Victoria Abbott-Fleming MBE is the Founder of Burning Nights CRPS Support and the Chair of trustees for the charity. She was awarded an MBE for services to charity in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in June 2021.
Victoria has also been awarded the Points of Light Award from the Office of the Prime Minister in February 2020, the charity was also awarded Best Team Performance from the WEGO Health Awards in 2019 and 'Inspirational Woman of the Year 2016' by Aspire magazine. This is her amazing and inspirational story of life living with a poorly understood chronic pain condition, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).
My story begins when I was born in the late 70’s. I grew up in the North West of England with my mother who was a Special Needs School Headteacher and my father was a research chemical engineer. I am unfortunate not to have any brothers or sisters, but have a wonderful and loving family.
Victoria as a double above knee amputee
I went through my early life enjoying school, sports and music, in fact delving into anything that I thought I would enjoy! At primary school I was made Head Girl and took my role very seriously. My evenings were filled with school work, band practice or badminton classes and then weekends after any school work was finished I went bike riding with my aunt and uncle or playing tennis at the local park with them. My childhood was a happy one.
After gaining good GCSE’s at school, I went on to gain my A-Levels where you had to retain 2 years’ worth of work in order to gain your grades. I had got the grades that I needed to get into University and so I went to Wales to study Law and Spanish as a joint honours degree. I wanted to become a Barrister. I knew it was a very tough profession to get in especially as a woman, even though there were many more women in the job, there was still very much a sense of being a man’s job.
I loved University and being in a seaside town it was great especially when the weather was nice! I met a wonderful and gorgeous fella whilst there who adored and still adores me.
Victoria & husband before the accident
A couple of years before it all started
Together on holiday
When we first met
After the 4 year course (as part of the course the 3rd year was a year abroad in Spain) I continued my studies and completed the Bar Course which is the academic course for training Barristers (not the type that serve you coffee!) with an excellent grade. Deciding then to get some work experience before trying to get a Pupillage, this is the practical training for Barristers.
Following finishing the Bar Course, I was Called to the Bar, which was a great honour as only 1% of the population actually do this. I was immensely proud of myself and so were my family and friends.
Our Founder, Victoria Abbott-Fleming was Called to the Bar as a Barrister
I then managed to secure a job lecturing in Law at a further education college. I loved it! Passing over my legal knowledge that I had learnt over the time, to young people at AS and A2 Level plus Institute of Legal Executive courses gave me a real buzz!
The kids loved learning from me and I tried to make it as interesting as possible because teaching 16 year olds the meaning of Mens Rea or Actus Reus can be very challenging!! However I progressed from there and after my term was over I secured another teaching law position at a college.
I had a minor accident at work and after 5 months I got a diagnosis of my problems. My symptoms were severe burning pain in my lower leg, the colour changes going from white to purple to black to bright red, the stabbing like thousands of ice picks being pushed into the bone and skin, massive swelling of the lower leg, the hair growth then loss of hair, the feeling of rough sandpaper when things brushed against the skin, hypersensitivity, sense of burning like my leg was sat in boiling oil or then changing like it was freezing in an ice block, the stiffness of my ankle that made it very hard for me to bend to enable me to walk properly, the lack of sleep because the burning pain would be worse at night, depression and fear of the future and the shiny stretched skin over the leg. I thought my husband would not want me anymore. I kept thinking:
“He won’t want me any more. He didn’t marry me to be my carer at 24 years old! Why should he stay with someone like me now?”
Those thoughts kept ripping through my mind. But I didn’t need to worry, he reassured me time and time again that he not only loved me, but he wanted to be with me and look after me. I love him so much.
All of these things that I have just described to you, you may be thinking, 'that’s what I’m like' or 'that’s what I feel like'. You may feel that the medical profession sometimes don’t believe your symptoms or try and try and say 'are you sure it’s not in your head?' Or you look well are you sure you’re ill?
I’ve encountered all of this on my journey since the accident. Doctors who believe they can 'cure' you or give you a new treatment again I’ve heard it all! The condition is called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).
My first treatment was a regional sympathetic nerve block, which was tried 4 times and didn’t work because my leg was too cold and so the consultant couldn’t find a vein. Then it was DMSO 50% cream (a type of chilli based cream) and Gabapentin with Amitriptyline (which was later changed), and so we went into the realms of trying pretty much most of the treatments out there at the time like spinal blocks, permanent epidural, different types of medications, pain patches, lidocaine patches, physiotherapy, desensitisation, acupuncture, acupressure, mirror therapy, counselling, psychologists, Spinal Cord Stimulator (SCS), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, EMDR and various different medications including Ketamine which sent me a little strange at first, but I really didn't like it, so it was stopped.
