5-yr battle with flesh-eating germ

5-yr battle with flesh-eating germ

5-yr battle with flesh-eating germ

 Sandy Wilson gives her son, Christopher (5), a taste of his birthday cake’s frosting before the party in Columbia. APShe remembered having a baby, and being told she had gotten an infection. But nothing could prepare her for what lurked beneath the sheets. Flesh-eating bacteria were eating her alive.

“When I looked down at my belly, basically all the skin was gone and I could see my internal organs,” she said. “I remember seeing my intestines. I thought, ‘There’s no way I can live like this... This is a death sentence’.”

In all of medicine, few infections are as feared as this one. It strikes out of the blue, especially obese people, diabetics, cancer patients, transplant recipients and others with weak immune systems — a growing group of Americans. It kills 20 per cent of its victims and horribly disfigures others.

It used to be caused almost exclusively by one type of strep bacteria. Now there’s a scary trend: drug-resistant superbugs like the staph germ MRSA increasingly are able to make “flesh-eating” toxins and cause nightmarish infections.

To treat it, doctors cut away dead tissue, but the infection often advances after they think they’ve gotten it all.

The ordeal

Over five years, the 34-year-old Wilson had countless surgeries, including an unusual organ transplant. No one knows how Wilson got necrotising fasciitis, (fash-ee-EYE-tis), the infection’s formal name. The ordeal began after her son, Christopher, was born by caesarean section on April 1, 2005. She developed a clotting problem and was given blood components pooled from hundreds of donors.

After several weeks, she went home but lasted only two days. Fluid built up around her C-section and her blood pressure plunged. She sought emergency care at an Annapolis hospital and was rushed into surgery, but doctors quickly closed her up once they realised what she had.

They sent her to Baltimore’s Shock Trauma Centre, a state-of-the-art hospital specialising in the most dire, life-threatening cases.

Once Wilson was stable, the doctors gathered her family to wake her and break the news.

She feared her baby was dead, that it was somehow her fault, and that she was being punished. Her family brought him to see her through a window, but she accused them of borrowing a baby from the hospital. She remained unconvinced, and would not cooperate with her medical care.

Finally, when he was several months old, they put her in isolation gowns and brought him to a conference room. A tiny arm poked out of his blanket.

That fall, as she was being discharged from a rehabilitation hospital, she fell ill again. She had developed fistulas. She spent the next two years in Shock Trauma trying to heal those open wounds.

Christopher’s first birthday party was in the rehab hospital. For his second, Wilson was in a medically induced coma and didn’t even see him.

The only solution

Wilson found comfort from Reiki, acupuncture and guided visual imagery. But her health worsened. By December 2006, only inches remained of her small intestine and she developed liver problems. The only solution was risky: a small bowel transplant.

Dr Cal Matsumoto evaluated Wilson for one at Georgetown University Medical Centre. He first had to remove the rest of Wilson’s diseased bowel and abdominal tissue. It was a radical operation and she spent four weeks on a breathing machine.

The transplant came on Dec 16, 2007, and seemed to be a success. Doctors wound up transplanting a large intestine, too, because the damage was so extensive, Wilson said.
The stress of her ordeal took its toll on her marriage; the couple divorced in 2009. Her courage in the face of extreme personal and physical pain brings universal praise from her doctors.

Wilson went home for good at the end of January 2008. She’s been hospitalised a few times since then to make sure fevers were not a sign of organ rejection. She has had surgeries to graft skin and to connect the transplanted bowel to what remains of her colon so she would no longer need to wear a bag to collect waste.

She must take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of her life. Her belly is a crazy quilt of scars that her son loves to fling his arms around. Now, she has a bold goal: to return to work, possibly to the hospital where she went from nurse to patient and, hopefully, to nurse again.

Wilson plans to take refresher courses this fall so she can return to work, and managers at the University of Maryland “have offered to help me get back to whatever I want to do,” she said.

“I would like to be able to help someone else who has gone through this.”

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