What It’s Like to Have a Flesh-eating Bacteria

Hospital tray.
Photo: Paul Taylor/Getty Images

In late June, a horrifying report came out of Florida: After getting what she thought was an innocuous scrape on her leg while walking on the beach, a 77-year-old woman was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, which is most frequently referred to as an infection from a flesh-eating bacteria. Not even two weeks after getting the cut, she was dead.

Since the original report gained traction on social media, there’s been a spate of stories around other instances of people falling victim to necrotizing fasciitis, as well as anxiety-inducing guides to flesh-eating bacteria. The infection, however, is quite rare. Most commonly, to become ill with necrotizing fasciitis, a specific type of bacteria has to enter a break in your skin, which will then go on to rapidly attack the surrounding tissue, muscles, and even organs. Once the bacteria gets in your body, it spreads swiftly and aggressively: Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four people who have necrotizing fasciitis will die from the infection.

Twenty-eight-year-old Kate was one of the lucky ones. In an interview with the Cut, she recounted the horrific two-month period in 2009, when she had just started college, that she was fighting off the infection. Though her body was strong enough to defeat the flesh-eating bacteria, she still has phantom pains to this day. She’s also learned that despite how you may feel when you’re young, you’re never invincible.

I remember the exact day I got the wound: It was my best friend’s birthday, January 21. I was in my first year of university at McGill in Montreal, and sharing a room in a dormitory with one other girl. There’s this celebration in Montreal called Carnival, and it’s basically a huge, weeklong drinking marathon, and everyone wears these big suits. It’s pretty rowdy, and being a first year, I really went for it.

I think it was one of the last nights, when I was out with a bunch of friends at this club, that one tried to pull me up onstage, and I hit my shin. At the time, I thought I had just hit it against the edge of the stage, but I was pretty drunk and didn’t really care, nor did I really even notice it. It wasn’t until later that night when I got home that a bunch of my friends who were in my room were like, “What happened with your leg?” and saw that my suit was covered with blood. We then looked at the cut, which was on the very front and in the middle of my left shin, and it was really small — I think I must have hit a nail or something because it was really small in circumference, but super deep. One of my guy friends who was premed was just like, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” and he cleaned it up and put a bandage on it. We thought it was fine.

And, for a week, it was totally fine. It looked kinda gnarly — like I’d been stabbed in the front of the shin with a nail, though it was scabbing over normally — but it didn’t hurt at all, so I just went about my routine for a week. But then, there was another party that weekend, and I was showing it off to some people who wanted to see what it looked like. The next day, I woke up and it was twice the size of my other leg; from the knee down, my leg was so swollen that I couldn’t put my winter boots on to leave the house of the guy I was staying with. At that point, I could still walk, but I had to borrow a pair of running shoes to get home. I remember I kept thinking that I shouldn’t have pushed myself, and that I should’ve stayed home the night before. And, when I got home, I got in bed and elevated my leg. I kept thinking, I’m fine, I’m fine.

I’ve always had a pretty high pain tolerance, but later that day, I was starting to be in unbearable pain, and I was getting feverish. My skin around the cut was also getting so, so tight, and there was so much pressure; it felt like all the blood in my body was rushing to this one part. It felt like it was going to explode. So, finally around 10 p.m. that night, two of my friends visited me in bed. When I went to stand up to greet them, I almost passed out. That’s when they were like, “Okay, we’re taking you to the hospital now.” The thing about Montreal is that the hospitals are all at the top of the city’s Mont Royal mountain, so even though it would’ve been a five-minute walk, we had to cab up to the mountain, and I was wheeled into the ER.

I guess since I was young, and it was just a cut, and it was midnight, the people at the hospital weren’t taking me very seriously. I think I waited for five hours or so. As the time passed, though, I was getting to be in more and more pain. Nobody was even giving me pain meds. That’s when it got to be really bad, so my friends advocated for me while I was doubled over in agony.

Eventually, I got seen by a doctor, and he started knocking different parts of my shin to make sure the infection hadn’t spread to the bone. He could tell it was pretty bad, but I don’t think he had any idea as to what kind of infection it was. I think they figured it was a Staphylococcus aureus infection that I had let progress too far, since I had been fine for a week.

