"The house is just four walls. You have to get out of it, sometimes". Sitting on the sofa at home, Sarah Almagro gives her first interview after the eight difficult months which have passed since she was admitted to hospital last July in great pain and came out four months later with no hands or feet because of multiple organ failure caused by septicemia. She has discovered a new life. Her plans for the future have changed, and she has had to adapt to daily visits to the hospital. She has learned how to laugh about what has happened to her and that, she says, is her greatest achievement. "My brother was the first person to suggest playing stone, paper, scissors, and we laugh a lot together," she says.
How are you feeling?
Very well at the moment, really. The wound I had has healed, thanks to the hyperbaric chamber. I'm still having dialysis and rehabilitation, but at least I'm at home now. After everything that has been going on, you never feel alone. I don't know how to explain it. It's impossible to be on your own and that helps you to carry on. I have seen people who are finding it really difficult to cope with situations like this. They find it so hard, mentally. I do it with humour. Sometimes it's too much, and I feel angry at myself for losing my hands and feet but my parents are like: "Are we going to laugh about this, or be miserable?"
Your case has produced a huge wave of support. When did you become aware of that?
When I was in hospital my parents would tell me "oh, so-and-so has joined the campaign", trying to cheer me up, and I would say "Oh, good, OK". But then when I came out of hospital on December 1st, and went to an event the fire brigade had organised, when I saw how many people said hello to me in the street , I realised they were right. In a restaurant a boy kept looking at me, and then came over and said "Are you Sarah"? He was really pleased to see me, he took a photo of us....
Are you comfortable in those situations? You've also been presented with an award by the Marbella Fire Brigade.
I found it hard at first, so many people cheering me on, but not now. I'm really grateful. This will be the first time anyone has given me an award, but I'm feeling quite comfortable about it. I like to go out, the house is nice but I prefer to be out and about. I always used to be. I became ill on a Sunday; the Friday before, I went to a party and on the Saturday I was at home with friends. You think about that and it seems crazy. One day I was absolutely fine, and the next I was very ill.
Many people have also donated money for the prostheses that your parents want to buy for you.
A great many people have got involved, from Marbella and elsewhere, from young children to the very elderly, and I have seen different reactions in all the people who have approached me. The children, for example, look at me and try to see where my hands and feet should be. The elderly people find it hardest to cope. They don't know what to say. They are upset when they look at me. And the very young, just look at me and carry on with what they're doing. Then there are people who are parents, I see them give a sigh of relief, as if they are thinking "Thank goodness that hasn't happened to me".
What do you remember about that day last July when all this began and you ended up in hospital?
I just remember feeling terrible. I had a very bad headache, and awful stomach pains. I had to sit in a wheelchair to go into the hospital. They left me there, in the Emergency Department, waiting to be assessed. I said to my mother that I couldn't bear the pain and I started to scream, and then they took notice. The Emergency Department is always crowded, and especially in the summer. I remember seeing the doctor and she said she was going to give me a tranquiliser to calm me down. At first nothing they gave me worked. The pains just kept getting worse. Then I think they must have sedated me, because I don't remember anything else, just being in intensive care afterwards. I felt better then, although I could see that my hands and feet were black, but I felt alright, I didn't remember what had happened before. I had had some very strange dreams, but I still didn't know I had had a multiple organ shock or that I had been so ill. Not till they told me, and at first they didn't tell me everything.
Who talked to you about it first?
Everyone talked a bit, my parents, the doctors, but they didn't tell me everything, just what I needed to know. That was when I was in the Costa del Sol hospital. They told me more when I was in the Carlos Haya. Sometimes I felt they had gone too far, they said things that really upset me.
For example, one night, they were about to do the last operation for the grafts and the nephrologist told me my kidneys wouldn't work any more and they'd have to do a transplant. That came out of the blue and I was really upset. I felt as if I couldn't breathe. But there were other things, too. They released me from intensive care here and on 13 August I was admitted to the Burns Unit in Malaga. I arrived in the evening. I still didn't know how serious my condition was. The doctor came, started to examine me, and then said something about the operating theatre. I said "operating theatre?" Because I still didn't understand that my hands and feet were dead. I thought they would get better. But he was saying "operating theatre", and I didn't know what he was talking about. My parents were the first people to tell me that they were going to cut off....no, not cut off, amputate my fingers, but then they said no, they were going to have to take a bit more off. At that point, I felt as if my world had come to an end, but then I gradually accepted it, and now I can laugh about what has happened.
