It is the stuff of which horror movies are made or something that may crop up as a storyline in a Grey’s Anatomy episode. Almost fourteen years ago, it was the primary focus of our lives. People who know me now will occasionally hear me say, “That was when my husband was sick,” sort of tossed off like it was something fleeting or commonplace. It was neither. It was flesh-eating bacteria, clinically known as nectrotizing fasciitis.
My husband Billy and I had just moved into our new home in Danbury with our 18-month-old daughter. We’d been living there not even two months when he started to get an aching pain in his leg, which spread quickly to his hip. He had gotten his first ever flu shot and attributed the aches and pains to the common side effects that come with the flu shot. He went to the doctor and an x-ray showed nothing, so he was given steroids and pain medicine and was sent home.
After a couple of days, that pain had gotten so bad that he wasn’t even able to get out of bed. That morning, before I headed off to Stamford to work, I packed a cooler with a couple of sandwiches and some Gatorade, hoping that he would eat or drink something. I called him from the office in the afternoon and told him that I was going to take him to the hospital because, if anything, he was surely in need of fluids.
When I got home, his brother greeted me in the driveway and told me that Billy had called an ambulance and that he was taken to the ER. I rushed straight to Danbury Hospital, where my husband was being tended to by a fleet of doctors. When he had arrived at the hospital, the doctors removed his pajama bottoms to discover a dark purple rash. They circled the rash with an ink pen and in the mere hour that he had been there and you could visibly see how fast it was spreading. I remember Dr. Nee, the infectious disease specialist, looking at me and saying, “It looks like we are dealing with a bacteria of the flesh eating variety.” Wait! What?
My husband was then rushed to the OR where they did emergency surgery to debride the necrotized tissue. In addition to the extremely large wound on his leg, he had also gone into renal failure. Had he waited any longer, the disease would have gone systemic, attacking his heart and lungs and most likely killing him. Fortunately, the team of doctors at Danbury Hospital acted quickly and expertly. He was then placed into a medically induced coma for 10 days.
When I asked Dr. Jimenez, the head of the intensive care unit, how my husband contracted this bacteria he looked at me and said: “The bacteria that causes it is ubiquitous.” That is one of those weird moments in time that you always remember. I looked at him and said, “What does that mean?” He responded, “It’s everywhere. It is caused by streptococcus A, the same bacteria that causes strep throat. It just gets into the body at a site of trauma and wreaks havoc.”
The night the surgery was performed, the surgeon called me and told me that the surgery went well and that we would have to wait and see whether or not the leg would need to be amputated or if he would ever walk again.
The next morning, I dropped my daughter off at day care and headed straight to my husband’s office where a close friend of ours worked. I didn’t want to be alone when I went to the hospital. My friend, who had known Billy since his college days, accompanied me to the hospital where my husband was in the ICU.
I spent the majority of the next 10 days in the ICU waiting room, almost always accompanied by friends or family members. The people that came and visited Billy or just sat with me in the waiting room, they hold a very special place in my heart. I saw it then and I’ve seen it since, when confronted by the fear of loss, the cream rises to the top and you are able to assess who the true friends are. My husband is a much loved man and people flew from all parts of the country to be with him and support me and our daughter. Others did whatever they could around the house – painted rooms, did minor electrical work, prepared suppers or babysat our daughter.
Ever practical, as soon as the initial surgery was completed, I asked the doctor’s if I could see the wound. They advised me against it but I insisted, telling them that I needed to know what I was going to be dealing with. From that point onward, the doctors and I documented in photographs the healing process. (Click here to view the pictures. WARNING: Images are graphic and may be unsettling to some.) The months that followed were difficult ones. For my husband, they involved over a month in the hospital, several surgeries, including skin grafts, hours of physical therapy and a wound vac to close a wound located in a tricky spot on his hip.
I am happy to report that my husband defied all of the worst prognostications. Not only did he keep his leg but he walks without the aid of cane or crutch and, in fact, dances from time to time, even if he does look like this when he does it.
In fact, almost a year to the day of his diagnosis, Billy and I welcomed our twin girls, Isabelle and Delaney. They were like the Universe’s way of showing us that even out of the darkest of times, miracles can happen.
And that, really, is what life is all about.
Click here to read an article about my husband’s return to the stage after his battle with necrotizing fasciitis.