The list goes on as I am sure most of you reading this who have CRPS or who know someone with it, will say the same. It just seemed an endless round of treatments where some give you a little relief for a while but then you go back for more and eventually your body gets used to the treatment and doesn’t have any effect on you whatsoever. For me none of the treatments gave me any real relief from the excruciating pain I was having.
The next problem I encountered was that a small ulcer appeared on my leg. That ulcer then grew into a bigger one and a bigger one, until my leg simply split open from the knee to the toes. I started using a wheelchair on occasion but felt embarrassed when I went out of the house because I felt people were staring at me and talking about me being so young and in a wheelchair and also not seeing anything wrong with me. It took me a long time to accept that I occasionally needed help.
When my husband and I went into shops the assistants would talk to my husband as if I wasn’t there, it got so annoying and also upsetting. No matter whether you have CRPS or any chronic pain or if you are in a wheelchair you will have no doubt encountered this.
It was during 2005 that we rescued our best furry friend and helper, Mr Geronimo Abbott-Fleming… Unfortunately to say, Geronimo has now passed away after having an inoperable and incurable cancerous tumour in his stomach. Geronimo was our dog and was invaluable over the 11 years he was in our lives and was a major part of the family. He was always there to listen when I was upset, depressed, angry, hurt as well as the good times! Geronimo had to go through huge changes with me in that I had 2 legs when we first rescued him from Manchester Dogs Home, to where I am now as a double above knee amputee confined to a wheelchair. We couldn’t have gone through it all without him, so thank you Geronimo you were an amazing best friend. Here’s some pictures of Mr G…..
But…… We now have a beautiful young dog called Kipper who is all the way from Romania. We adopted Kipper, who was originally called Kie, from a fabulous UK charity called Amicii. Unfortunately it was suggested (without specifically saying so!) by some animal shelters that I couldn’t adopt a dog as I was in a wheelchair – crazy huh?! Kipper is so much like Geronimo in his looks that we are sure that he has been sent to us for a reason. Here’s a couple of pictures of Kipper…
You can see some of the photos of my leg as it changed at the bottom of this page – PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE PHOTOS HAVE GRAPHIC CONTENT. I couldn’t have anything touching my leg not only because of the hypersensitivity but also the clothes would stick to my open ulcers and then I would have to try and prise the cloth off my leg.
These were the worst moments of my life and I will never ever forget them.
Eventually it was decided amongst the medical professionals who were dealing with me to give me the choice of amputation above the knee, not because of the pain but because of the ulceration that were weeping constantly and smelling and the total skin breakdown. I felt so depressed and upset all the time. It took me 6 months to finally make the very hard decision together with the medics but I did and my leg above the knee was amputated in 2006. I was just 27 years old.
My husband had to go around places with me like that. He never once complained about the smell of the ulcers nor the constant changing of newborn nappies cut to fit into my toe post sandals or the sleeping on the sofa to be close by me when I had to resort to sleeping under the staircase in a hospital bed in our beautiful new home. I can’t think of the words I want to say to him to express my love, thankfulness and….
I was hoping to learn to walk again on a prosthesis, so we went and purchased a prosthetic leg through a private company, Dorset Orthopaedics, after some problems with the NHS consultants at the Disablement Services Centre (DSC). But after several attempts and many months of trying to use it, I gave up. Not because I was weak or unwilling, this was far from the actual truth. The truth was that putting the silicone liner on obviously had to be skin tight and unfortunately the amputation although got rid of the severe ulcers didn’t get rid of the debilitating pain and hypersensitivity.
As the liner was being pushed onto my painful and super sensitive stump, by my now husband, it pulled back against the bone and I screamed in pain. My poor husband hated having to do this because he felt he was inflicting pain on me unnecessarily. So I gave up and used my wheelchair whenever I needed it, but started getting up using crutches with the one leg. I still felt like an old lady, I had dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep and thought the whole world was against me.
I couldn’t work because of the pain, the heavy amount of medication including opiates I was on and then there were the flare ups which were happening on a semi-regular occurrence. The flare ups were like having extremely sharp contractions in my stump. They would come in waves then go for a matter of seconds then the sharp, burning pain would hit me again and this would go on over the day or night.
The nights were the worst because I couldn’t sleep due to the pain and the burning sensation I had which appeared to worsen over the night. So I would get up in the morning not ready for the day and so tired not just physically but mentally as well.
Following a very serious illness in January 2014 where I nearly died and I had less than 20% chance survival. My amazing, gorgeous and caring husband and I were travelling to New York for Christmas for a 2 week break. While there we both caught colds and I received antibiotics for it.
However this wasn’t the end of it – I contracted Influenza A (Swine Flu) along with 5 strains of pneumonia in both my lungs. My lungs collapsed and I was put into an induced coma to help me to breathe. The doctors at the hospital in New York couldn’t understand why I wasn’t responding to the life support and heavy treatments they were giving me.
So they did more checks and tests and found there was insufficient oxygen in my blood so I was given ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) which is really mainly used if someone has less than 10%-20% chance of survival. I was on the therapy for over 5 days. ECMO is needed when you have little oxygen left in your body. It is similar to dialysis, but your blood is taken out through a large tube, it's cleaned, warmed and oxygenated through a machine, then your own blood is then put back into your body,
This began to work on the final day – thank goodness! I was awakened out of the induced coma and to get me back to the UK I had a tracheostomy, which puts tubing through a small hole in the windpipe to aid my breathing and to allow me to fly back to England. I still don’t realise how very, very lucky I am to be alive.
Upon return to the UK I was put into a small side room in the Intensive Care Unit where during my 11 days there I got another pneumonia infection and had to be sedated again. Owing to the distance my poor husband had to travel we wanted to be moved closer to a hospital near my home, which finally happened and I was moved by emergency ambulance to the Intensive Care Unit at the new hospital.
I received fabulous treatment by all the staff there just as I had done New York and the other UK hospital. I finally had my tracheostomy tubing taken out after 6 weeks and eventually made it home after 7 weeks in hospital. If New York had not had an ECMO machine or it was in use then I would not have stood any chance of surviving and I wouldn’t be here today.
I thank the hospitals involved in my care during those weeks. THANK YOU ALL!! They really did save my life.
Upon return to the UK, I found that I had loss of feeling in my one and only foot and leg. I was unable to move my ankle, toes or lift it up or down. I was later diagnosed after 3 months with the same long term pain condition but in my left leg – Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). The CRPS had been retriggered. I had all the classic signs and symptoms including hypersensitivity in parts that I could feel. As feeling came back in very minor limited areas, these were coming back as extremely hypersensitive.
I still have excruciating burning pain 24 hours a day 7 days a week as if my leg and foot was put in an acid bath, swelling, extreme colour changes, my toe nails stopped growing, the hair on my head started falling out along with my lower leg hair stopped growing and the temperature on my leg on one day was measured at just 18c and it was freezing cold to the touch with a purple and black mottled skin colouring.
Another day after I had seen a doctor in the morning I saw another doctor in the afternoon who went to look at it and the leg was so swollen and bright red, she thought I had cellulitis and she wanted me to go to A & E straight away. My leg looked like the colours of the rainbow!
The pain specialists told me they couldn’t help me anymore, I was “too complex a case, far too long down the line and too extreme“ and so I was facing the real possibility of an amputation of my one and only leg. I felt like screaming and just bursting into tears at any time, something which most of you reading this who have been diagnosed with CRPS will relate to.
In the middle of December 2014 I had to go into hospital fairly suddenly, as the skin on my CRPS left leg had started to break down very rapidly. I went into hospital on Wednesday 10th December 2014 as an emergency patient, as the leg on the skin on my left CRPS leg had irretrievably broken down. This was where the skin on the left leg had gone from being extremely dry, withered and cracked due to the massive swelling that was present and had been present for several months to none existent skin and just a wet and soggy mess.
I saw the same surgeon who had 8 years before amputated my right CRPS leg, and he had said that I was facing an above knee amputation if ulcers started appearing or if I couldn’t take the swelling, pain and lack of use. I thought that I would have one last great Christmas and New Year with my one leg getting used to the idea of becoming a bilateral above knee amputee before facing the surgery in the New Year. However the CRPS had other plans for me!
