Determined survivor Louise McOvens has rekindled her passion for life’s adventures after overcoming impossible odds to rediscover her freedom of movement.
Louise, 41, originally from Farnham, Surrey and now a Cornish resident, has always lived and breathed for sport. She was a talented runner at school; the 100m hurdles was her passion, and a sport in which she enjoyed success, having reached South of England trials. Being active was always a treasured pastime and in addition to athletics, she competed for the county hockey team, and captained most of the school sports teams.
As Louise entered her teenage years, her attention and passion turned to presenting, and aspirations of being the next big TV presenter, something she had longed for since a small child. “I would dress up as Anneka Rice and pretend I was hosting Challenge Anneka, complete with ear muffs and Fisher-Price microphone”, explains Louise with a blushing smile.
So a young life full of promise and passion combined with an ambitious future was cut short while studying her A-Levels at college. On January 17th 1998, Louise’s life took a sharp turn while travelling home from a friend’s house. Louise endured a horrific accident after her car veered off the M3 motorway in Surrey, hurtling down an embankment and into a fence. A part of the fence burst through the wheel arch and continued through the petrol tank into Louise, pinning her to the seat. “The fence post missed my spine by millimeters”, said Louise. If not for the bravery of other motorists, who put their bodies and lives on the line in an attempt to free a trapped Louise before emergency services arrived, even after the car caught fire, she would not be here to tell the tale.
Louise’s injuries were substantial, she suffered a shattered pelvis, a severed sciatic nerve, a perforated bowel, severed ureter, and full thickness burns to both legs. After lifesaving surgery to remove the fence post, performed by renowned military consultant, Col. Jonathan Hull, Louise then began a long and painful journey of rehabilitation. “It took a long time and a lot of highly esteemed consultants to put me back together”.
When she no longer required a ventilator, Louise was transferred to Roehampton, under the expert care of Mr. John Clark, for treatment of her burns. Then, after a chance meeting at a medical charity dinner between Col. Hull, Louise’s emergency consultant, and Professor Rolfe Birch, who at the time was pioneering sciatic nerve surgery, Louise had her severed nerve surgically repaired. “If it wasn’t for that charity dinner, I would never have had the sciatic nerve repaired”, explains Louise. “I was only the third person in the world to have that procedure done and up until that point, I was in agony with a severed nerve and no movement in my foot whatsoever”, Louise remembers. “At the time, I recall someone saying to me the biggest problem would be my foot, and at the time I thought, how can that be the case with the extent of all my other injuries?”, Louise continues. “To begin with, the graft tissue from the burns was holding the foot up and the more active I got, the foot just dropped and dropped”, explains Louise. Although Louise gained partial dorsiflexion in her foot, she still could not move her toes. This presented a new challenge when trying to walk as ‘the foot was just hanging’. So after reading an article about a woman with severe muscle loss who was a patient at Dorset Orthopaedic, Louise visited the clinic in Ringwood seeking support. It was during her initial appointment, while the team at Dorset were making Louise a prosthetic restoration cover (to protect the fragile graft tissue on the lower leg), it was identified she really needed a Silicone Ankle Foot Orthosis (SAFO) to help lift her foot when walking. “I was 24 years old when I met my clinicians David and Matt, and they made me feel so welcome”, said Louise. “As a result, I didn’t feel self-conscious about the burns or my deformed leg, which I hid from everyone. It took me years to come to terms with my injuries and I covered up all the time. It’s only now, years later, that I have learned to come to terms with the injuries and worry less about what people think”.
In addition to working hard rehabbing her body, Louise also invested her time in her studies and sat her A-Levels from a wheelchair in a great deal of pain. “I was determined to pass and avoid repeating another year of college”, said Louise. Louise passed and based on her predicted grades, secured a place at the University of Westminster. Using her expanding education to development her presenting skills and edge closer to her dream of being a TV Presenter, Louise was offered the opportunity to host the entertainment section of Live & Kicking. “This was an amazing opportunity but it would have meant giving up University for a five minute segment”, explains Louise. “I was in my second year and I wanted to graduate. I sometimes think what if, but if I had accepted the role, I would not have been able to pursue my other passion – sport. At that point, having spent so much time in hospital, all I wanted to do was be active, rehabilitate and be outside. That’s all I wanted to do”, continues Louise.
Louise’s passion and focus on sport unlocked many opportunities for her. She started going to the Disabled Water-Skiing Association and felt inspired by so many people giving waterskiing a try, regardless of their impairment. It was here that Louise started to mono-ski, tucking her injured leg underneath her dominant one. This experience led to wakeboarding, which led to snowboarding, and then surfing. This created a change of direction for Louise, and after a winter season in Whistler, Canada, she put the dream of presenting on hold when the surf beckoned her to Cornwall “I did a summer season in Cornwall, found Kitesurfing, and had to move down”, said Louise. This was a big challenge for her, as she would have to evenly distribute her weight, meaning she would have to use her severely injured leg. “Mentally I had told myself I couldn’t do it and that my leg wasn’t strong enough”, said Louise. “And then my ‘now’ husband, who was my Kitesurfing instructor, told me it was about weight transfer rather than putting all my weight through the leg”. After making adaptions to Louise’s board to keep her foot in place, and with the help of Dorset Orthopaedic who made a bespoke SAFO, complete with reinforced fastenings and tire tread on the bottom, in addition to the protective prosthesis for the lower leg; Louise quickly conquered her challenge. Riding the wave of her new found love for Kitesurfing, Louise and her husband opened up a Kitesurfing school which they operated off four local beaches, covering every wind direction on the peninsula.
