadn’t even heard of Hero Arms.’
Two weeks later, on January 24, 2020, Kath had both her legs amputated. To her relief, doctors were able to save her knees which gave her the chance of more mobility.
Even so, adapting to her new normal was heartwrenching. ‘I thought I’d prepared myself,’ she says. ‘But it’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to wake up with no legs.
‘I would never be able to walk or stand again unaided. It was a victory when the physio got me to shuffle my bottom down the bed.’
Kath hoped to be transferred to Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital to have prosthetic arms and legs fitted. But, when the pandemic hit, she was told she’d have to wait.
‘It was a blow,’ she says. ‘But at least it meant I could get home sooner — even though it would be in a wheelchair. The kids were desperate to have me back.’
In April, her occupational therapist pushed Kath through her front door. Alvin, the children and her dad were there to greet her.
‘That first day was pure joy,’ she says. ‘The kids made a huge fuss of me. Just being able to kiss and cuddle them in my own home was wonderful. I don’t think I have ever been happier to be alive.
‘Then the reality hit me. Inside I was the same but physically I was a totally different person. Everything was a challenge. I had no devices. I could only feed myself by balancing a spoon between my stumps and lifting it very carefully to my mouth. In those first few weeks, food went everywhere.
‘I couldn’t get up the stairs so we had to put a hospital bed in the sitting room. Aaron was really protective and was always ready to fetch me a glass of water or a snack. Emily loved to brush my hair.’
There was so much to re-learn, but in one area Kath discovered she still excelled — teaching. While many parents loathed homeschooling during the pandemic, for Kath it was a chance to reconnect with her old self.
‘It was the old Kath coming back,’ says Kath who’s been teaching for more than 20 years in the UK, America and the Caribbean, where she met Alvin. ‘I’ve always loved my job. I guess I’m a natural born teacher.
‘Sitting with Emily and Aaron — doing all the things I’d normally do in the classroom — was magic. I felt needed and useful. For the first time I dared hope I might get back into the classroom.’
So she was thrilled when, in July last year, she was fitted for prosthetic legs and started learning to walk again with weekly physio sessions as an outpatient at the John Radcliffe Hospital.
‘By the time I was allowed to take them home in October I was so excited, but still very cautious even when walking on a flat floor as bumps are a nightmare. But I could finally walk into the kitchen and pour a drink for myself. It was amazing.’
Kath was also fitted with prosthetic arms. However, these were much less satisfactory. ‘They were like hooks — functional but ugly and heavy,’ she says. ‘I felt embarrassed wearing them.’
Kath had read about UK tech company Open Bionics and their pioneering Hero Arms. Made from tough nylon, Hero Arms use ‘myoelectric sensors’ to detect the electrical signals made by muscle movements in the existing arm.
They are much lighter than normal prosthetic arms and so clever they can even pick up an egg or hold a wine glass.
But the arms cost between £8,000 and £10,000 each. It’s a tribute to Kath’s popularity that friends and colleagues, as well as scores of parents past and present, raised £29,000 to help her.
Kath’s first Hero Arm — to fit her right arm — arrived just in time for Christmas last year. Her second followed in January.
‘It was the best early Christmas present,’ she says. ‘I’d promised the kids I would have cool new arms one day. And here they were.
‘I had to practise like crazy. Basically, you have to imagine what you want to do — whether it’s picking up a knife and fork or opening a door. There are three sensors on the inside of the bionic arm and three on the outside which pick up these minute muscle movements in my stumps and transfer them to finger movements.
Her old school pupils — aged from eight to 11 — were desperate to see Kath’s bionic arms too. In June, 18 months after she went sick, Kath visited the school.
‘The children had lived through the trauma too,’ she says. ‘I wanted to show them a happy outcome. They were transfixed by the arms.
‘They bombarded me with questions and even came up with suggestions on how to improve them. One bright spark even asked: ‘Can they shoot lasers?’
Buoyed by their reaction and the encouragement of her colleagues, Kath felt confident enough to return to work in September. ‘I’m taking it very slowly and only doing a few hours a week for now because I tire easily,’ she says.
‘I’m also learning what I can and can’t do. I can write on a whiteboard — I am still right-handed — but jumping down to the children’s level is another matter.’
And beyond the curriculum she is a living example of some of life’s most important lessons like resilience, fortitude and gratitude.
‘I hope I can teach them to appreciate life. I certainly do,’ she says simply.
‘When I look at Aaron and Emily and remember how close they came to losing me, I feel overwhelmed by how lucky I am.’
It’s a joy that will be all the more intense this Christmas. ‘I can’t wait to put the tree up,’ she says. ‘And this year — thanks to my bionic arms — I will be the one hanging the baubles and wrapping the presents.