- Associated Press - Monday, August 9, 2010

BALTIMORE (AP) - Waking from a fog of anesthesia, Sandy Wilson found she was a patient in one of the hospitals where she worked as a nurse. She remembered having a baby, and being told she had gotten an infection. But nothing could prepare her for what lurked beneath the sheets.

Flesh-eating bacteria were eating her alive.

“When I looked down at my belly, basically all the skin was gone and I could see my internal organs,” she said. “I remember seeing my intestines. I thought, ‘There’s no way I can live like this … This is a death sentence.’”

In all of medicine, few infections are as feared as this one. It strikes out of the blue, especially obese people, diabetics, cancer patients, transplant recipients and others with weak immune systems _ a growing group of Americans. It kills 20 percent of its victims and horribly disfigures others.

It used to be caused almost exclusively by one type of strep bacteria. Now there’s a scary trend: drug-resistant superbugs like the staph germ MRSA increasingly are able to make “flesh-eating” toxins and cause nightmarish infections like Wilson‘s.

“In the first 20 years I practiced, I may have seen one case,” said Dr. Alan Bisno, a retired University of Miami expert who has lectured other doctors on this. “Within a very few years, everybody in the audience had all seen cases.”

To treat it, doctors cut away dead tissue, but the infection often advances after they think they’ve gotten it all.

Inch by inch, it devoured the 34-year-old Wilson. Spleen, gall bladder, appendix. Part of her stomach and ultimately, all of her intestines.

Over five years, she had countless surgeries, including an unusual organ transplant. For much of that time, she lived in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, fed by tubes and unable to give her young son a bath, to read him a bedtime story, to tuck him in at night. She lost her marriage and endured unimaginable pain.

“It was like I was rotting from the inside out. It felt like things were just being ripped out of me,” she said.

“It was like something out of a very strange science fiction movie,” said her mother, Dottie Howarth of Columbia, Md., also a nurse. “I was very afraid that she would not make it through this.”

No one knows how Wilson got necrotizing fasciitis, (fash-ee-EYE-tis), the infection’s formal name. The ordeal began after her son, Christopher, was born by cesarean section on April 1, 2005. She developed a clotting problem and was given blood components pooled from hundreds of donors.

After several weeks, she went home but lasted only two days. Fluid built up around her C-section and her blood pressure plunged. She sought emergency care at an Annapolis hospital and was rushed into surgery, but doctors quickly closed her up once they realized what she had.

They sent her to Baltimore’s Shock Trauma Center, a state-of-the-art hospital specializing in the most dire, life-threatening cases. It is part of the University of Maryland Medical Center where Wilson worked as a pediatric emergency nurse.

“I remember vividly” how sick she was, said Dr. Thomas Scalea, Shock Trauma’s physician-in-chief. “Some people don’t live. Sometimes you do the best you can do and the disease is bigger than the medical care. The fact that she was a nurse at our place, that she had just had a baby, all of that made it very, very hard.”

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