A 38st financial manager who shed 8st training to complete a 6km open water swim was suddenly struck down by kidney failure and potentially deadly sepsis – and was told by doctors that swimming had saved his life.
Father-of-two Stuart Kilmister, 51, had only swum a few lengths at a time when he agreed in December 2018 to enter the ambitious open water challenge known as the Bantham Swoosh, which saw him gradually building up to 6km or 300 lengths of his local pool and losing 8st in the process.
Chuffed in July 2019 when he completed the river swim in Devon in just 2hrs 16mins, Stuart – who lives in Worcester with his wife Ange, 52, a recruitment consultant, and their two kids, Andrew, 27, a police officer, and Sarah, 22, who works at McDonald’s – soon discovered it had been a lifesaver.
Stuart, who just four weeks later found himself dangerously ill, said: “In hospital, a specialist said to me that if my fitness levels hadn’t been so good because of the training then I would have died from the kidney failure and sepsis.
“I have been through two years of hospitalisations and procedures in order to fight the infection and it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started to feel like myself again.
“I owe my life to the people who organised that open water swim. Without it, I would be dead.”
Now recovered and training for his second 6km swim, Stuart recalls how he did his first open water challenge after signing up for it with a pal.
He said: “My friend Andy and I were having a few beers and I honestly don’t know how it happened, but I woke up the next morning having signed up to the swim the night before.
“We’d even paid for our entry, so there was no turning back.”
With seven months to prepare for the event, Stuart started training.
He said: “I was a big guy, weighing 38st, so it was quite daunting at first.
“I figured out that 6km was around 300 lengths of my local swimming pool. I started off small, just doing 40, then 50 lengths at a time.”
He added: “Over the course of the next few months I built up my stamina until I was able to swim 300 lengths, which took me about four hours in the pool.
“I ended up losing 8st in the process as I was swimming so much every week.”
Completing the swim in just 2hrs 16mins, Stuart was delighted.
He said: “It was exhilarating. The currents were on my side, which helped me through the water.
“It was such an achievement. When I reached the finish line, I was ecstatic. I was eager to sign up to more swim events.”
Stuart was still in high spirits from his swim when, four weeks later, he booked a doctor’s appointment.
He said: “I woke up that morning feeling quite uncomfortable and was struggling to urinate.
“I just knew something was wrong, so I went to my GP, who suspected I had a kidney infection and referred me to Worcestershire Royal Hospital.”
Once there, Stuart’s health took a nosedive.
He said: “Doctors were keeping an eye on me, but said if I was no better then I might need to be transferred to a different hospital.
“All my bloodwork was going haywire because of the infection, which is when they broke the news to me that I had kidney failure.
“I was terrified and was rushed to the Alexandra Hospital Redditch, also in Worcestershire, to the intensive care unit, where I fought the infection.”
But Stuart’s situation was made even more dangerous when he developed sepsis – a potentially life threatening reaction to an infection.
He said: “The doctors realised that I had sepsis.
“I was getting worse and it was quite scary. I had a huge tube coming out of my neck for dialysis and I was hooked up to different drips.”
He added: “I spent four days in intensive care with sepsis before I was moved to the dialysis ward, where I spent a week. I was in a lot of pain and it was horrible.
“I was connected to all sorts of bags to drain out the infection. Doctors discovered I had kidney stones in both kidneys which were stopping me from urinating properly.
“They cleared out as much of the infection as they could before I was able to go home.”
Stuart spent a total of three weeks in hospital before being discharged.
He said: “I still wasn’t right when I got home. I started feeling ill again and my kidneys were getting really painful.
“I rang up the hospital and they told me to come back in.”
He added: “I had a couple of stents fitted and was allowed back home just before Christmas.”
Realising something was still wrong, as the pain persisted, on New Years’ Eve, Stuart went back to the hospital and was admitted again.
He said: “It had got so bad that doctors felt they had no choice but to create an artificial path from my kidney to a bag on the outside of my body, so that I could urinate, because the stones were blocking my bladder.”
He added: “This was an incredibly difficult time for me. The bag made me feel very uncomfortable and I hated having it.
“I had the bag for a year before I went in for an operation to remove the stone from my left kidney. It was unsuccessful, as I still had an infection there, so I needed a second op for them to try again and luckily this time it worked.”
Surgeons extracted the stone through keyhole surgery and, once Stuart had recovered, he had another operation in August 2021 to remove the stone in his right kidney.
He said: “I had the second stone removed on my birthday. It was the best birthday present ever.
“After dealing with this for nearly two years, it felt such a relief for it all to be over.
“I spent a lot of 2021 focussing on recovering and getting back to normal. I had worked pretty much right through my illness and my team and boss had been very understanding.”
Stuart had been unable to swim since his illness, so found his first visit back to his local pool in September 2021 very emotional.
He said: “It was really important to me to go swimming again. I wanted the opportunity to have another go at it.
“Getting back in the pool was a really big deal for me.”
He added: “The team from Level Water who had organised the 6km swim back in 2019 had kept in touch with me all this time and it really kept my morale up while I was having treatment.
“They had even sent me a book by Ross Edgley, who was the first person to swim all around Great Britain.”
Since recovering from kidney failure, Stuart is now training for another 6km swim.
He said: “It’s all come full circle for me. I’m swimming the Bantham Swoosh again in four weeks’ time, which is the exact same swim I did in 2019.”
Meanwhile, now weighing 30st and rebuilding his fitness he feels lucky to be alive.
He said: “When I went back to my GP after the ordeal, he said that he hadn’t expected to see me again as he didn’t think I would make it.”
Stuart had a resting heart rate of 63bpm which, with the British Heart Foundation saying between 60 and 100 is considered normal, he says was “ridiculously low” for a man his size.
Now he feels his ordeal has given him a second chance at life.
He said: “I’m determined to make the most of things. I owe a debt of gratitude to Level Water and Bantham Swoosh.”
He added: “Doing that swim in 2019 changed my life for the better, because I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done it.”
To give back, Stuart is raising money to support them, as part of his upcoming swim.
He said: “Level Water is a UK charity that uses the power of swimming to improve lives for children with disabilities and I want to give back to them in any small way that I can.”
He added: “I still can’t believe booking that open water swim with my friend while having a few beers ended up saving my life.
“But I’m grateful for my health and excited to get back into the water again in four weeks’ time.”
To sponsor Stuart, visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/stuart-kilmister1