That is a huge achievement.
How did you deal with everything that happened after that, once you were aware?
I don't know how I did it. I went through it because I had to, there was no alternative. I hated the bit about the operations. I didn't absorb the anaesthetic well, it damaged my kidneys, I had to have dialysis. That scared me. I was a bit delirious with all the medication they were giving me. Every specialist prescribed me their own things, and they were all mixing together.
Had you ever heard of this illness before?
No, never. Other illnesses, yes, but I didn't know this even existed. Now, people tell me I'm an expert because I use medical terminology, they have even said I should study medicine, but no, I don't want to do that.
After months in hospital you were able to come home in December, but a few weeks later you had to be re-admitted, and were there for another month.
There were complications because of an infection. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after the dialysis, they changed the dressing on my knee and saw that I had picked up an infection in hospital and it was swelling up more and more. One day, when I was feeling ill, my rehabilitator and a nurse went and got a doctor, who was already with a patient. He took one look, said I had an infection and arranged an operation on the Saturday, just like that.
What is your routine at the moment, while you are recovering?
I still have to go to the hospital every day. I have renal insufficiency and I think I probably will have to have a transplant eventually.... on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I have dialysis and then my dressings are changed, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I go for rehabilitation. I can rest on Saturdays and Sundays, although I like to go out along the seafront. I always used to be outside. It's hard for me to stay indoors, in these four walls, all the time.
People who know you best say you have been really strong in dealing with all this. Where do you get that strength?
From my family, above all. My friends, too, and all the people I don't know, but who are supporting me so much and in so many different ways.
Silvia, Sarah's mother, takes advantage of a pause to show her a delicious-looking cake that a friends of the family had sent for her. Her face lights up. "That's great. I can eat some sweet things, although I am on a very restricted diet," she says. "I'll ask my brother to give me a bit later. He has been absolutely fantastic, that's something else that has amazed me".
He was only 15 when this happened. How did he cope with it?
Like a champion. Really impressive. I didn't see him for a while, and when I did I could hardly believe it was my brother. He seemed to have changed, become more mature. The first time he came to see me in hospital he told me he was going to help me as much as he possibly could. He said he had talked to crossfit, because I used to do crossfit, and they were going to help me. He was only 15, I couldn't believe it. We used to argue over stupid things, like the remote control for the TV. Nobody watches TV any more. Our priorities have changed.
You're getting better and you will be able to use the prostheses before long. Your father says you have to do things little by little.
I can't tell you how much I want to have the prostheses because I can't do even basic things like scratch myself, eat, make the bed. People complain that it is a nuisance having to make the bed, but I like doing it and now I can't, without help. I could do so much more with my hands. I don't like asking for things, I prefer to do them myself, even if it is difficult.
Have the doctors given you a date, when you might be able to start to use them?
We had an appointment today and the doctor looked at my stumps and said we can start preparing for the prostheses now.
Have you seen them?
No, but I already know I want the hands with a cover, so they look like skin. They won't be my hands, but at least they'll be similar. I have been in contact with other people who have been through the same thing, we have shared our experiences and talked about all this, and they have given me advice. There is an Italian boy, for example, who had the same thing as me in January 2018. He also lost his hands and feet, but he says you get over it. He lives in Murcia. Another girl, Desiré, used to do acrobatic gymnastics. She had a problem with her leg and they operated, but something went wrong and theyh ad to do a femoral amputation. She is a role model for me. She competes in the paralympics.
Your parents say you want to carry on with your Law studies.
When all this happened it was the school holidays. I had passed my exams and registered to study Law.
Did you always want to do Law?
Yes, I wanted to study it and then sit a public entrance exam, but now my priorities have changed. I'm still going to do Law, but they have told me I ought to do sport and I could compete in the paralympics. So I said, great, football! They said no contact sports, because of the prostheses, but they suggested triathlon, which I like. I want to help others, as I always used to. They tell me other people can benefit from hearing how I have coped, so that's what I'll do.
What would you say to people who think you are a role model?
The first thing would be to thank them, but I couldn't have done it without other people. I know some find it very hard to cope. Others give you the strength to carry on. People I don't even know encourage me and tell me I can do it, and I get goosebumps, just thinking about that.