A woman who lost both her legs because of an “unexplained” and life-threatening blood clot vows she will waltz with her husband to the song that sealed their love on their 27th wedding anniversary in September thanks to her new bionic limbs. A type one diabetic and acutely aware of circulation problems linked to the disease, when Jo Spencer, 54, woke up on the morning of April 30, 2020, to find her left toes had gone black and blue alarm bells rang and she went straight to hospital.
To her horror Jo, who is head of client relations for a financial company, was told doctors had found an unexplained blood clot in her aorta artery, with no connection to her diabetes, which resulted in both legs effectively dying and having to be removed. Facing extraordinary challenges over the past two years as she adjusted to losing her legs, then to walking on “stubbies” – metal poles with a slight foot – and since April 2022 to having bionic micro processing knee (MPK) prosthetics, her husband David Spencer, 53, and their children have got her through.
Jo, of Chester-le-Street, County Durham, said: “I went to bed one night absolutely fine and eight hours later I had a completely life-changing event. I never expected to wake up that morning and lose both my legs and all my independence.
“One morning I could dance with my husband in the garden – something we loved to do – and the next I couldn’t. Our wedding anniversary is in September and I want to have a party and just have a sway or a short and slow dance with him.
“It’s quite ambitious, but it’s something I want to do with my husband, my children, and my grandchildren, to show them how much I love them and how far I have come.”
Jo plans to dance with David, director of a financial company, to Oleta Adams’ Hold Me for a While, which she says is the song they fell in love to in their 20s. Throughout her ordeal, she has drawn strength from his love and that of their children, Holly, 26, a customer service support worker, Josh, 22, an IT support worker, and Ben, 18, an A-level student, as well as their grandchildren Theo, four, and Harlow, two.
Recalling her life-changing ordeal, Jo – who was diagnosed type one diabetic aged seven, but was in perfect health when the unexplained clot cut off the blood supply to her legs – said: “I have been told categorically the issue had nothing to do with my diabetes. It was purely to do with the blood clot and they still don’t know why this happened.”
When she was admitted, doctors at the Sunderland Royal Hospital ran blood tests and a CT scan, detecting the rare blood clot in Jo’s aorta artery, blocking the blood supply first to her left leg. It was effectively dying and she was told they had to amputate below the knee to save her life.
She said: “It’s terrifying to think you can have no symptoms and then something like this happens.”
But, after surgeons amputated on May 2, she woke up only for her right leg to “die” too.
She said: “My world came crashing down. I went from being completely healthy and independent to being totally dependent on others.
“I worked my entire life and my independence was stripped from me overnight. I didn’t have time to process what was happening, but I accepted that I would live with one leg. Then I woke up, felt excruciating pain and my right leg went cold.”
Sadly, Jo’s condition deteriorated rapidly and on May 13 doctors said they needed to amputate her right leg above the knee as well to save her life.
She said: “It was just devastating. I just didn’t know how I was going to live without both my legs and sank into a deep depression. I had been so accepting, but my optimism was all based on still having my right leg.”
To make matters worse, Jo had a further complication which forced her to have surgery again in June that year to remove more of her left leg.
She said: “I was desperate not to have an above knee amputation, but they said there was no other choice. No other methods were working and the skin was dying.”
While Jo was finally allowed to return home that summer, with both legs amputated above the knee, she faced more bad news. An occupational therapist from the NHS and a surveyor from the local council said the property was unsuitable for her wheelchair and the family would need to leave their home of 15 years.
Instead, they have raised £30,000 towards £130,000 adaptions needed to the 1930s semi, through a GoFundMe page and Just Giving page. In the meantime, David has carried his wife to bed every night and helped her when she has struggled to peer out of windows or reach cupboards.
She said: “I can’t get out into the back garden unless someone lifts me out, as there are two steps into the patio and then two more steps into the garden. It’s so frustrating.
“I can’t even reach things in the cupboards and at the top of the fridge, which I used to take for granted. We have a lot of work to do on the house in order to make it liveable for me.”
Facing each day with a smile, despite tremendous adversity, Jo confesses that for months she would go to bed at night, frightened to sleep, in case a clot killed her: I struggled for a long time and I’m constantly worried about blood clots. If one goes into my brain, I will die.”
Standing at 5ft 5in before her ordeal, for a year she had to train for her permanent prosthetics using “stubbies”, which made her just 4ft 2in tall and then 5ft 2in, as she gained agility. But her “best Christmas present ever” came in December 2021 when she was told she would be receiving her new legs this year from the NHS.
Fitted with the prosthetics in April, she has been training rigorously for the past six weeks, so she can be ready for her wedding anniversary on September 18 and have her first dance. Jo, who cried tears of joy when she walked for the first time after two years, said: “It’s not easy, it’s really hard work.
“Last week, I managed to walk up and down the main corridor of the hospital and I did my first 20 steps making both knees bend. When I got into the car I just cried, it was just phenomenal.
“My ultimate goal is to use my MPK legs every single day. Our anniversary is only three months away, so it’s quite ambitious, but our dance will happen and I can’t wait!”
Being able to stand and walk, however precariously, has restored Jo’s sense of hope and independence.
She said: “Being able to stand up on my own, out of the wheelchair, and independent from it, I am standing at a height where the world is the way I remembered it. I’m not looking up at everything, I’m not struggling to look out of the window.”
Jo’s husband David has been in “awe” of her resilience through the most difficult years of her life and cannot wait to dance again with the wife he loves so deeply.
He said: “Jo is unbelievable and so determined. It’s so difficult but she’s never once complained even after everything she has been through.
“She has good days, bad days and hard days, but she gets on with it and is absolutely amazing. My dancing is not that good, it’s more of a sway, but I still can’t wait to dance with her again.”
The family’s fundraiser can be found here.