Father of three, Chris Aldred, overcame paralysis and life-threatening sepsis to become an Ironman triathlete
The consultant stopped writing, peered over his glasses and blinked. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “A marathon? You want my blessing to run a marathon?”
Sitting across the desk his former patient Chris Aldred squirmed. “Erm, yes,” he conceded. “After a little swim and a few miles on the bike.”
Now that the words were out there, Chris supposed it did sound rather extreme. Other patients who have fought back from the brink of death would, perhaps, start off with a 5k, or maybe a super-sprint triathlon. But ever since he’d watched Ironman UK, in his hometown of Bolton the previous month, he’d thought of nothing else.
“I felt humbled to see double amputees pushing and pulling themselves around the course on specially designed bikes and wheelchairs,” says Chris. “I thought, ‘I’ve got no excuse. At least I still have my legs and can walk again’.”
It was also a wake-up call. “I was overweight, unhealthy, a borderline diabetic, with dangerously high blood pressure. I knew I had to do something.”
Chris, an IT specialist, hadn’t always been so unhealthy. “I was on the school football and cricket teams and played badminton for the county. Since then I’ve also played rugby league, golf, football, have done mountain biking and weight training, gone to the gym regularly and cycled 150 miles a week.”
Then in November 2006, he suffered the tiniest of cuts on his finger… and his life was turned upside down. In fact, it very nearly ended.
“I was stacking computers at work when I caught my right hand on something sharp,” he says. “I wiped the blood away, popped a plaster on and thought nothing more of it. I’ve had worse cuts opening envelopes!”
Two weeks later, on 6 December, 2006, Chris felt a sharp twinge in his lower back. “I thought I’d turned awkwardly and pulled a muscle,” he says. “The next day it was worse, so I phoned in sick and had a massage with a physiotherapist. But over the next couple of days, my back grew progressively more painful.”
Then Chris took to his bed with a high temperature, aches and pains. “I took paracetamol and ibuprofen around the clock to ease the pain in my back – but never dreamed the fever and back pain were linked.”
During the third night, Chris woke to find he was unable to move his legs. “I tried to swing myself out of bed to go to the toilet but my legs simply wouldn’t work. I was terrified.” His wife Lisa woke to find Chris sobbing in both pain and terror – and called an ambulance.
“The first doctor who saw me admitted he had no idea what was wrong. Finally, an orthopaedic registrar examined me. He pricked my legs and feet with pins, confirmed I was paralysed from the waist down and admitted me to a ward. I was worried sick – with no idea if I’d ever be able to walk again.”
After three bedridden days Chris was transferred to the spinal injuries unit of Salford Royal hospital (then called Hope Hospital). “A consultant neurosurgeon explained that an MRI scan had revealed a large swelling, eight inches long, in my spinal column, approximately from my waist to between my shoulder blades. The mass had pushed into my spinal cord, crushing nerves and causing the paralysis. He had no idea what it was.”
They would operate first thing the next morning. “Partly, I felt relieved that, at last, they knew what was wrong and were going to take action. But I was terrified at the thought of cancer, or of never being able to walk again.”
A doctor explained to Chris that the mass wasn’t a tumour, but a spinal abscess, which had built up as a result of an infection. Staphylococcus aureus bacteria had entered his body through an open wound or cut. Then of course Chris remembered the nick on his finger. “That explains it,” said the doctor.
By draining the abscess of pus doctors had relieved the immediate pressure on his spinal cord. But they were unable to tell if long-term damage had been caused. Chris was put on an eight-week course of intravenous antibiotics to fight what remained of the infection. However, he wasn’t home and dry yet.
“Three days later, when Lisa came to visit, she said I looked yellow. A few hours later I felt really ill again. I felt confused, I shook uncontrollably and was sweating so much my bed sheets had to be changed several times.
“Thankfully, a night nurse realised something was wrong. After taking my blood pressure and temperature she summoned doctors to my bedside. Her prompt action saved my life.”
Chris had developed sepsis (blood poisoning), a potentially fatal condition caused by the body’s over-response to infection, injuring its own organs and tissues in the process. The sepsis had affected his liver and bile duct – leading to jaundice. Chris is lucky to have survived, as Dr Ron Daniels, chair of the UK Sepsis Trust, explains. “An abscess in the spine is an emergency. If it’s not treated quickly it can result in paralysis.”
