Swimmer who lost legs and lower arms to meningitis poised for Paralympics
07:00 15 December 2011
A FORMER Cambridge schoolgirl who lost her legs and lower arms after being struck down with meningitis 14 years ago this Christmas is on track to represent Great Britain at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Getting up to swim at 5am before beginning the school day at Chesterton Community College, it was always determined Helen Dolphin’s goal to compete in the Olympics.
And in the year the Games come to London, Helen – a former Anglia News reporter better known by her maiden name Helen Smith – could realise her dream if she is successful at the British Gas Swimming Championships at the Olympic pool in Stratford in March.
Swimming without her two prosthetic legs and arm, Helen is training five times a week to shave a crucial 15 seconds off her current time in the 200m freestyle.
She said: “I was swimming as a teenager as I thought I’d be in the Olympics so it was my ambition even then.
“I’ve always enjoyed swimming which is lucky as it is one of the few sports I can do now.”
She added: “I hope I have inspired people not to give up as a lot of people have awful things happen to them but there is still a lot you can do.”
Helen’s parents, Richard and Gill Smith of Little Abington, were told to expect the worst following an ill-fated Boxing Day in 1997 when Helen, now 36, was misdiagnosed by a GP as having flu.
The following day Helen and her family were travelling home to Cambridge from her aunt and uncle’s house in Herefordshire and had to make frequent stops for Helen to be sick.
She later noticed little blood blisters across her face but thought nothing of it. But as she became sicker and sicker, her mum called another doctor who diagnosed food poisoning and gave Helen a pain killing injection.
She then started to slip in and out of consciousness and Mrs Smith called a third doctor.
“The last time I walked with my own two legs was into the ambulance,” said Helen.
At Addenbrooke’s Hospital it became apparent that Helen had the deadly form of meningitis – meningoccocal septicaemia – and a medical emergency was declared as her body began shutting down with her breathing and kidneys failing.
Her heart needed stronger and stronger drugs to maintain any blood pressure and her skin turned black from head to toe.
Septicaemia – or blood poisoning – had set in and Helen’s lower legs and hands were amputated in order to save her life.
A month later Helen came out of a coma.
She remembers little of being told she had lost her limbs as she was so ill and spent the following months and years undergoing more than 100 operations including having more of her limbs removed due to gangrene.
“I thought that I was paralysed from my neck downwards as I couldn’t move and originally thought I’d been in a road accident,” she said.
“I was in hospital where they did everything for you so the implications of losing my limbs hadn’t set in. My parents had to tell me numerous times because I was so ill and didn’t remember a huge amount.”
Helen was studying for a PhD in London at the time and decided not to return to the capital – mainly because she was having surgery at Addenbrooke’s almost weekly.
Instead she stayed at her parents’ former home in Tavistock Road, off Histon Road, Cambridge, and took an A-level in English literature at Long Road Sixth Form College to help focus her mind after what she described as becoming “institutionalised in hospital”.
Unable to do many of the pastimes she previously enjoyed including playing the piano and running, Helen was unable to swim until she had sufficiently recovered from her numerous operations.
“I couldn’t do any exercise, even walk, which was quite horrible and I didn’t want to be really unfit and overweight,” she said.
“So as soon as I could I went with my mum to the pool at Impington Village College,
“I thought it was going to be easier than it was. But instead I jumped in but sank like a stone to the bottom. My mum thought I was messing about but I felt like I was drowning.
“Then I tried swimming on my back which was easier and now my favourite stroke is front crawl as it’s all in the arms. I just carried on and trained even harder.”
Helen’s first paid employment after her illness saw her working for fellow amputee and former wife of Paul McCartney, Heather Mills, at her charity the Heather Mills Foundation which recycles prosthetic limbs.
The former Hills Road Sixth Form College student then went on to make a series of programmes for Anglia News and secured a journalist traineeship at the organisation.
Currently working at the Norfolk-based charity Disabled Motoring UK as its director of policy and campaigns, Helen also writes a column for the publication Motoring – Disability Now in addition to sitting on the Government quango the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee.
Driving an automatic car with hand controls, she is passionate about disabled people maintaining their independence.
“That’s one of the things the charity I work for does – help people who have become disabled to get driving again,” she said.
Helen is supportive of a number of charities including Canine Partners, which has provided her with an assistance dog, Meningitis Trust, Meningitis Research Foundation and the Limbless Association.
She married Paul Dolphin, her partner of five years, last year.