Real Life

One woman’s shock: ‘I woke up an amputee’

Despite suffering more than most, Donna Weir will not give up on her dreams.

When Donna Weir woke up in hospital last July, the first thing she saw was her black, bent and buckled fingers as she tried to grasp a handrail and pull herself up from her bed.

A month had passed, and the last thing she could recall was being in the observation area at the Accident and Emergency clinic. “When I saw my hands, I just thought ‘What the hell?!’” she says frankly. “I had big bruises everywhere – I couldn’t comprehend it at all.”

Donna had gone to A&E with pain from what she suspected was a kidney stone, but the 48-year-old had no clue the stone was blocking a tube, causing fluid to back up in her kidney. As she waited in agony, valuable time passed. Within 24 hours, septic shock set in and her organs began shutting down.

The former vet nurse is now confined to pottering around her Dunedin home. Her fingers and toes were amputated and without them, she struggles with basic tasks, such as cooking and cleaning.

She has no memory of being on dialysis machines or of her children, Sheree (28), David (25) and Mathew (15), saying their last goodbyes to her.

“My heart stopped a couple of times,” Donna tells. “Sheree took a photo of me because she didn’t expect me to make it until the end of the week. Waking up in the ICU, I couldn’t understand what had happened to me. I’d gone to the A&E with a kidney stone and ended up like this!”

Warning: graphic images

In her life, Donna has endured more pain and tragedy than most.

Suffering from narrow airways and numerous throat problems, she has had three tracheostomies at different times, the first when she was just seven months old, after doctors found a growth on her windpipe.

The hole in her throat was only stitched up just before her 21st birthday.

“I felt like a guinea pig,” she says, recalling her childhood surgeries.

In 2002, her throat was set on fire during laser surgery to remove scar tissue from her previous operations. Surgeons used plastic tubing during the procedure, which ignited and burned Donna’s larynx, windpipe and vocal chords.

Melted plastic had to be removed from near her lung and when she woke up, she had been fitted with another tracheostomy, something she’d been trying desperately to avoid.

As she reels off her countless surgeries, Donna is surprisingly calm. But her voice is raspy – her July experience ended in her third tracheostomy.

A merry Christmas with Hunter in 2009.

Riding in Wanaka with daughter Sheree’s son Hunter in 2014.

“I think I’m a medical jinx,” Donna tells. “Every time I go in for surgery, no matter how minor it is, it goes wrong.”

After the airways fire, Donna needed 11 more operations. Following an investigation, ACC found Donna had suffered from medical misadventure at the time of the initial surgery at Dunedin Hospital.

Donna’s personal struggles are also heart-wrenching. In 1994, after having Sheree and David, she and her first husband lost twin baby girls.

Jessica who had anencephaly – born without part of her brain or skull – died after just four hours. Her twin, Sammie, died of cot death at 10 months old.

The grief that followed caused Donna’s marriage to break down. She then married a second time, in 2000, after having son Mathew. But the medical struggles, time away and financial pressure heaped stress on that marriage too.

In 2010, Donna was dealt yet another health blow and diagnosed with tonsil cancer, and while she was lucky to avoid having part of her tongue, palate and teeth removed, the toll chemotherapy and radiation took proved to be the final straw in her relationship.

In hospital last year.

The mum needs special shoes for her toeless feet and gloves to help her with basic tasks.

Donna, who’s an animal lover, was finally rebuilding her life last year and following her dream to become a zoologist. She was doing a bridging course so she could study science at university when she got septicaemia.

Sadly, the tracheostomy in her throat is permanent as doctors say it’s too dangerous to remove. But having beaten the odds again and again, she won’t give up.

Donna has also filed a claim for treatment injury (which was previously known as medical misadventure) for her septic shock, with ACC.

The corporation says it should have a decision as to whether she’ll be covered by August. In the meantime, the single mum struggles to pay the bills, and is fundraising for specially made shoes and gloves to help her with daily tasks.

“It’s taking a while, but I’m getting there. I didn’t realise how important a thumb is until now, so I’m lucky to still have mine,” Donna tells. “Just picking up a teaspoon to make a coffee requires you to use your thumb!”

Having just passed her driver’s licence, she’s confident that she’ll fulfil her zoology dream.

“I just want to get better and gain my confidence back so I can complete my studies, like I’d planned, before my life was put on hold,” she says.

Words: Anastasia Hedge

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