Bridget Skillman

On Sunday, August 31, 2008, I started feeling pain on my left side – my breast, underarm, side, and arm. I had been feeling like I had a bad cold or flu for a couple of days – fever, aches, etc, and I had been taking regular cold medicine. But the pain that started on Sunday did not feel like the flu at all. It was a soreness and tenderness that kept worsening. It was bad enough by that evening that I decided I would take some vicodin (which I have for migraines) to see if it would help. I normally take 2 for a migraine, but this pain was enough that I took 4. It didn't do anything!! I kept waking up in pain and by the next morning felt worse than ever and didn't get out of bed. To even move or shift in the bed was very painful, so I called my stepmom (who is a nurse) to see what I should do for it. She said I should go to the emergency room as it could be a blood clot or pneumonia and it's better to be safe than sorry. My husband took me to an urgent care center where they took my vital signs, did a chest x-ray, gave me some pain medication and said it was probably pneumonia. They were gong to send me home, but I insisted to them that the pain medication had not made a dent in my pain. They took my vital signs again - I had a fever and my blood pressure was 80 over 40. The doctor then said with a blood pressure that low there was no way they could send me home. They called an ambulance and sent me to the emergency room at Mercy San Juan Medical Center. The ER doctors and nurses could not get my blood pressure to go up, they couldn't get my fever down, and they started running multiple tests to figure out the problem. They checked my white blood cell count. Apparently the normal count is 5000-8000, but mine was 29,000. The doctor told me that that showed that my body was fighting some kind of big infection and they needed to find out exactly what they were dealing with. Meanwhile, they gave me morphine, which didn't help. They gave me morphine a 2nd time, which again did not help. My doctor was awesome, and I told him that I appreciated that he was doing everything possible to figure this out, but that in the meantime he HAD to give me something that would work for the pain. He was very understanding and then sent the nurse in with something else. She said it was 8 times stronger than morphine and may put me out – or at least make me groggy enough that I might not be able to answer all of her questions. At that point I just wanted to ease the pain. It did not put me out nor make me as groggy as she said, but at least it took the edge off of the pain. During all of this they are continuing to run tests – CT scan, chest x-ray, and other tests that I don't even remember. Finally at about 1:00 am when I was in nuclear medicine for some other type of test, the ER doctor came and told me he knew what it was. Before he told me the official diagnosis, he told me I was in for the fight of my life over the next couple of days, but that I could be strong and fight it. He then told me that I had necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) and that I needed to be rushed into surgery immediately. Apparently, the trauma surgeon was already on the way to the hospital and time was of the utmost importance. I had heard of the flesh-eating bacteria before and knew that it was very serious. Normally people either die from it or lose limbs or parts of their bodies. Obviously I was shocked and scared. My husband and I couldn't believe what we were hearing. It's such a rare thing and everything started happening so fast. When the trauma surgeon arrived, my husband said, "Are you sure this is the correct diagnosis?" to which the Dr. replied "Sir, I don't have time to discuss this with you if you want me to save your wife's life." He then told me that he would have to take everything affected by the bacteria and he wouldn't know how much that was until he went in. He said for sure he would have to take my breast, maybe my arm. I told him to take whatever he needed as long as it would keep me alive. I asked him point blank if I was going to die and he said, "I'm going to try to prevent that." There were so many things going through my head – my 2 kids (13 yrs old and 17 yrs old), my parents, my sister. I asked them if I had time to call my kids and they said "no". I was being wheeled very quickly to the OR with my husband by my side and we only had about 5 minutes to talk before they were going to put me out. In those few minutes I had to tell my husband how much I loved him, how wonderful these 21 years of marriage had been, and what to tell our kids and my family if I didn't make it. Those were very hard moments. We were both crying and my husband was reassuring me that things were going to be fine, but I needed to say these things to him just in case. Then they put me out for the surgery and my husband started calling family and friends and getting ready for the long wait. It was a hard night for him, and thankfully we have some good friends who helped him get through it. Needless to say I woke up, but I had a long recovery ahead of me. I was in ICU with my breast gone, and part of my side and back gone, but with my arm still attached!! They left the wound open for a week (they like to keep it open in case they need to go back in to take out more), with daily visits from the wound care team and a vacuum attached to it to clean it out and try to make the wound as small as possible. Those daily visits were not pleasant as they would have to inspect the wound, measure it, probe it, see how deep it was, clean it, re-pack it with foam and re-attach the vacuum. Thank goodness they always gave me pain medication before the wound care team arrived. The next week they had a surgeon come in to close the wound. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, was sent home with drains still attached to the wound, and recuperated at home for a couple of months. My sweet husband had to do everything for me. He had to check and drain the drains, change the dressings, etc. I was so weak and the surgery site was so tight that I couldn't do most things for myself for quite a while. He was great!!! Thankfully I picked myself a mighty fine man who knows what true love is. I have been left with no breast, tissue taken from my side and back, a 16 inch scar, a numb arm from my elbow up, and a lot of gratitude to the doctors who saved my life!! The doctor later told me that if I had waited one more day to come in, I would be dead. Necrotizing fasciitis is such a fast-moving and lethal bacteria, and it was so close to my heart that if it had gotten into my chest wall, they couldn't have saved me. I can't feel anything under my arm or in my upper arm, it itches (but scratching doesn't help since it's numb), I don't have full range of motion in that arm any longer, I have poor circulation in that arm, and I have to wear a prosthesis in place of my breast, but I am THANKFUL!! Every time I put on that prosthesis or see that big old scar I feel gratitude that I am still alive. I can't be angry or sad over this, I can only be grateful that they didn't have to take more. The scar is not a reminder of what I've lost, but a reminder of God's mercy and grace. God has been so good!!