Finally, Louise’s life was moving forward and when she was out on the water riding the waves; nobody would ever know the challenges she had overcome. In addition to the Kitesurfing School, Louise had also started presenting lifestyle driven property videos on YouTube, and on one shoot she even presented from a paddleboard! Sadly, it was at this point, just as her presenting career had started to gather momentum that life would take another sharp turn. While on her way to a Stone Roses concert, Louise started to develop a temperature and felt unwell. After stopping at the motorway services to buy paracetamol, Louise collapsed and was rushed to the nearest A&E by her husband. After conducting numerous tests, the Doctors were puzzled as there were no visible signs of infection. With Louise’s temperature continuing to rise and her blood pressure dropping, the situation became very critical very quickly. After two days of trying to diagnose the problem, Louise’s surgically repaired leg suddenly started presenting infection. The Doctors then switched the antibiotics and, thankfully, they started to work. After six weeks of antibiotics, the infection began to subside, however during this period, Louise experienced overwhelming fatigue and cognitive challenges where she had difficulty remembering basic names of things.
From here, Louise started to recover and get stronger, and started to think about getting back on the kitesurf board. “The minute I got to that stage”, describes Louise, “Bam, I got sepsis again”! Louise then ended up having sepsis every six months and then every three months. It got to the point where she struggled to rehab between bouts. In total, Louise has survived sepsis five times, which is no mean feat.
After originally being diagnosed with primary lymphedema, Louise was unconvinced and so decided to go to a private Lymphedema clinic in Oxford. After a scan, it was confirmed that Louise did not have primary lymphedema and instead they found a small pocket of lymphedema in her foot. However her plastic surgeon consultant, Mr Ramsden, who specialises in lymphedema and also has extensive knowledge of burns, was not convinced this was triggering the sepsis. Mr Ramsden’s prognosis was that a layer of mucus where bacteria can gather, called a Biofilm, had developed over the bone of the ankle, trapping the bacteria. Due to Louise’s burns to her leg, he believed she had developed a wider lymphatic channel in the bone and the infection was using this to travel directly into the bloodstream.
After numerous pleas from Louise for her ankle to be ‘opened up’ and investigated, she was transferred to the care of Miss Murray at Stoke Mandeville Hospital to see if laser surgery could be beneficial. Mr Ramsden also knew Miss Murphy was one of only a handful of UK consultants utilising synthetic skin for restoration, which would have enabled Louise to continue utilising her SAFO postoperatively. Thankfully, after years of antibiotic treatment, Miss Murray agreed that it was time for surgical intervention “After debriding the infected tissue and bone, they ended up taking the equivalent of a fillet steak out of my ankle”, explains Louise. This revealed that there was a biofilm over the malleolus (ankle bone) enabling bacteria to go straight into the blood stream. Without Miss Murray’s intervention Louise may well have endured, or quite possibly succumbed to, sepsis a sixth time.
After months of reconstructive surgery, the wound finally seemed to have healed and Louise hoped life would start moving forward, when suddenly in November 2019, Louise was stopped in her tracks. While weight bearing on the injured leg, lymph fluid started leaking out of the foot, all around the area that had been operated on. “The consultants soon realised the lymphatics were beyond repair and the last bout of sepsis or the last skin graph was the straw that broke the camel’s back”, said Louise.
At this point, Louise was left with no choice but to face the prospect of amputation. Due to the complexity of Louise’s condition, she was referred to a lower limb reconstruction specialist, Alexandra Crick at Salisbury Hospital. “Miss Crick had studied under Professor Rolfe Birch who had repaired my sciatic nerve and seemed to know my leg like no one else”, explains Louise. Miss Crick was so confident that there was only one place that Louise’s leg could be amputated, but was not sure if a prosthetic leg could be fitted due to the unusually long residual limb proposed.
Louise and Miss Crick went back to Dorset Orthopaedic to seek the expert opinion of her clinician, Matthew Hughes on whether it was possible to fit a prosthesis with that level of amputation.
Louise was due to have her amputation in May 2020 but due to the Covid 19 Pandemic, it was postponed until November. After just 8 weeks post op, Louise was up and weight bearing on a prosthesis, and following numerous adaptations to the socket, in a bid to protect the delicate graft tissue, she is now undergoing a programme of rehabilitation at Dorset Orthopaedic’s Southern Clinic in Ringwood, Hampshire. The physiotherapy with Mary Tebb has included a wide range of activities designed to help Louise mobilise and build her core strength to give her stability. These activities have ranged from obstacle courses, walking sideways while playing catch and even paddle boarding. After a few weeks, Louise is already starting to feel the benefit of this. “Mary is amazing”, said Louise, “I wish I could see her every week!”.
“I am now full of hope and excitement for the future”, said Louise. “I really want to dedicate my life to helping others and using my second chance to do something special. If I could give any advice to others that may find themselves in a similar position to me, it would be to never stop having adventures, no matter how small they may be; try new things and challenge yourself. Though we all long for a lovely home and treasure our possessions, I guarantee when your life is in jeopardy or you reach old age, it will be your experiences that define you, not how much you own”.