Once sepsis was diagnosed, doctors increased the strength of the intravenous antibiotics. Christmas and New Year came and went in a blur. But, with the infection finally under control, Chris began to recover. However, he had lost 25kg in six weeks and doctors warned of a long, slow recovery. “Both Lisa and I were worried sick in case I was never able to walk again. But we never spoke about it. She confessed afterwards that she’d started looking at bungalows.”
Chris was relieved to find he could wiggle his toes. He progressed to standing for a few seconds at a time. After a month of bed rest, it took Chris four days just to stand using a Zimmer frame. And another two weeks to walk a few steps. In February 2007 Chris was discharged and returned home to Bolton. His family had moved his bed downstairs and he embarked on a year of physiotherapy and recovery.
However, the very next day he developed severe swelling in his left leg and was rushed back to hospital. “I’d developed deep vein thrombosis in my femoral vein. I’m convinced it was triggered by not having surgical stockings when I was first admitted to hospital two months previously.
“I had to wear a permanent compression sock and avoid any knocks or bumps to the leg, which meant exercise was out. ‘If you cause further damage to the vein or leg, you will lose the leg,’ my consultant told me bluntly.”
Unable to exercise, the weight piled on. “I took up fly fishing, but I wasn’t burning any calories. By the time I started back at work, 18 months after cutting my finger, I was 127kg. I can remember buying size 40-inch waist jeans and not being able to do them up.”
When a check-up revealed Chris had high blood pressure and was on the verge of developing Type 2 diabetes, he was horrified. “My dad had diabetes and suffered terrible complications as a result of not managing it correctly. There was no way I was going down that road.”
At the same time, Chris and his family turned out to cheer on at Ironman UK. After seeing Royal Marine Commando Joe Townsend whiz past on his specially adapted hand-bike Chris had his epiphany moment – and sought permission from his consultant to embark on training.
“He said that after a spinal injury patients are normally advised to stop everything. But I said, ‘If I don’t start doing something I’m going to be welded to the sofa!’ In all his years in medicine he’d only encountered two cases of paraspinal abscess and only one who’d walked out of hospital: me.
I hadn’t run for 15 years, hadn’t cycled in five years and could barely swim. But he gave me permission to train – so long as I stopped if I was in any discomfort.”
Lisa was horrified when Chris showed her his race confirmation. “I remember her saying, ‘What are you trying to do, kill yourself?’ And I argued, ‘What’s the alternative? Dying of a heart attack on the sofa – that’s where I’m heading’.”
Chris started the NHS’ Couch to 5k programme. “My first run/walk was a killer. Because of [problems with] my knee, I knew the run was going to be the hardest part. But gradually it got easier.”
The swim was more of a challenge. “I could swim, but after 25m I was destroyed. I knew I needed help, so I signed up for a day’s intensive swimming course, which really helped.”
“I trained around work – either early in the morning, at lunchtime, or late in the evening. I gave up drink and the weight fell off. I was soon up to swimming 50, then 100, lengths. I lost around 32kg and eight inches off my waist. I hadn’t been a 34-inch waist since my 20s! All my old clothes went to the charity shop.”
Chris’ first race was the Clitheroe Sprint in April 2013. “I was used to riding mountain bikes so it was a bit of a shock riding with traffic,” he says.
His second race – an open-water event in Keswick, in May – was even more of a shock. “I’d only done one open-water swim previously,” he says. “The water was so cold that, within two minutes of starting the swim, both legs had cramped up and I had to get out.” So Chris did an open-water swim course and learned how to acclimatise to the water and build up distances.
Another lesson was learned at the Outlaw Half in June last year. “I had stomach issues as a result of taking on too many caffeine gels and I ended up walking – using every loo stop! But it was all good preparation for the big day.”
Finally, as dawn was breaking on 5 August last year, Chris was nervously taking his place at the start. “My plan was to exit the water in 90 minutes and the bike in seven hours. The swim took me one hour and 26 minutes and the bike 7:13, which I was really pleased with.
“I loved every minute. I felt an enormous sense of relief crossing the finish line in 15 hours and 21 minutes – especially as Lisa held out a beer for me!
“I wore my medal with pride and stayed right until the end – cheering on other finishers. I was thrilled to be a part of it. I was a bit sore for a couple of days – walking downstairs backwards – but otherwise felt great.”
Chris dreamed of more Ironman races, but his knee problems worsened and following a 10th operation, Chris has been advised to stop running. “I was gutted as I loved triathlon. However, I can still bike and swim, so if anyone wants a fat bloke to do the swim or bike in a relay team let me know!”
“It’s eight years since my paralysis and brush with death – yet thanks to triathlon I’ve never felt fitter, healthier or happier.”
Photos: James Lampard