The woman who made history as the first quadruple amputee to walk at New York Fashion Week

Published Tuesday, Aug 23 2016, 18:00 BST  |  By  |  Add comment
In 2011, Karen Crespo, 33, contracted severe bacterial meningitis and lost four limbs. She has now become the first quadruple amputee to walk at New York Fashion Week...

"When I started to get flu-like symptoms in December 2011, I didn't think much of it. In my job as a nurse, I was used to being around sick people.

Two days later, though, I had a terrible headache, and my neck was so stiff that I couldn't even stretch down to put on my socks.

My mum, Evelyn, took me to hospital. Within an hour, I'd been incubated and put into a medically-induced coma. When I woke up 15 days later, on Christmas Eve, I couldn't speak or move.

A nurse was changing some bandages on my legs. They were completely black. I was so confused. I couldn't move them at all.

Before long, the doctor explained that I'd contracted meningococcemia – a severe form of bacterial meningitis, which affects the brain and spinal cord. They couldn't say how I'd got it, as it can be spread through saliva or even sharing a drink.

Horrifyingly, I was given just a 10 per cent chance of survival.

On New Year's Eve, in a bid to save my life, doctors had no choice but to amputate both of my legs – the right from above the knee and the left from the knee down. I was in complete shock.

Karen walking for Carrie Hammer at New York Fashion Week

© Carrie Hammer

She made history at NY Fashion Week

I then learnt that the infection had already spread to my arms, so both were removed from below my elbow the following morning.

Although I was in indescribable pain, the thought of losing my limbs hurt more than anything else. I was only 28.

As the bacteria had eaten my skin, I had grafts taken from my stomach and back. I'd also lost my entire lip, and had reconstructive surgery to build a new one.

After 25 operations and five months in intensive care, I was almost ready to go home.

I'd avoided mirrors since the amputations, as I just couldn't muster the courage. But as my niece was pushing me around in a wheelchair, I caught sight of my reflection.

My scream was so loud it bellowed down the hospital corridors. I was unrecognisable – and I cried until I had no more tears.

Karen without her prosthetic limbs

© Reader's own

Karen had both arms amputated below the elbow

Two weeks later, I left hospital and moved in with Mum, who'd left her job to become my full-time carer. Fortunately, my medical insurance covered the £130,000 cost of the four prosthetic limbs I needed. However, I faced a year-long wait as my scar tissue needed to heal first.

Life became almost impossible. I had to use a wheelchair and relied on Mum to dress me and the toilet. I was devastated to have lost my independence.

Finally, in December 2012, I received my new limbs. But I was really disappointed. They were so heavy, and didn't look and function the way I'd hoped.

Adjusting to my new life with these strange prosthetics wasn't easy, either. Everyday tasks took me twice as long and I had to relearn how to feed myself.

Soon, I was only wearing them at home when I needed to, like when I was doing my make-up. I could stand for an hour, but would need lots of breaks.

Although life was very hard, as I became stronger, it dawned on me just how lucky I was to be alive. If I could get through this, I knew I could get through anything.

In February 2014, I discovered a designer, Carrie Hammer, had featured a disabled model in one of her fashion shows. After developing a friendship p with her, she asked me to take part in her that year, during New York Fashion Week.

Petite at 5ft 1in, I never thought I'd walk down a runway. But, although I was nervous, I didn't hesitate to accept. I'd always loved fashion, and being in such a vibrant environment was something I'd dreamed of since I was a little girl.

Karen was given a 10 per cent change of survival

© Reader's own

Karen was given a 10 per cent chance of survival

Stepping out on to the catwalk was nerve-racking but I was soon in my element. That day, I made history as the first quadruple amputee to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week – something I will never forget.

While I did it to give hope to others, I also did it for myself. I needed to realise I am beautiful. The response from the show was overwhelmingly positive and made me so proud.

So many people have misconceptions about those of us with disabilities. They think we can't live a full life, and I want to change that. Disabled people and amputees are beautiful, too.

It's been almost five years now. When I look back, I can see I've accomplished so much. I've finally realised this is my life now, and it's not completely over.

I spent the first year after falling ill shutting out my friends and refusing to leave the house. I was embarrassed to be an amputee.

But I'm not hiding any more. I'm proud of who I am and everything I've achieved.

By Paisley Gilmour & Mollie Tracey