Surgery hope for amputee mother-of-two

Penny Gifkins and her husband, Kerry, who hope to raise enough money to pay for ground-breaking osseo-integration ...
Eva Bradley Photography

Penny Gifkins and her husband, Kerry, who hope to raise enough money to pay for ground-breaking osseo-integration surgery to improve her ability to walk. ‘‘Wheelchair is like a horrible word in my household,’’ she says.

The brutality of meningococcal septicaemia has left mother-of-two Penny Gifkins with artificial legs, but she hopes innovative surgery in Australia will transform her life.

Now 41 and living in Napier, she almost died in November 2009 from the virulent blood infection.

It turned her body purple and swollen, her organs began haemorrhaging, her kidneys stopped working and she had a dangerously high fever.

Doctors at Palmerston North Hospital put her into a coma in intensive care and told her family she was dying.

"The kids had to come up to say goodbye to me."

Fortunately, a new drug kick-started her kidneys the next day and probably saved her life.

She spent a month in intensive care before being transferred to Lower Hutt Hospital for operations to amputate her lower legs, most of her left hand, and the tips of her right thumb and three fingers. Her badly damaged skin required numerous skin grafts.

"My body was pretty much skin-grafted from head to toe. I've got lots of pit-holes."

Doctors told her she was unlikely to walk or work again, but she was determined. "Wheelchair is like a horrible word in my household."

Within six months, she was up walking and back working for a Palmerston North tourism company. She also fell in love with colleague Kerry Gifkins and the pair wed two years ago. "He's definitely the rock in the whole recovery process."

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Now through givealittle.co.nz she is fundraising for $75,000 to pay for osseo-integration, which involves inserting titanium rods into her leg bones that can be attached to prosthetic legs. It offers a direct link with the person's body and removes the need for artificial limb sockets.

She believes new integrated legs will greatly improve her mobility and will allow her to keep up with her two children, aged 9 and 12. "I have achieved hugely from where I've come from to now, but there is so much more quality of life osseo-integration could give me. It will enhance my life tremendously."

Her present prosthetic legs are "antiquated", with no ankle movement, so she struggles to walk on uneven surfaces, hills and stairs. They also fit her poorly because of her misshapen stumps and are uncomfortable on her damaged sensitive skin.

If she can raise the money, she will become the first Kiwi to have the revolutionary procedure for below-knee amputations, which is not offered in New Zealand.

Seven above-knee Kiwi amputees have had osseo-integration, including five who had their operations in Australia. Accident Compensation Corporation paid for two people with above-knee amputations as a result of accidents to have the procedures in Christchurch - one last year and one in 2013. A further four ACC-funded osseo-integration operations are planned this year, the Christchurch Artificial Limb Centre says.

However, the operation has never been publicly funded in New Zealand for those who have lost limbs because of medical conditions, like Penny has.

She says the health system is unfair. "There is a gap between ACC and Health Ministry funding, which is so ginormous, it's ridiculous."

She has had to fight for funding assistance in the past five years, for things such as wheelchair ramps and home help, whereas amputees on ACC have greater entitlements. "I've survived with nothing. It's sink or swim really."

 - The Dominion Post

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