5 April 2016Jonnie: Why I have no regrets about losing my leg to meningitis
He is set to defend his sprint title at the Rio Paralympics this summer. He says his disability has brought many positives to his life, and claims that he has no strong wish to have his leg back again.
“Losing my leg has opened up so many new opportunities and experiences for me,” says Jonnie, who is now 22. “What happened to me wasn’t great at the time but when I think of all the fantastic things that have happened since I’m amazed at what I’ve achieved. My gold medal in London would be top of that list.
“If you asked me now if I could go back and have my leg again, it would be a very hard decision. I would probably lean towards my life as it is now because I enjoy it so much. Maybe if I was older and struggling more to get about and if I was a bit more frail, I would want my leg back. However for now I’m fine with it.”
There has been much debate about whether the vaccine for meningitis B should be given to all children up to age 11 in the UK. Since last year all babies in their first year have been offered it.After the death of two-year-old Faye Burdett in February this year, more than 800,000 people have signed an online petition for the vaccination programme to be extended to older children. The Government has so far rejected the calls, saying it would not be cost-effective.
“I know I had a meningitis vaccine (babies are already routinely offered the meningitis C vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme) and it didn’t stop me getting it but that’s because I had a different type,” says Jonnie. “However it’s one of those things and although it didn’t help me a lot of other younger children could be helped with a vaccination. It’s a terrible condition and I don’t want anyone else to have it too.”
When Jonnie became ill in October 1998, his mum Linda at first thought he had a normal childhood bug. “I’d been sick all night and in the morning I was covered in a purplish rash. She immediately rushed me to hospital,” he says. Jonnie was taken to Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, where he was diagnosed with meningitis. He was put into an induced coma for a week to help his body fight the disease.
“The doctors told my mum to prepare for the worst. Mum later said after a few days she was told that although I would survive, they didn’t know how I would be when I was taken home. They thought I might be in a wheelchair or be left with serious brain damage.”
Jonnie was fighting meningococcal bacteria which is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK. There are about 3,200 cases here a year according to the Meningitis Research Foundation.
The bacteria had made its way into his bloodstream causing meningococcal septicaemia which badly affected the blood supply to his lower leg. “While I was recovering in hospital, a couple of procedures were tried to save my leg but they didn’t work. The problem was my toes were starting to die (as oxygen in the blood couldn’t reach them). About a month afterwards I had my leg amputated below the knee.
“I wasn’t really aware what was going on at the time. However I remember waking up after the operation and looking down to see part of my leg wasn’t there. I was very upset and blamed my mum. I was later told by a psychiatrist that it’s a natural reaction to blame those who care for you the most.”
Yet Jonnie refused to let his disability stop him being active and he received his first prosthetic limb six months after losing his leg. “As soon as I was taught to walk during rehabilitation, I wanted to run. I ran everywhere and learned to ride a bike too.”
His mum asked his primary school to introduce a hopping race at sports day so he could join in. Jonnie romped to victory. Then in 2008, aged 15, he attended a talent-spotting day for future Paralympians.
“I tried everything from wheelchair tennis to pistol shooting but it was the sprinting I loved most,” he says. “Back then I was running with my prosthetic leg as I didn’t get my racing blades until much later.”
Jonnie was put on the training programme for the London Games. He won the 100m final against other single-below-knee amputees, at 19. “When I crossed the line, I couldn’t believe I’d won until I saw it on the big screen. It was a big moment for my mum too. It also changed her life. She knew then I was going to be okay.”
Jonnie is now focused on Rio which starts in September. “I had flu at the start of the year but my biggest fear is suffering a serious injury. I had to miss last year’s World Championships with painful sores on my stump. It can happen while doing lots of training when the support part of the blade or prosthetic rubs against the skin.”
Although Jonnie’s training schedule, diet and rest periods are monitored by sports scientists, a very old-fashioned treatment keeps him in top condition. “I think my favourite thing is having abath with Epsom salts,” he says. “It’s amazing stuff. It’s magnesium sulphate, a mineral that relaxes the muscles, reduces swelling and draws toxins from the body. If I have any soreness on my stump, it eases that too.”
Jonnie is hoping it will lead to success in Brazil. “I can’t wait to get there. I just love racing against other people. It’s the best feeling in the world to achieve what you set out to do.”
Jonnie is a BT Ambassador. BT is a supporter of disability sport and a founding partner to the British Paralympic Association. To support Britain’s Paralympians in Rio, donate to the BPA’s Supercharge at mydonatetelethonsappeals.bt.com/donate/supercharge2016