They eventually figured out more of what was happening — that I had an abscess (a collection of pus) in my leg that had filled with this really bad bacteria, and that it had burst when I bumped it or let someone at a party touch it, and that the bacteria had then started to spread through my leg. So, the first thing the doctor did when I saw him is, he drew a circle around the infected area to make sure it didn’t grow. He did that around midnight, and then they put me on antibiotics and an IV, and kept me overnight. It seemed pretty basic.

When I woke up the next morning, though, the infection had doubled in size. It was way outside the original pen mark, which was maybe the size of the bottom of a water bottle. The doctor then decided to start giving me morphine because I was in so much pain, and they tried another antibiotic; then, they moved me to the part of the hospital that’s for patients with infectious diseases. Basically, I was quarantined, which I remember thinking was nice because I had my own room where my friends could come visit me. Also, I was 19 and thought I was invincible, so I wasn’t taking it seriously. I remember thinking, How crazy is this? I don’t have to go to school! After three days of the infection getting bigger and bigger than the pen mark, and the antibiotics not working, though, my friends told me I had to finally call my parents.

After that call, my mom came up from Toronto; still, at that point, I had no idea how severe it was. But when my mom arrived, they told her that they might have to amputate my leg below the knee because no antibiotics were responding. The wound had also gotten so big that a nurse had to come clean it every day, which was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. When they clean your wound, they have to clean up to and scrape the healthy tissue, which is what hurts. It’s not the dead stuff; it’s the healthy skin that made it excruciating.

In the Canadian health-care system, everything happens really slowly, and there’s not a lot of continuity in care, so I was seeing a different doctor every day. I remember, a new doctor would come in and read my chart and suggest trying a medicine, and I would have to say, “No, no, we’ve already tried that.” They also wouldn’t say what they thought it was. They’d say it was strep-related, but really didn’t want to say necrotizing fasciitis, so instead they said they were treating the condition as antibiotic-resistant staph. But I don’t think they weren’t treating it correctly: They should’ve been elevating my leg, and they also should’ve realized that over three days in the hospital, another abscess had formed. Also, one day, my mom noticed that I hadn’t been washed or showered in ages, so she went into mom mode and tried to help clean me. I remember she had to stand me up to take me to the shower, which is when the second abscess burst — I think from the blood rushing to my leg, and maybe the warmth of the shower as well. Honestly, at that moment, I felt like relief: The pressure was so intense as I stood there crying, and when it burst, all this pus and blood flooded out and down my leg. I think that’s when the doctors realized how severe this condition was. I had lost so much muscle from not using it. So, they started to pack my wound every day with silver, which apparently has antibiotic properties, since the other antibiotics weren’t working. It looked like steel wool.

As a result, I had to drop out of school that semester because I needed to have a nurse clean and pack my wound every day, and I also had to do rehab for muscle. It sucked, to drop out. You know, you’re in your first year, you have all this momentum with all of these other people who are also starting school. I, instead, had to go home and lie in bed every day, with my mom taking care of me. After the second abscess burst, and the nurse started to pack the wound with silver, though, I started to slowly get better. The pen mark got smaller and smaller, and I was finally on oral antibiotics instead of IV antibiotics. They also gave me some pain meds too. I reached this point at the end of March — so, about two months after the injury.

I’m a pretty optimistic person and always think that everything is going to work out, and during this whole thing, I think I was in denial. When you’re really young, you think nothing like that is going to happen to you. Even when the doctors were talking about amputating my leg, I thought, No, that’s never going to happen. That’s crazy. I did start to get angry at the doctors for not taking me seriously for so long, though. Had they had to amputate my leg, I think I would’ve been really, really frustrated with the way I had been taken care of before the doctors realized how fast this whole thing was progressing. I have full function in my leg, but I still get phantom pains sometimes; those are hard to describe. They kind of feel like someone has kicked me in the shin, and the throbbing that you would have after that happening. Or I get the same pulsating sensation I had when the pressure was the worst, or a tingling and itchy feeling that I would get once the wound started closing and healing. I’ve just kind of accepted it.

What It’s Like to Have a Flesh-eating Bacteria