“Staph Infections Happen All the Time”
According to a survey released September 28th, 2017 by the IHI/NPSF Lucian Leape Institute and NORC at the University of Chicago, 21 percent of adults report having personally experienced a medical error and 31% report they have been involved with the care of someone who has experienced an error.
With over 247 million adults in the United States, that means over 52 million people in the US over the age of 18 have personally experienced a medical error.
I just happen to be one of those 52 million people and I am reminded of it every day while I get ready for work. Here’s my story.
About 17 years ago, I had a position in sales within a very stressful environment. I was working at a desk that may not have been ergonomically sound and the tense nature of the job caused me to internalize the stress, retaining the tension in my shoulders, arms and neck. It was during this time that I also had a significant rollerblading accident causing severe whiplash in my neck.
The initial symptom was a slight numbness in the fourth and fifth fingers of my left hand. It began to extend throughout my entire left hand and I could no longer hold a pencil (thank goodness I am right-handed). After months of x-rays, pain meds, and physical therapy, nothing was improving so an MRI was finally scheduled. It turns out I had a herniated disc between the C6 and C7 vertebra in my neck. I was referred to a neurosurgeon in Renton, as I lived in Seattle at the time.
I remember meeting him to discuss my care plan. I thought to myself, there is something about this man that doesn’t resonate with me. Is it arrogance? Lack of compassion? I could not pinpoint it but with the nature of this serious surgery on my neck, including the risk of becoming paralyzed, I thought it was very important for me to like the surgeon that would cut me open. I asked for a second opinion. Later that week I met with his clinic business partner, liked him immediately, and scheduled the surgery.
To say I was terrified is an understatement. Once the surgery was complete, I woke up and had regained all feeling in my left arm. I was “cured” of the pain and numbness - let’s go rollerblading!!! However, the universe had a different plan for me. Within 12 hours of coming home, I began to get very sick. High fever, nausea, constipation, no appetite, and a feeling of doom that was consuming me. After another 12 hours, they finally agreed to have me come to the hospital. I remember this statement as if it was yesterday, “Ms. Mitchell, you have a staph infection and we will put in a PICC line, administer antibiotics for the next 24 hours and try to kill the infection.” [Note: I am not medically trained. Not even now that I work at PNWU. I am a layperson -- a patient -- trying to understand how this could have happened.]
I was told by the “arrogant neurosurgeon” from my first meeting that “staph infections happen all the time…you’ll be fine.”
A few more hours and I asked my boyfriend to please just end my life. I was in so much pain from all the above symptoms and my mental game was messed up. I didn’t understand what this meant for me. Nothing was changing. I was still very sick, the blood cell counts weren’t improving and they decided they needed to go back into the wound site and see what they could find. Remember the second surgeon that I liked and had perform the procedure? Speculation was that because he was leaving for a much needed vacation to Hawaii the afternoon of my surgery, he may have been in a hurry. We will never know but they did find a piece of Loban drape in the wound which is used to keep the site open during the procedure. It was no bigger than an eyelash.
By the time this was discovered, the tissue was completely infected down to my spine and had to be removed. Imagine a 1” wide hole in the back of your neck, open to the spine that had to heal from the inside out. Even as I write this, my body becomes physically sick and the tears come to my eyes as I recall the situation. I felt like a victim of something I didn’t understand. What would happen next?
I was sent home for six weeks of in-home care and thank goodness I had some paid disability. Three times a day, I would give myself the antibiotics through the PICC line. For the first two weeks, I had to give myself Dilaudid before the nurse came over to change my dressing. That was a trip as I felt the drug enter my veins, travel up my left arm, and immediately felt dreamy…..only to learn that this is a highly addictive pain medicine. 29 feet of ½ inch gauze, soaked in saline solution, was stuffed inside the wound each day to keep it clean, and then pulled out the next day to change the dressing – 42 days of this. The skin on the back of my neck surrounding the area was raw from the tape, on and off. And showering…that was a challenge. I used to cry as soon as the nurse left from the sheer pain and vulnerability I was feeling.
And then I finally saw my neck! A woman’s neck is a very sensual area. We wear outfits that bare our shoulders, we wear tank tops that expose the upper region off our back, and ponytails are just “what we do”. Have you seen my neck?
The hole healed as well as it could, leaving behind this ugly scar. It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that I was courageous enough to cut off my hair and get a trendy haircut. In the grocery store line, at the fair, in a restaurant…I can feel the stares and the awkward glances. I used to tell children the scar is where I plug into my spaceship every night.
I tried to file a suit against the clinic only to recover some medical expenses and possibly pay for some future plastic surgery. It was a challenge to find someone that would take on this malpractice suit and once I did, through her process of discovery, the first neurosurgeon convinced her that I would never win. ”It happens all the time…” I had to give in and accept that this is just what happens in the medical field. To 52 million of us.
My message to all the amazing students at PNWU and our partnering institutions is to please practice safety. Slow down. Be present. Recognize your team, work together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and do your best to look out for the patients. I know you will. You are getting the most elite medical training in the country.
I don’t blame the surgeon for being excited about his vacation to Hawaii. It was an accident. But I see this hole in my neck every single morning and I am still sad. I still feel a “little less sexy” and a “little less pretty” - but I’m still happy and healthy. And I never did rollerblade again. However, I did have the chance to leave that stressful job and moved to Hawaii for a few years.
I understand why he wanted to go. Aloha!
Manager, Interprofessional Practice and Education
HRSA PCTE Grant
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences