Wake-Up Call: Surviving an Attack by Flesh-Eating Bacteria

There’s nothing like an attack by flesh-eating bacteria to get your midlife priorities straight

hampton sides necrotizing faciitis bacteria attack antibiotics hospital recovery spider bite

    Photo: Marthom/Shutterstock.com

Sometimes it takes a brush with eternity to get you really thinking about what you want to do with your life

IT STARTED OUT as a funny little place on my right elbow, itchy and raw. I figured it was a bug bite and gave it no more thought. But the next day, I woke up with throbbing pain and curious-looking red streaks extending up and down my arm.

A few hours later, my forearm had swelled hideously, and the skin had grown rigid and hot to the touch. I started to breathe uneasily. I felt dizzy and feverish, then collapsed half delirious on the floor. My wife, Anne, rushed me to the hospital, where the ER docs found that I was in septic shock.

What I had was a rare flesh-eating streptococcus infection, introduced by a puncture wound of uncertain origin—possibly from a spider bite. Technically known as necrotizing fasciitis, it was something out of Stephen King: great ravening armies of microbes were laying waste to the meat of my arm, filling my subcutaneous tissues with exotoxins.

The ER doc took a black Sharpie and drew a line near my wrist, noting that if the redness advanced beyond this boundary, I was in serious trouble. Over the next hour, the strep marched right past the mark and was well on its way to my hand; half my arm had been consumed.

The doctor told Anne we should be prepared: cutting off my arm might be the only way to save me.

I’d just returned from several months in Kuwait and Qatar, where I was writing about the Iraq war.
I was 41 years old, in the prime of life, and (I thought) in excellent health. In a week, Anne and I were set to move into a house we’d spent a year renovating. We’d just emerged from the Urine Years—our three boys, at last, were done with diapers. My career was more or less where I wanted it to be. I was feeling… not invincible, but firmly in control of my luck.

Now, hearing the skreak of a Civil War bone saw, I found myself asking questions like: Is this how it ends? Have I lived a halfway-decent life? If I get out of this, will I live any differently?

SOMETIMES IT TAKES a brush with eternity—a crash, an illness, some shock to the system—to get you really thinking about what you want to do with your limited time here, and why you’re living on this wobbling dirt clod in the first place. In my twenties and thirties, I don’t think I ever took stock of these kinds of things. Apart from my dad’s early death, I’d never faced any dramas that caused me to reevaluate my course. I lived intuitively, improvisationally. Winging it seemed to work.

But my uninvited guests had made a deep impression on me—the idea that these superbug strains are just out there, a skin thickness away, loitering in their millions on the ordinary surfaces of the world. Life was even more fragile, more fraught with random hazard, than I realized.

We don’t usually think of it this way, but it’s an actuarial fact: forty is the beginning of “middle age.” Most Americans who cross this Sharpie mark are already halfway to the grave; the trip’s 50 percent over.

Certainly, we’re not kids anymore. The forties are the time when you begin to take notice of certain aches and pains. Your body and brain behave in inexplicable ways: Less hair on your head, more in your ears and nostrils. More memories in the bank, less synaptic firepower with which to access them. Gravity has started to show its inexorable pull.

All the same, it’s a great decade, in some ways the best: Many of life’s really big questions—will you get hitched? how will you make a living? do you prefer wet or dry ribs?—have probably been answered. You’re still able-bodied enough to do most of the things you liked to do in your twenties. But now you can perhaps afford to do them right. Along the way, your adventuring self has learned the difference between a crazy risk and a calculated one.

In our late thirties and early forties, Anne, the boys, and I spent as much time as we could traveling as a family to unfamiliar places: Costa Rica, Japan, Kauai, a fish camp in Montana, an off-the-grid spot on Andros Island in the Bahamas. We rafted the Gunnison, Dolores, and Rogue Rivers and put in some quality time at the summer ski camps at Whistler and Mount Hood. Maybe it was the Guinness, but for me, our time of deepest bliss was the four months we lived in a thatch-roof house beside a castle on the west coast of Ireland, in a limestone paradise called the Burren.

Our wanderlust somewhat sated, Anne and I returned from Ireland and made a decision to put down deep roots in New Mexico and orient everything around our boys. Winging it had begun to lose some of its charm. Our midforties, we knew, would be a time of frenetic building and doing: A skateboard park in the driveway. A trampoline dug into the ground. A standard-issue golden retriever named Frodo. The Urine Years gave way to the Taxi Service Years. Somewhere in there, books got written, orthodontists got seen, the birds and bees got thrice explained, and, between all of us, some 54,000 meals got eaten. Lots of stuff happened. Maybe too much.

For me it all came with an asterisk: Life is dear, but you aren’t in control. Live it with fullness and verve, yet also with an acute awareness that anything can happen, at any time, to take it swiftly away.

WHEN THE E.R. DOC sliced open my arm to “irrigate” the tissues, the stuff that came out was beyond disgusting. He pumped various IV antibiotics into me, but they didn’t work. He speculated that perhaps something in the inoculations that a Marine medic had given me in Kuwait—a cocktail that included the anthrax and smallpox vaccines—had compromised my immune system. But he had one more item in his quiver, an astronomically expensive “designer” antibiotic.

“This one,” he said, “is on loan from God.”

It took a day, but the red armies began to recede. In a few weeks, my arm was back to normal.

The planet kept turning, and my forties kept racing by in an exhausting blur. I’m 51 now, and our kids are in college, or on the verge of it. The Taxi Service Years have given way to the Raise a Vein for the Bursar Years.

Now Anne and I are feeling freer to move about the cabin again. We’re thinking of living abroad, learning a new culture, a new language. Chile looks good, or Barcelona. Who knows? We’re going to wing it. Wherever it is, I’ll look upon the adventure as time on loan from God—or at least from His antibiotics department.       

Hampton Sides is the author most recently of Hellhound on His Trail.

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