|Suzanne Shahan's Survivor Story|
I have always been healthy, but I catch "bugs" easily, even though I've worked with young children for almost 30 years. I have survived multiple car wrecks, a perforated appendix, sepsis, peritonitis, and now flesh-eating bacteria! I had a "dirty" gall bladder removal (the surgery was contaminated) in Spring of 2005 that resulted in me having to take antibiotics for the next 3 months, to kill the post-operative staph infection. I believe that this over-use of antibiotics cleared the path for me to contract a MRSA, when I got bit by a fire-ant in July 2005.
I had 3 small blisters (which are characteristic of the bite or sting of this type of ant) on my underarm. BUT I ran a fever within 24 hours, and the area became so swollen and reddened that I couldn't bear to touch it. I also developed a "whole head" headache, which I never get. I sometimes get migraines or sinus headaches, but they are both much more localized. THIS headache had my entire head and neck pounding with the rhythm of my pulse. I could literally hear my heart beating in my skull. (That is NOT characteristic of fire-ant bites!) Further, the three bites seemed to contaminate the flesh on my side, under my arm where the bites touched, and then that flesh became tender, reddened, and swollen as well. On the second day, I was still running a fever of over 100 degrees, and both areas of skin on my underarm and on my side, seemed to be increasing in size and sensitivity, so I called my family doctor. My doc was vacationing and his partner was "on call"; he advised me to go to the emergency room. He said the fever and the rapid spreading of redness concerned him, and to not take any unnecessary chances. My husband took me to the E. R. of St. Joseph's in Tampa, FL. A nurse and doctor looked at both areas and called my problem "dermatitis". My temp was down to 99, so they prepared to discharge me. They took my temp "one last time", and it was up to almost 103. They then decided to have a surgeon consult on my case, and admitted me.
The surgeon saw me the following day and wanted to do ultrasound. I refused because touching the areas was so painful. They did a culture, and with full anesthesia the following day, did an exploratory surgery and took biopsies. They also did an additional a culture. Both cultures came back as MRSA (methacillin-resistant stapholoccus aureus). The biopsy was negative. I was then told that I had a flesh-eating bacteria MRSA, and though that is rare, it happens. They said I did not have cancer. They said that the skin and flesh that was contaminated needed to be surgically removed to stop the bacteria from spreading any further than it already had. They also said it was rare to have someone conscious and aware, who could talk about the disease. They said that usually patients with advanced bacterial infections like mine have lost consciousness and are near death. They asked if I would mind if they asked me questions about how I feel, and what the early symptoms were like? I said they could, of course. And during the next few days, I had at least six different doctors and nurses stop by just to meet me and ask how I was feeling. It was like being some kind of weird celebrity.
Chronologically, this was the progression of events: I went into the E.R. on a Sunday evening. I was there all night. Around dawn on Monday, they decided to admit me to see a surgeon. A CT scan and a skin culture were done on Monday, and I discussed surgical options with one surgeon. We agreed to an exploratory surgery, to be done first thing on Tuesday. They then told me that I had a flesh-eating MRSA that day, after the first surgery. They said that they had 2 cultures confirming the diagnosis. They told me that they had cleaned out the area during the exploratory surgery, but that it was possible that another would need to be done. Wednesday, they said the bacteria was still spreading and I gave consent for a second surgery that they did that day. Thursday, things seemed okay, but by Friday they said it was spreading again and that they wanted to do yet another surgery; and, that it was a large enough area involved that my left breast and nipple might now be infected, so would I give consent to have them removed? I did, of course, but immediately flipped out as soon as the staff left the room. Thankfully, it turned out to not be necessary to take the breast. (Thank you God! Thank you for sparing my life AND my breast!) The surgeon said they were able to stop the bacteria at the breast wall. They put a wound vacuum on the hole, but continued to check it every shift for a couple of days. The wound size was now about the same as my closed fist. It was about 5 inches wide, and about 6-8 inches deep. I received 7 days of I.V. antibiotics and steroids, and I was discharged after 10 days with a three month supply of antibiotics and a wound vacuum, plus home health care. I did not like the portable wound vacuum. I am a very fast healer, and I like to be able to see the tissue so that I know it is healthy. The wound vacuum was noisy and uncomfortable, and the flesh of the wound seemed unhealthy, grayish in color, when the vacuum was in place. My nurse and I agreed that with twice daily dressing changes, which I and my husband could do ourselves, that we could more closely monitor the health of the tissue with a more traditional dressing. That is what we did. The surgeon was not happy with me, but I still believe I made the right decision for me. We used wet-to-dry saline soaked gauze pads and paper tape. I rinsed the wound with saline and a wound cleanser. The wound healed closed, with no stitches, in about 3 months. It is still very tender, and I frequently have stabbing pains in that location. But I am soooo lucky!!! What's a little nerve damage, compared to loss of life or limb? I am forever grateful to my doctor James Barker, his partner Dr. Lynch, and to the staff of St. Joseph's in Tampa, for their diligence and conservativism with my care. I feel like a cat with nine lives, three or four of which have been used up.
I am one of the truly blessed ones to have survived this type of infection. I spoke with Dr. Barker a few weeks ago, and he told me that they recently lost a young man in his twenties, who came in with an infected foot. They sent him straight to the hospital, but whatever organism he had in his foot moved much quicker than mine did, and he died. Mine sounds like it was lethargic flesh-eating bacteria! (It felt like it moved quickly at the time, but from what I have read, these bugs can take you out in 24 hours or less. Lucky, lucky, lucky....)
So folks, these bugs are out there! Wash your hands a lot! Wash your children even more! Don't share food or drinks with anyone, not even close family members, keep hand sanitizer everywhere and use it, and take good care of your pets, too, because they can get these nasty infections, too. And make sure your physicians and veterinarians are using sterile practices! Complain if you don't like what you see, or how you are treated! Call your health departments! Take care of each other. You are all in my prayers.
Tampa, FL USA
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January 23, 2006