How Flesh-Eating Bacteria Ravage the Body

Woman Shares Her Harrowing Story of Survival; Dr. Jennifer Ashton Discusses How the Infection Affects Its Host

  • CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton offers information and insight on pressing medical matters.

Serious flesh-eating infections of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, affect 94,000 people in the U.S. each year and are linked to 19,000 deaths.

In 2005, Sandy Wilson was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when she got the infection. After an emergency C-section, her son wasn’t affected. He’s a happy 5-year-old today. But the disease horribly ravaged her body, hospitalizing her for nearly two-and-a-half years.

Special Section: Dr. Jennifer Ashton
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At one point, Wilson had an open cavity in her abdomen. She said in an exclusive interview on “The Early Show” she didn’t think she’d be around to celebrate her son’s first birthday.

“When I first looked at (the cavity), it was very hard,” Wilson said. “And knowing what I had seen in the emergency room, I thought, you know, I can’t live through that, because you can’t live without your abdomen. An arm, a leg, you know, your vision, you can live without those. But you can’t live without your abdomen. And I could read it on people’s faces. They tried really hard to be encouraging, but I could read it.”

A majority of the time she was ravaged by the flesh-eating bacteria, Wilson said, she was confused because of the anesthesia from her many surgeries.

“I had surgeries for the month or two after (the discovery of the infection) once a day, sometimes twice a day, going down to about every other day,” Wilson said. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t see (my son). So I was accusing everybody of keeping him away from me, and I also thought that he had died, and I had done something wrong. So I was being punished.”

How did Wilson get the infection?

“They don’t know,” Wilson said. “I had roughly around 750 donors during that time, as well as a central line. I had an open C-section wound at the time. Also, I’m a pediatric emergency room nurse, so I could have been compromised with that prior to delivery.”

CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton added, “This is really our worst nightmare in the medical profession. And I’ve seen this with a patient and we’re talking here about a bacteria that is highly resistant to what we call our ‘big gun’ antibiotics.”

She continued, “We always have staph bacteria all over us. About one percent of the population is what we say colonized with MRSA, usually, believe it or not in our nasal passages. And all it takes is either a sick person in the hospital or a person on the street with an open wound … but that bacteria gets into the body, can become rampant, and gives you a condition called necrotizing fasciitis, and it is life threatening. About 50 percent — one out of two patients — with that condition can actually die from it.”

Ashton explained the flesh-eating bacteria live in crowded places, such as daycare facilities or prisons, or anywhere there’s close contact. A compromise in your skin, she said, gives an “in” for the bacteria to grow.

“Contaminated items is another factor,” Ashton said. “Sporting equipment, things at health clubs, razor blades. Do not share those things. And lastly, of course, lack of cleanliness. In a hospital, we see lot of this, but it’s also seen a lot in the community.”

Ashton said washing your hands is one of the most important things to safeguard against this bacteria.

MRSA, CBS News co-anchor Erica Hill pointed out, can look in its early stages like a spider bite.

Ashton added the bacteria move fast from that point on: “When you start to get a fever, low blood pressure, that’s an indication that it’s systemic through your body.”

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