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I Contracted a Flesh-Eating Bacteria and Lived to Tell

I had 11 surgeries. It's been almost 10 months now. I still don't know how to run, and things still hurt. I still have a ways to go. My physical therapist told me to stop thinking about my rehab in days and weeks and start thinking about it in seasons.
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This story was written and performed by Karen Soltero for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, Texas on Jan. 27, 2014. The theme of the show was "Silver Lining."

Oral Fixation creator Nicole Stewart says, "Karen boldly takes us deep into the unfathomable experience of life changing in an instant."

I thought it was the flu. I had all of the classic symptoms that Thursday afternoon last spring. A fever, chills and those body aches that squirm up and down your spine, telling you you're in for it. I took some Tylenol. When that didn't work, some ibuprofen. I didn't have time for the flu. An emergency appendectomy in December had knocked me down, and I was just now back in the game. My new fitness studio needed me. I was teaching seven classes a week and working at the front desk. My new relationship, teetering on the "are we or aren't we" precipice of real commitment, needed me. And I had a half-marathon to run on Sunday. I didn't have time for this. I needed to kick the speed up a notch faster.

It was around 10 p.m. when the pain in my leg first snaked its way around my left knee, stretched up my IT band and settled into my hip with defiant certainty, forcing me to question mine. This wasn't on the flu menu. Hour by hour, the pain in my leg increased, and then there was vomiting and diarrhea. I didn't sleep. I was crying. I repeated over and over, "Something's not right."

By morning, I couldn't walk, so I crawled into the car and my parents drove me to Baylor Hospital. I was tachycardic; my heart rate never fell below 150 beats per minute. I was in kidney failure and septic shock. My white blood count was sky high.

"It's an infection," the first doctor said, looking down at me with all kinds of doctor-y authority. Duh, I thought. I was hopped up on enough IV pain meds to keep a heroin addict happy for a week, and I could have told myself that.

"Probably bacterial gastroenteritis," he said. "But the pain in my leg..." I said. "Pulled muscle, I suspect. You said you're a runner, right? We'll get you on antibiotics right away. Your CT Scan came back okay, so you'll probably be home in a couple of days," he said. He was pompous, and, something told me, wrong, but I let out my held breath. I called Greg, my "is he or isn't he," and told him it wasn't too serious and that I'd be out in a day or two. I had wanted to call him all day, but we were so new. I didn't want to burden him. "I'm coming up to see you," he said. "I'll be there soon."

That afternoon, another doctor came to see me. He was mad scientist-like, running in and out of my room, asking questions. He zoned in on my leg. Had I been out of the country? In any strange bodies of water? Did I, no judgment here, use any recreational drugs involving needles? I answered no, over and over, while the gears turned in his head. "I'll be back," he said. It was then that I started asking my mom, my dad, the med student who came by to study me, and really, anyone in the vicinity, if I would still be able to run the half-marathon on Sunday.

There are moments in life when everything goes in slow motion, even as it's happening. I can still see it unfold in my head, over and over. Doctors and nurses flooding into the ICU room. Greg coming to the doorway and getting stopped by whoever was acting as the gatekeeper. "I'm her boyfriend," I heard him say. Someone looked at me for confirmation and I nodded, vaguely registering that in the midst of the chaos, I'd just gotten an answer to a very big question.

He came in, sat down and held my hand. Someone asked me if I had a living will, and if I wanted extraordinary measures. I signed over power of attorney to my father, who was standing across the room. When he looked at me, the normal smile crinkles at the corners of his eyes were gone, replaced by a loose, haunted look. It scared me more than all the needles, the relentless pain and the paperwork put together. It told me what no one had said to me in so many words: "You could die."

Someone hugged me. The chief resident and another doctor tried to stab a central line in my neck. I bit my lip and clenched my hands. While my head was turned sideways and they held pressure on their failed attempt, an orthopedic trauma surgeon sat down in my field of vision and told me what was really wrong.

Necrotizing Fasciitis. I rolled the words around in my head. Bacteria, strep A, I would later learn, had found it's way into my healthy body. Through a bug bite, maybe a scratch, I'll never really know. Once in my blood stream, it found a happy place to settle in my left hip and leg, and went to work -- eating connective tissue, sucking up fluid from muscles, leeching nutrients from tissues, in effect, killing the host it was trying to feed off of. If it isn't caught and treated in time, necrotizing fasciitis is always fatal.

Amputations are common. They would cut me open from hip to knee. When I went under for the first time, I didn't know if I would wake up with a leg or not. I didn't know if I would wake up at all.

I spent three weeks in the hospital. They ran four different kinds of antibiotics into my bloodstream, one tasted metallic, like I was sucking on a penny. It was nine days before I could stand at the side of my bed and transfer to a bedside toilet and relieve myself in private. Six weeks before I took a real shower instead of a sponge bath. I had two wound vacs to suck fluid from my open wound, first a big one at the foot of my hospital bed and then a portable one I carried around at home like a purse. Seventeen days before I walked across my hospital room on crutches.

I had 11 surgeries. It's been almost 10 months now. I still don't know how to run, and things still hurt. I still have a ways to go. My physical therapist told me to stop thinking about my rehab in days and weeks and start thinking about it in seasons. In summer, I began to find my way back, pedaling in slow circles on an old fashioned upright bike. In fall, I built up tiny new muscles along my left leg where they all had been severed and sewn back together.

It is now winter. I teach a few classes a week. I can empathize in new ways when class is a challenge for my clients, because of illness, injury or lack of physical fitness. They tell me I inspire them to try harder, which is enough to get me there on my toughest days. I am working my way back to cycling and yoga, to being an athlete. I'll get there, but it might be another season or two before I do. This, like so many things, takes time. I remind myself often that you don't have to be the best or get it all done on day one. There's time. There's plenty of time.

It's another story, but 13 years ago, my younger sister was killed in a robbery. Since then, I started to believe you have to hurry and fit it all in, because who knows how much time you really have. When mine almost ran out too, I learned that sometimes you've got to slow down.

During those first days in the hospital, when I was lying in a bed in ICU with a wide open leg and swollen toes squished together like fat Vienna sausages, Greg handed me a card. The front of it read, "One day at a time, one step at a time, you can make it." Inside he wrote, "We'll get through this... one step at a time," and then he told me that he loved me. A lesser man with his triathlete skills might have been pedaling hard and fast in the opposite direction. But he sat by my hospital bed and held my hand and waited for me to get better.

Greg, my family, my friends, they all stayed with me for hours at the hospital when I couldn't come home and I was way to sick to be interesting. When I learned to walk again, and I was slower than my 96-year-old grandmother on a bad day, they matched me step for step. I'm faster now, and Greg marks my distance on his triathlete watch, cheering on each extra mile as I get stronger.

And for each mile, our relationship grows stronger. My illness taught us to take the time to celebrate each step of the journey. A journey I almost didn't get the chance to have. I'm tired, but I'm happy too. The challenges are good, the victories are sweet, and there is, in fact, time to get it all done. And if I ever get impatient, get in too much of a hurry, and need a reminder, I've always got one with me. The scar threaded into my skin. The straight line running like a seam from my knee to my hip, curving just at the top, is still red in places, but ever so slowly turns pale, shining against my skin, like silver.