A young PE mom is recovering from a devastating infection, writes Estelle Ellis
When Shaninlea Visser suddenly fell ill at her daughter’s school five months ago, she first thought she simply had a tummy bug.
But over the next 24 hours a vicious and yet unidentified bacteria infested her body – claiming her legs, arms and nose, and attacking her brain, heart and kidneys.
“God will not give me more than I can take,” Visser, 34, said.
Incredibly brave and positive in the face of enormous adversity, she is sitting at the coffee shop at Aurora Hospital where she is receiving rehabilitation therapy.
“I am going to walk out of here – soon,” she said.
So far Visser has had 25 procedures and 13 surgeries to first save her life and then reconstruct her face.
She moved to Port Elizabeth from KwaZulu-Natal on January 5 for her job at a transport broker and on January 17 went to her daughter’s school parents’ meeting at Lorraine Primary.
“During the meeting I didn’t feel too nice.
“I passed out in the bathroom and got sick. I then went straight home. I was staying with my boss at the time. She said: ‘Just get straight into bed’.
“I thought I had a tummy bug or something like that. The next day I couldn’t get up to take my child to school. I just kept on vomiting and passing out.
“At about 2pm I tried to get to the kitchen for something to drink and I passed out. One of my colleagues found me [and] I was rushed to casualty at St George’s [Hospital].
“The last thing I remember was telling the nurses that my hands and feet were on fire. They told me they were icy cold.
“The next I knew was waking up in ICU two weeks later.”
But in three days, life had changed irrevocably for Visser.
“I had to be ventilated. My family was called to say that I was not going to make it. I received two white blood cell transfers and they did not work.
“It was only after the third one that I started coming round.
“When I woke up my doctor, Dr Marius Langehoven, said: ‘ Welcome back’.”
Visser was officially diagnosed with septicaemia. But despite her blood tests being sent to Johannesburg and Pretoria, doctors could not cultivate the bacteria that was attacking her body.
While she was in a coma, Visser’s body went into survival mode – pulling all the blood from her extremities to keep her heart and other vital organs going.
She had developed disseminated intravascular coagulation – a potentially fatal condition that causes excessive clotting and bleeding at the same time.
“They had to wait for it to ride itself out.”
After she woke up, doctors told Visser that they had been forced to amputate both her hands and legs to save her life.
“I had my legs amputated just below the knee on February 6. My hands were amputated on February 8.
“I had so many blood tests done – but the more teams of doctors tried to find what was making me ill, the less they found. What we know is that it [the bacteria] was very vicious,” she said.
“It attacked my liver, my kidneys, my heart and my brain. I have to take pills now because my heart sometimes skips a beat.
“At that stage I didn’t know what my face looked like. Nobody told me.
“I met Dr Con Hoekstra – he came to do the debridement [removal of dead tissue] on my lips and nose. I asked why he was working on my face.
“My husband Anthony then had to show me what I looked like. That was a very bad day.
“Initially doctors thought I would also lose my ears as they swelled up. I only lost the tip of my tongue. My whole mouth turned black on the inside.”
Visser was transferred to Greenacres Hospital for a series of reconstructive surgeries including a skin graft and a nose reconstruction.
“My body rejected the middle part of my nose so now I will need another surgery.
“I also need a lip reconstruction. Once Dr Hoekstra is done, he will have ironed out all the wrinkles and crinkles,” she said with a laugh.
On March 23 Visser was moved to Aurora Hospital for rehabilitation and also to start the process of getting prosthetic legs and robotic prosthetics for her arms.
But in the meantime her dad made her cuffs to allow her to answer the phone, use a computer and eat with a knife and fork.
“You don’t realise how much you do with your hands until you don’t have them,” she said.
“I believe in God and believe there is a reason for me being here. I believe he won’t give me more than I can handle.
“I actually said to Dr Langenhoven: ‘Thank you for saving my life’.
“I keep myself going for my daughter. She is 11. She needs her mom. That is the thing that keeps me going.
“I wasn’t a very positive, outspoken person before this happened. But something different also happened to me.
“I am not questioning why this happened. It is a way to keep myself positive.
“My dad said there is no space for negativity.
“That is what I have to feed off. You feed off positivity.
“I want to help others who have also lost a limb.”
Visser said she was hoping to leave Aurora in a month’s time to go home. “I really want to go home. I am just waiting to get my prosthetics.
“I speak to my daughter every day. She misses her mommy. We try to keep her busy and keep her mind off what is going on.
“I used to be a very independent person. I would get into the car to drive to the beach, go to the movies or to a shopping centre. I know I will drive again.”
Visser’s uncle, Rob Nicholson, said his niece was an unbelievably strong person. “I am just in awe of her.” Nicholson said they were setting up a trust fund to assist with all her needs.
The family house would need to be adapted and Visser would need a carer once she left hospital, he said.
“We have a long road ahead.”