She knew something was wrong as soon as she got to work – she felt feverish and nauseous and when she went to try to freshen up in the bathroom she fainted. Confused and frightened, Shaninlea Visser asked her boss to drive her to the hospital emergency unit.
“My hands and feet were on fire – it was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced,” Shaninlea tells us from her home in Sezela, south of Durban. “My kidneys started to fail and my arms and legs were pitch black. My nose and lips too.”
The diagnosis was shocking. Shan, as everyone calls her, had contracted septicaemia after a friend’s pet mongoose bit her on the hand.
“I thought nothing of the bite,” she says. “I cleaned the wound and that was it.” But much like a dog bite, a tetanus injection was needed to prevent infection – but Shan didn’t believe the bite was serious enough to warrant it.
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Two days later the sepsis infection ripped through her body with devastating speed, shutting down her organs and halting the blood supply to her arms, legs, and parts of her face.
In a bid to save her life, doctors amputated first her limbs and then her nose, lips and the tip of her tongue.
She was put into a two-week coma and when she finally came round she had to face her ravaged features in the mirror.
“I insisted on seeing my face almost immediately – it was appalling,” she recalls. However, she knew she had to stay strong for her daughter, Kiaralea (15).
“I took each day as it came. I just had to get myself used to it.”
Shan needed long-term rehab before she felt physically and mentally ready to face the world again. Finally, after seven months and several surgeries, she was discharged from hospital.
Her harrowing ordeal could have crippled her both mentally and physically but Shan refused to believe her life was over. She may look different but deep down she was the same person – and that person still had a lot to offer.
Today, four years later, she’s nothing short of an inspiration, helping others who face adversity share their stories and motivating people in her new inspirational talk show.
The 34-year-old mom is on a mission to make a difference with her YouTube show, The Shan Show, which features a former crystal meth addict who became a successful actor and comedian, a swimmer who lost a leg at the age of two and a woman with lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disease.
“All my guests have overcome challenges,” she says. “I want to show others you’re capable of anything – no matter your background, where you come from, or what disability or illness you have.”
Shan is seated on a comfy couch in her home with the family’s Maltese poodle, Pixie, at her side and a purple rinse in her hair.
“It’s my favourite colour,” she says. “You can’t be sad when you have purple hair.”
Children often come up to her to ask what happened. “I prefer that,” Shan says. “It’s adults who whisper behind your back and look at you strangely. I stare right back if they stare at me.”
Just a few days before the event that changed her life, Shan moved temporarily to Gqeberha to open a new office for the transport logistics company she worked for.
Almost overnight she went from a successful, independent young woman to a quadruple amputee who needed help taking care of herself. “I’d always been a very busy person and suddenly I couldn’t do something as simple as drive a car,” she says.
Doctors told her amputation was her only hope and all she could think of was Kiaralea, who was 11 at the time, and how much she needed her mom.
“I told them, ‘Do what you have to do.’”
First her legs were amputated just below the knee, then her arms were amputated the next day. “Initially, I thought, how was I going to live my life if I couldn’t do things for myself, but I had to be strong for my daughter.”
Just days later, when doctors told her they needed to remove her nose, lips and the tip of her tongue, it was another blow for Shan, who’d always taken pride in her appearance.
Still, she refused to feel sorry for herself. “I was fighting for my life. I had to stay positive.”
Anthony, her husband of 15 years, has been a pillar of strength, she says. “When I was discharged from hospital, he immediately made the house wheelchair-friendly. If I can’t reach something or struggle with something, he’s always there to help.”
Anthony (47), who used to work for a sugar company but now helps care for his wife full time, thinks Shan is beautiful. “I love her and will always be there for her.”
At first their daughter had difficulty accepting her mother’s disfigured appearance, he says, but watching Shan overcome daily challenges earned the youngster’s respect and admiration.
These days the pair are very close and love snuggling up on the couch to watch movies. “Now if my daughter tells me she can’t do something, I tell her look at me,” Shan says.
“If I can overcome challenges, she can too.”
Shan lives a pretty regular life thanks to her steely determination. She’s fairly independent, zipping around the house in a motorised wheelchair. In the morning she baths and dresses herself. “And I can eat by myself,” she says proudly.
The only things she can’t do is drive and cook, which her husband now do.
She shows us how she eats by using cutlery attached to special cups that fit onto the stumps of her arms. The device was custom-made for her by someone with a 3D-printer.
“The idea came when I was still in hospital,” she says. “My dad was with me and there was an empty yoghurt tub. He said I should check whether it would fit my stump. It was a perfect fit, and my dad attached a fork to it.”
She shows us pictures of her recovery, balancing her cellphone on one stump and using the other to swipe through photos on her phone. One picture shows her in hospital, her lips and nose black.
Hope wore thin in those early days, but Shan has bounced back against all odds.
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Her road to recovery has been long and painful, though – she’s had at least 68 operations since her deadly infection, including reconstructive surgery on her face.
She’s had to learn to operate a wheelchair, perfecting skills such as going over curbs and back-wheel balancing, but Shan navigates life with a can-do attitude.
“I’ve learnt to get by with what I have – with willpower you can overcome anything.”
Shan’s attitude is an inspiration, says Greg Nefdt, a producer and owner of Alfacam SA, who helped produce The Shan Show.
“Shan humbles us,” Greg says.
“She reminds us that overcoming great turbulence is possible – at a time when we all need that reminder.”
Extra source: southcoastherald.co.za