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OLIVIA THE BRAVE; Tragedy of the six-year-old who has to lose her hands and feet.

Byline: ROD CHAYTOR

AS she opened her eyes after three days in a coma, Olivia Clarke's family thanked the stars their little girl had pulled through.

But they discovered the six-year-old's ordeal was only just beginning after they learned of the terrible price she must pay for surviving meningitis.

A blood infection had affected all her limbs and now doctors must amputate her hands and feet to save her.

Her mother, Rachel Nixon, said: "It's hard coming to terms with it. It's even harder looking at her and knowing what she is about to go through.

"I have tried preparing her, but she doesn't really understand. How do you tell a six-year-old that she is about to lose both her hands and feet?

"But they didn't think she was going to make it. She surprised everyone when she pulled through. You have to hang on to that."

Doctors have delayed the operation for three weeks in the hope her limbs will partially recover. But they have warned her family a quadruple amputation is still unavoidable.

Mum-of-four Rachel said: "The waiting is almost the worst part. But the doctors say they have to give mother nature a chance. But they can only leave it for so long."

Olivia fell ill six weeks ago. When she was sick, Rachel - who also has three sons, Jack, Ethan and Ryan, aged eight, five and two - noticed four red spots on her chest and dialled 999.

By the time paramedics reached their home in Cannock, Staffs, her lips had turned blue. Olivia was put on a life-support machine at University Hospital, Stoke-on-Trent, where she remained in a coma for three days.

When she opened her eyes, Rachel and husband Ian thought she was over the worst. But septicaemia had set in to her arms and legs. Surgeons said they would have to amputate to prevent the infection spreading.

Olivia's grandad, salesman Paul Bill, 47, and his wife Christine have set up a fund to help her. Paul said: "At the moment, I carry her upstairs to the toilet. But we can't be doing that when she is 16."

Until falling ill, the youngster loved dancing and dreamed of being a teacher when she grew up.

Paul said: "She loves to play school with her dolls and teddies as the pupils. It is heartbreaking to look at her and know what is awaiting her."

A University Hospital spokesman said: "The damage to the tissue on the ends of Olivia's limbs is due to a shortage of blood supply during the time she was suffering from meningitis.

"Unfortunately, Olivia now faces partial amputation on all four limbs. March 24 is a target date for the surgery, but it might be sooner or later."

Plastic surgeon Paul Davison, who will carry out the operation, said: "We feel deeply for Olivia and her family.

"Having survived this life-threatening illness, they are now forced to confront these devastating after-effects."

But there was a message of hope from Helen Smith, 30, who also lost her arms and legs because of meningitis. Despite this, she has become a successful TV reporter.

She said: "Olivia and her family need to remember things will get better. She has been terribly unlucky to contract meningitis, but she is alive and she has her whole life ahead of her.

"These days prosthetic limbs give amputees a far better quality of life than was ever possible before. Being a quadruple amputee hasn't stopped me becoming a television journalist."

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AGONY: Paul and Christine with Olivia. Right, aged two
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 3, 2005
Words:592
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