By the 8th December 2014 only a few days after the start of the skin breakdown, I was using the incontinence squares (inco sheets) on the floor to catch all the drips of ‘goo’ (or slough as it is known as) that were literally running down my leg. Ulcers started appearing and the skin was fast flaking off revealing the soft slough underneath, so we rang the surgeon’s secretary who was really helpful and concerned, to let her know that we didn’t think the leg would actually last until the New Year.
She managed to speak to the surgeon who suggested we go to the hospital to A & E as there was no way to actually make a planned admission that quickly. After a few heated conversations and plenty of tears on Wednesday 10th December 2014 my husband took me into the main hospital.
On Monday 15th December 2014, 2 days before my birthday and 10 days before Christmas Day, I had my 2nd above knee amputation under General Anaesthetic, all down to the Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. I lost a fair amount of blood during surgery and the surgeon told me that usually amputations are done when there is bad flow of blood to the legs, whereas in my case it wasn’t the blood flow that was the problem, it was the CRPS that had caused irretrievable and irreparable skin breakdown and ulcers. I was given a few bags of blood to replace all the blood that I had lost during surgery. I spent a further 3 days including my birthday in ICU and HDU and then was sent back to the ward where I remained until coming home on 23rd December 2014.
It was during 2014 when I was told that there was no other treatments to try and my leg needed to be amputated, that I began to think about raising awareness of this debilitating condition, not only for the public but also for the healthcare professionals, this is why I started Burning Nights CRPS Support. Please visit Our Story to find out more about how Burning Nights CRPS Support all began. I didn't want anyone else to go through what my husband and I had gone through and were going through.
Burning Nights CRPS Support gained charitable status on 13 April 2016 and is a fully registered charity with the UK Charities Commission. Our registration number is 1166522, which I am really delighted!
Victoria as a double above knee amputee
I am now a bilateral above knee amputee and am unable to wear prosthetics.
So when I had my 2nd above knee amputation and after visiting the Disablement Services Centre (DSC), it could not be considered as I didn’t have a prosthetic for the 1st leg. Want to learn more about amputation for CRPS? Please head over to our blog ‘Is amputation for CRPS really a cure?’
-> I am also available to speak at conferences and seminars not only about my story with CRPS and being a bilateral above knee amputee but also on the topic of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in terms of in-service CRPS awareness sessions. Please have a look at our media centre to find out more.
I have been awarded Aspire Magazine’s Crystal Trophy ‘Inspirational Woman of the Year 2016.’ In December 2016 Burning Nights CRPS Support was also awarded “Charity of the Year 2016” by Aspire Magazine which I am so delighted about as we all have worked very hard over the last 12 months.
The charity has also been awarded ‘Best Team Performance’ from WEGO Health Awards 2019’. In February 2020 I was awarded the Points of Light award from the Prime Minister’s Office. In June 2021, I was delighted and very honoured to be awarded an MBE for Services to Charity in the Queen's Birthday Honours list.
The Prime Minister said in his citation: "I am lost in admiration for remarkable people like yourself who freely give up your time to improve the lives of others. I know you do this with no thought of praise or reward, but allow me to offer my own recognition of how through Burning Nights CRPS Support you are providing crucial support to patients and their families and raising much needed awareness about the condition amongst health professionals."
I also want to THANK my husband especially for staying by my side through the hardest times 2 people can ever go through. He does have his sad days but mainly everyday he tries to help motivate me to do things like this awareness website and my autobiography, otherwise life would have been a very different place for me. THANK YOU!
I hope everyone who reads my story will gain information and support and also realise you are not on your own with this debilitating condition.
"Victoria is such an inspiration to us all & the website is amazing. I'm so glad we have someone like Victoria who is fighting for us all. She is one of the strongest women I know & is an inspiration to all of us"
The following pictures show the various stages of what my legs went through from the original accident to just prior to amputation. They are graphic in nature because of how the legs deteriorated.
**Please remember that what happened to me is the most aggressive form of CRPS and it does NOT happen to everyone.**
This is the inspirational story of the Burning Nights CRPS Support charity founder, Victoria Abbott-Fleming. If you would like to get in touch with Victoria, please either contact us via the Contact Page, send an email to Victoria or contact the charity on 01663 795055. Why not read how Burning Nights CRPS Support all began? Visit Our Story and find out!
LET’S SPREAD AWARENESS of CRPS!
"Victoria is ONE AMAZING HUMAN BEING. Not only has long term pain taken away her promising life- she has dedicated the life she has, to helping others with the same condition. I am inspired & humbled by the Path she has chosen to take" Tina Petrova, CEO