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Comrie gran ‘climbing Everest’ in back yard after near-death sepsis recovery

This time last year Dee Thomas could barely walk to the bins. Now she's reaching for the stars in aid of sepsis research.

Dee Thomas with walking poles halfway up hill near Comrie in mist
Dee Thomas is climbing the equivalent height of Mount Everest on a hill near her Comrie home. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

A Perthshire gran, who cheated death from sepsis, is celebrating her recovery by taking on another uphill struggle.

Dee Thomas, from Comrie, needed open heart surgery after developing the infection last April.

She was so weak when she finally made it home that walking down the garden path to the bins was beyond her.

But Dee is no quitter.

The mum-of-five has pushed herself a little further each day.

And now she is celebrating her 66th birthday by climbing the equivalent of Everest in aid of a sepsis charity.

Dee Thomas walking through field in purple sepsis research t shirt, smiling
Dee Thomas is striding out for sepsis research. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Dee is taking on the challenge in her own back yard, on the unremarkable-looking hillside behind her home.

The summit is about 100m higher than Dee’s “base camp” – a tree at the bottom with prayer flags in its branches and a camping chair in its shade.

Everest is 8,849m above sea level. So Dee would have to reach the top 89 times to achieve the same elevation.

But she intends to do it 100 times – just to be on the safe side – before her birthday on May 29.

The little hill has always been a favourite for family walks.

And it has played an even more important role in Dee’s life since her illness.

As soon as her strength started returning she set her sights on reaching the top again.

And that first successful ascent was a milestone in her recovery.

Dee Thomas in pink jumper waving walking stick on top of hill next to tall standing stone
Dee Thomas in her hilltop happy place. Image: Supplied.

“I’ve made myself do it every day since,” she said.

“Some people have said to me ‘why don’t you do 10 Munros instead of going up and down some boring old hill 100 times’.

“But this hill is the symbol of my recovery.”

Heart condition heightened sepsis risk

Dee’s ordeal started on April 3 last year when she suddenly started feeling aches and pains in her joints.

Thinking it was flu, she took herself to bed with a paracetamol.

But by the next morning she felt worse.

And something told her this was no ordinary bug.

Her husband Ian called an ambulance. The paramedics did all their checks. And all the tests – for blood pressure, temperature and oxygen – came back normal.

But something wasn’t right, and when they asked if Dee would like to go to hospital, she said “yes”.

She’s still not sure why she did. But it might have saved her life.

Dee Thomas lying in hospital bed with oxygen mask
Dee in hospital at the height of her illness. Image: Supplied.

By the time Dee arrived at Perth Royal Infirmary, the danger signs were rising rapidly.

An MRI and other scans showed an infection of the intervertebral discs.

Luckily Dee’s daughter Jasmine is a doctor, who knew she had been born with a heart valve defect, which very likely meant her heart was in trouble too.

She pressed for more tests which revealed Dee’s heart was vegetated – a potential sign of an infection of the inner lining of the chambers and valves.

“I don’t remember being told I had sepsis,” said Dee.

“But I know the cardiologist told her what she already knew from heart traces – that my chances of surviving were low.”

‘I just kept walking’

The team at PRI consulted experts at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary who said Dee needed to be transferred immediately for open heart surgery to remove the sepsis and assess her for an aortic valve replacement.

Perth Royal Infirmary entrance
Perth Royal Infirmary said Dee needed specialist care. Image: Steve MacDougall / DC Thomson

Again, Dee remembers very little of this time.

But after a spell in the Cardiac ICU in Edinburgh to check infection levels were sufficiently under control, she had surgery on April 15 2023.

She was given an aortic valve replacement which means her heart is now functioning better than ever.

And after four weeks in hospital, she was allowed home to begin the long road to recovery.

It’s not been easy.

“I looked like an 85 year-old when I got home,” said Dee.

Dee Thomas in nightgown walking with walking frame in hospital corridor.
Dee needed a frame to walk in hospital. Image: Supplied.

“You’d have thought I was a frail little old lady, I nearly collapsed walking to the bins.

“But I just kept walking – a little further every day.”

Thomas family were Dee’s support

Dee says she is grateful to everyone who has helped her – not least the medics in Perth and Edinburgh – and particularly her family, Ian, Jasmine and their other children Huw, Joe, Rosie and Daisy.

She’s planning a family celebration at the top when she finishes her Everest challenge on May 29.

And every penny she raises for Sepsis Research FEAT will be a reminder of how far she has come.

Dee Thomas standing next to tall standing stone on top of hill
Dee ticks off another successful ascent. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Open-heart surgery is known to carry with it the risk of depression and hopelessness.

And there have been days when Dee admits her spirits were low.

But her little hill was out there, and its healing powers never fail.

“Up there is where I go to for a bit of peace, somewhere to think,” she said.

“Something like this is life changing. You really do stop worrying about the little things and focusing on what matters.”

Sepsis Research FEAT is the UK’s only sepsis research and awareness charity.

You can donate to Dee’s fundraiser here.