Voice of an angel with the knees of a pensioner: Soprano Laura Wright speaks of her battle to beat septic arthritis
Laura Wright was just 15 when she won the BBC Radio 2 Chorister of the Year competition in 2005. For the soprano, now 21, the moment marked what she hoped would be the end of the ill-health that had threatened to rob her of both her singing ambitions – and her mobility.
When she was nine, Laura was told she might never walk again after contracting septic arthritis. ‘It was quite sudden,’ recalls the singer, who ran in the London Marathon last year and whose solo debut The Last Rose was No 1 in the classical charts for five weeks last year.
‘We were on holiday and I went for a jog with my dad and afterwards my right knee started to hurt. It got more and more painful, so my mum and dad took me to hospital.
Laura Wright has said that going through the health scare has made her more determined than ever
‘I was examined and scanned and they did all sorts of blood tests but could find nothing wrong, so I was sent home and told it would probably get better.’
However, the pain got worse. Within a month, Laura was confined to a wheelchair. She was admitted to hospital, where she remained for six months as doctors tried everything they could to get her back on her feet.
‘It turned out I had an infection in my knee,’ she says. ‘My leg felt much more comfortable bent rather than straight, but the doctors straightened it out and put it in a cast.
‘That’s when the infection began to spread through my entire body and I got very ill. At that point they were able to diagnose me with septic arthritis.’
Septic arthritis is an infection in a joint. Many different types of bacteria can cause it, but one called staphylococcus aureus is the most common culprit.
Bacteria can get to a joint via the bloodstream, from an infection in another part of the body, via an injury to the joint itself, or during surgery. Those suffering other types of arthritis are at higher risk, as are those with a compromised immune system – such as patients on chemotherapy or the elderly.
The knee is the site of infection in more than half of septic arthritis cases, and the hip is affected in about one in five cases. If the infection is treated promptly, there is a good chance of complete cure with no long-term problems. But if there is a delay in treatment, the infection can quickly destroy the joint, leading to long-term pain and disability.
Laura during her chorister days
In some cases, the infection becomes severe and leads to potentially fatal blood poisoning – septicaemia.
Laura says: ‘I was in too much pain to walk and I was so weak I couldn’t eat anything. I was so young that they struggled to get fluids into my veins, and in the end they had to put the tubes in my neck. So then I was bedbound for quite some time. I had to have a nurse take me to the toilet and I had to have someone dress me. I couldn’t do anything myself.
‘Things got so bad that the doctors were worried I would never walk again. In fact, at one point they told my parents, “You should spend as much time with Laura as you can.”
After she was diagnosed, doctors tried different methods to treat her, including performing several operations to drain the fluid from her knee and prescribing various antibiotics to kill off the infection.
Eventually she recovered enough to leave hospital, but the road to recovery was a slow one.
‘When I went back to school I was in a wheelchair and then on crutches, hobbling around like a 90-year-old – it was utterly frustrating,’ she says. ‘But I know I was very lucky.
‘And I know that going through all that has definitely given me every ounce of determination and drive to embrace every opportunity I get.’
As soon as she was off the crutches, Laura threw herself into sport and was soon playing hockey for East of England. She also represented her county in netball. ‘I was super-keen because I had this opportunity I might not have had,’ she explains.
Today her right leg is weaker than her left, and it sometimes aches, but Laura isn’t letting it hold her back. ‘It’s a small price to pay so to me it doesn’t matter,’ she says.
These days she eats healthily and is conscious of managing stress levels. She goes to the gym four or five times a week and recently completed the Actimel Pedal to Paris, cycling an impressive 300 miles in aid of the Royal British Legion.
Consultant orthopaedic surgeon Elliot Sorene says: ‘The condition eats away at the cartilage and destroys the joint. In a child of that age, it could cause deformity or even lead to limb replacement, so Laura is lucky.
‘Such a condition may well lead to problems with arthritis in the future – she will probably have suffered some cartilage loss so the fact that she’s super-fit will help prevent this.’
Laura says: ‘Going through my health difficulties when I was younger was something that motivated me to do the bike ride. One of organisers told me the other day they were planning a trek across the Pyrenees – maybe that’ll be my next challenge.’
lLaura Wright’s The Last Rose is available on Decca Records