Amputation is not the end of the journey, it's the beginning

A Vascular Surgeon experiences what life is like on the other side as a result of sudden illness

Dr Neil Hopper, a Forty Five year old father of two and Vascular Surgeon from Wales, had his life turned upside down following a family camping trip in 2019.

Whilst camping in Cornwall, Neil found himself and his nine year old daughter Evie, sick with food poisoning. Neil concluded it must have been gastroenteritis or the flu however, whilst his daughter recovered quickly, Neil’s condition deteriorated, he took to his bed at home. The next thing he remembers is waking up in Royal Cornwall Hospital’s Intensive Care unit with a serious case of Sepsis.

Neil was transferred to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth where he was due to receive forty sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to try to save his legs. After fourteen three-hour sessions, Neil showed no signs of improvement and his condition began to deteriorate, so the decision was made to rush him off to the operating theatre to have his toes removed. Once the Surgeons realised they couldn’t save his feet, they were left with no choice but to amputate both of Neils’ legs below the knee. “Having my toes removed was by far the worst part; however when both my legs were amputated, after feeling rotten for months, I felt so much better and it was almost a relief to have it done, explains Neil. “I went home on a high - I was alive!”

Being a Vascular Surgeon Neil would usually be the one to perform amputations on others, Neil explained, “I have performed hundreds of amputations but never actually knew what happened to the patient afterwards. I had always perceived amputations as the end of the journey when in reality, I was so wrong, it is really just the beginning.” After coming home on cloud nine Neil quickly came back down to Earth when reality struck. “My wife went back to work and my kids were at school, I realised I wasn’t going to be fussed over anymore and was stuck in a wheelchair. It was a really hard time”, describes Neil.

As part of his rehabilitation, Neil received his first pair of prosthetic legs from the NHS and worked incredibly hard on his recovery and set himself a goal of eventually being able to return to work. Neil wanted to see what other options were out there as well as wanting a ‘sportier’ pair of legs to accomplish another one of his goals - to be able to play football in the garden with his seven year old son, Harry. This desire motivated Neil to visit a private clinic.

Neil went for a consultation at Dorset Orthopaedics’ Southern Clinic in Ringwood and hasn’t looked back since. When Neil first went to Dorset, his socket fitted but his liners kept splitting. Dorset however decided to make Neil a brand new socket; “I really appreciated this and it was completely unexpected”, explains Neil. “I have an appreciation for engineering and the small things like the patterns of the material lined up at the back where the seam was and the air valve being recessed inside, showed me just how much care and attention went into making my legs. Since becoming a patient at Dorset Orthopaedic, it has given me a new level of confidence.” 

Experienced Prosthetist Kevin Shaw has treated Neil and they have developed a strong relationship. “I really do think the world of Kevin and I think he’s amazing”, said Neil.  “As a new amputee you’re not in a good place at all, to have someone sit there and listen to you is really nice. He has really helped with the psychological side of it all. Kevin came up with a plan for me which was completely bespoke and it was so nice to have options. He gave me a selection of feet to try out and I picked what was best suited for me. It is the back and forth that I liked with Kevin”, Neil continued. “In the end I went with the Ottobock Challenger which I love and are so much more comfortable. I also went for the Proflex XCs, I can easily swap between them which is nice.”

Currently, Neil is enjoying time with his family whilst still working. He has dedicated a lot of his time raising awareness to improving the aftercare for amputees. “I am always looking to challenge myself, the longest time I’ve spent on my feet is an eighteen hour surgery”, said Neil. “I actually do more now than I ever did before my operation; I’ve bought a treadmill and now run a few kilometres a day, I am looking to push myself and look forward to the next challenge.”

“If I could give any advice to people who are going through a similar ordeal, the last 2 years I have experienced the biggest highs and lows of my life. It is important to hold onto the good stuff. I feel my life is simply following Plan B now rather than A”, explains Neil “But-Plan B is unwritten so I get to write it now. I spend a lot of time speaking to my patients who are about to become amputees. They ask me “what is it like?” and I always say it is not as bad as you think it is. It’s weird, not bad. You need to get your head around that it’s different, not worse and that’s a good place to start. I was an overweight unfit bloke not renowned for my coordination so if I can do it anyone can do it. It’s going to feel strange but in most people they do get better. Sometimes it’s a nice feeling that I can step on my son's Lego without pain, plus… my feet never get cold!”