Health Stories

I walked 10km then my leg exploded!

Achieving one of her simple lifelong dreams could have cost Melissa her limbs

Melissa King, 39, Burnie, Tas

As I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t believe I’d finally done it!

Completing a local 10km race, The Burnie Ten, had always been my dream.

But it wasn’t until I won a radio competition that I worked up the courage to enter.

My prize was eight weeks of free training at a local gym and entry to the race.

With nine other winners, we were called ‘The 10 for Ten’ and together we worked-out each week. I’d never done so much exercise in my life!

So on the big day, my husband Darren, 40, kids, Maddison, 16, and Joshua, 15, and other loved ones came to wish me well.

‘You’ll be great!’ Maddison cheered.

Although I’d be walking it, after all the work I’d put in I hoped to finish in under two hours.

The first 5km was relatively easy but, when I stopped for a drink, my legs felt like jelly.

In the second half, I really had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Keep going, I told myself, determined to reach my goal.

When I finally crossed the finish line after one hour and 51 minutes, I felt incredible!

‘Well done!’ Darren cheered, throwing his arms around me.

But after sitting down to rest, I noticed my feet felt funny. It was like they were fluffy pillows that weren’t attached to my legs.

When I mentioned it to Darren, we agreed it was probably just muscle ache. ‘It’s the furthest you’ve ever walked,’ he reasoned.

‘You’ll feel better once you’ve had a shower and some rest.’

But at home, the numbness spread.

My legs became tight and painful and I couldn’t feel the toes in my left foot. It seemed like my lower limbs were about to explode!

Joshua, Darren, Melissa and Maddison (Credit: DALE CUMMNG PHOTOGRAPHER)

Taking painkillers and putting ice on my legs helped slightly, but that night in bed the pain was excruciating.

Terrified it was a blood clot, I woke Darren.

‘I need to go to hospital,’ I told him, panicked. ‘The pain is worse and I can’t feel my feet.’

Once there, the doctors found high levels of toxins in my blood, indicating a breakdown of the muscles.

I was given painkillers through a drip and by the time an orthopaedic specialist arrived a few hours later, my left leg had doubled in size.

‘It looks like you have compartment syndrome but it seems impossible!’ he said. ‘It’s usually caused by a high-impact trauma or a crushing injury, not from walking 10 kilometres.’

The doctor explained the condition occurs when blood and fluids collect in the fascia – webs of connective tissue that work like a sack around our muscles.

The pressure builds in the muscle sack and has to be released.

‘It’s like trying to blow up a balloon inside a glass,’ he explained. ‘Eventually the balloon will pop.’

If left untreated, the muscle dies and releases harmful toxins into the bloodstream.

Surgery is usually required within 24 hours and in serious circumstances, the limb is sometimes amputated.

The thought of losing my legs filled me with fear.

With kids and jobs as a cleaner and lollipop lady, I just couldn’t imagine life without my limbs.

My left leg was more swollen than my right so the doctor did a pressure test. He said 40 would be normal and anything over 70 might need surgery. Mine was 115!

Still, he couldn’t believe I had compartment syndrome from walking 10km.

My legs were iced and elevated and an hour later the doctor returned to re-test the pressure.

It had risen to 125 and I needed emergency surgery to relieve it.

Suddenly the tears flowed. I couldn’t believe I’d tried to better myself and now I was going under the knife!

Darren comforted me until 12.30pm, when I was wheeled into surgery. It was 24 hours after I’d finished the race.

At hospital, my leg was attached to a pump to drain the fluid (Credit: Supplied)

‘We were just in time,’ the doctor said when I woke in recovery a few hours later.

I was so relieved to feel the intense pressure was gone.

The surgeon explained he’d made an incision into the fascia.

To my horror, when the bandages were removed I saw I’d been cut from knee to ankle on the outside of my left leg and a 20cm cut had been made along the inside.

A vacuum pump was attached to drain the fluid from my limb for four days and my right leg was elevated.

The pressure slowly dropped.

The second op to close the incision would take over 160 stitches and leave me with an ugly scar.

Even after the successful surgeries, the doctor didn’t know why I had compartment syndrome.

‘It must have been a number of contributing factors,’ he told us.

I spent a total of six days in hospital and, back at home, it was several weeks before I could walk again.

Thankfully, Darren and the kids did everything they could to help and I welcomed the loved ones who came to visit.

My leg was sliced open (Credit: Supplied)

Now, nearly a year on, I have regular physiotherapy to treat permanent nerve damage in both legs and feet.

I’ve also developed restless legs syndrome, which means I can’t stop them from moving, especially at night.

Although I’ll likely have pain and numbness forever, I’m just glad doctors saved my legs and I have full use of them.

If I hadn’t gone to hospital when I did and received such terrific care, I could have been left an amputee.

It was always a dream of mine to walk The Burnie Ten.

Now I have the scars to prove I actually did it!

Compartment Syndrome

– Compartment syndrome occurs when fluids collect inside the fascia – connective tissue that surrounds groups of muscles or organs.

– The fascia cannot easily expand so pressure builds inside the compartment and prevents adequate blood flow to and from the affected tissue.

– It can require emergency surgery or amputation. If left untreated, compartment syndrome can cause severe tissue damage, loss of body function and can be fatal.

Originally published in that’s life! issue 37 – September 17, 2015

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